When it comes to NBA awards, the Most Improved Player of the Year Award is looked upon like as the red-headed step child – a loner and often ignored. The award is typically handed out to guys that we have never heard of prior to the season they were the recipient of this great honor. Well that is all set to change this season, because we have some actual (former) superstars that have a shot at winning this distinguished honor.
Here is our list of contenders for Most Improved Player of the Year:
The Young & Up-and-Comer Who is Finally Up-and-Coming
Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
The third-year player out of Georgetown is finally poised to bust out of the sophomore slump that has actually plagued him since his rookie season – figure that one out. Playing alongside Danny Granger, Troy Murphy, TJ Ford and Jarrett Jack left very little room for Hibbert to develop into the dominant center the Pacers had hoped for when they drafted him. Over the course of his first two years, Hibbert averaged a paltry 9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.4 blocks per game.
It’s amazing what a couple of trades will do to help a player’s development. With Murphy and Jack out of town, Roy is now being given the opportunity to become the low-post threat the Pacers are in desperate need of. After a monster preseason, Hibbert has continued his hot streak and is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.4 blocks per game.This guys games is finally matching up with his potential and, barring any injuries, he should continue to improve as the season progresses.
The “Wait! You’re Still in the League?” Candidate
Richard Jefferson, San Antonio Spurs
Be honest…when you read, “Richard Jefferson” you asked yourself, “Wait a minute…is he still in the league? What team is he on?” It’s alright, you are not alone. Millions of fans automatically assumed that Jefferson’s career had ended when Jason Kidd’s stint in New Jersey had. If you looked at his stats from last season, you actually could have assumed that his career was indeed over.
Prior to the 2009-10 season, the Spurs knew they needed to make a move to stay competitive with the Lakers and Mavericks in the West. What did they do? They traded away three key pieces – Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas – for Jefferson. This is how much belief Spur’s management had in this guy. Jefferson would put them over the top – this was their time. The championship window that was near closing, had been ripped wide open again. What happened? Jefferson put together his worst statistical season since his rookie campaign – 12 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2 assists per game. Window shut.
After restructuring his contract this off-season to help the Spurs, RJ was determined to show everyone that he could still ball even if J-Kidd wasn’t throwing lobs to him all day long. This season Jefferson is averaging 18 points, nearly 4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The biggest benefactor of Jefferson’s resurgence? The Spurs, who have started off winning five of their first six and look poised to make a deep run in the playoffs this season.
The “Don’t Call it a Comeback!” Comback
Elton Brand, Philadelphia 76ers
When Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles tendon during a practice session in 2007, you could hear the entire Clippers fan base scream with joy. This was after all the same guy who lured Baron Davis (and his horrible contract) to the Clippers and then split town to play for the Philadelphia 76ers. A year later, a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery forced Brand to shut it down early for a second consecutive season. His career was over right? You may be able to recover from a season-ending shoulder injury, but there is no way you can recover from a ruptured Achilles and shoulder surgery, right?
Wrong. Brand is showing everyone what some spare baboon parts can do to someone’s career – totally revitalize it. You cannot help but be impressed, amazed and shocked when you see his numbers through the first seven games of the season: 18.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2 assists, 2.3 steals and 2 blocks per game! Are we sure he was even injured? The only rehabilitation that has been more impressive than Brand’s, is John Locke from LOST! And he had to die in a plane crash and live on an island inhabited with polar bears.
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
When Kevin Love was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 5th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, you just knew this was the beginning of something special. With Rudy Gay as a fellow Grizz, NBA fans everywhere were excited for the start of the, “Gay Love” era in Memphis. Unfortunately, the “Gay Love” movement ended before it even had a chance to begin as Love was traded to Minnesota that same day. We immediately knew that the, “Jefferson Love” movement would never be able to compete with “Gay Love”.
With Al Jefferson being traded to the Utah Jazz this summer, the stage is set for Love to be the man in Minnesota. With an offensively-deficient Darko as his front-court running mate, you know that K Love will be leaned heavily upon for scoring. Love also has the luxury of having David Kahn as his GM. Given Kahn’s propensity to draft four point guards at a time, you know that Love’s job is secure. Well the job security is paying off as Love is averaging 17 points, 12 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. It looks like Timberwolves fans have finally found a suitable, long-term replacement for Kevin Garnett.
“All I need is a chance!”
Paul Millsap, Utah Jazz
With the welcomed departure of Carlos Boozer this summer, Paul Millsap is finally getting a chance to show the Jazz that they made a great decision. It was only a year ago that Millsap was a restricted free agent and had the Trailblazers knocking on his door with a four-year, $32 million contract….all for a bench player that had averaged 9.4 points and 6.5 rebounds as a bench player. With their backs to the wall and the constant, looming threat of Carlos Boozer leaving town, the Jazz decided to take a huge risk and match the Trailblazers offer.
How does the saying go? “Huge risk, huge reward”? That’s definitely the case here as Millsap is blowing up this season and giving Jazz fans a reason to truly forget that Boozer guy. With season averages of 20.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, is filling the Boozer-void nicely. When he first signed this contract with the Jazz, we were all sure that he was being overpaid…now we know he’s a bargain.
And the winner is…
In all honesty, I thought this would be more clear-cut than what it is. While it’s true that Hibbert and Love are on pace for career years, they are still on their rookie contracts – they should be improving year after year. Jefferson, on the other hand, has always been a solid player and a top guy on every team he has played for. It’s looking like we can contribute Jefferson’s debacle last season as an adjustment period to a new system.
For me it comes down to Millsap and Brand – the guy who has been fighting for a chance and the guy who just wanted a chance to fight again. When you look at what their stats will be at the end of the year, along with what their impact will be, it makes the race even tighter. However, the fact that Elton Brand has had to overcome two potential career-ending injuries makes his path back to stardom the more impressive one. Congratulations Elton Brand and welcome back!