Shoals Unlimited: The Indefinable MIP Award

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week. ↵
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↵With the Dwyane Wade/LeBron James/Kobe Bryant race picking up steam, you might as well prepare thyself for the annual argument over what exactly the MVP Award should reward: individual excellence, team success, a balance between the two, or some ratio known only to the man who coined that elliptic phrase, "most valuable player." ↵

↵But if you think the MVP poses a quandary for fans and voters, try applying the same rigor to the oft-neglected Most Improved Player. On the surface, it's simple enough: Who improved the most this season? However, once you start brainstorming candidates for this season's MIP, you start to realize how different they are. Turn to semantics to try and solve the problem and, well, let's just say it makes the MVP debate seem straightforward by comparison. ↵

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↵I had Kevin Durant as my no-brainer pick. Once the Thunder made their coaching switch, Durant went from rising star to superstar seemingly overnight. When serious hoops aficionados like Kelly Dwyer make a case for Durant as the best small forward in the West, it's hard to imagine not handing the former Longhorn the MIP by default. After all, no one who got better in 2008-09 ended up as good as Durant. ↵

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↵But Durant was supposed to be this good; if the award simply went to high lottery picks who took one season to come into their own, there would be no point in voting. What's more, KD closed out his rookie campaign with two months that, while they didn't match the brilliance he's shown this year, were easily All-Star level. That was his major breakthrough, that turning point where he announced that he was for real. ↵

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↵My esteemed colleague J.E. Skeets professes to like Devin Harris "in a landslide." Harris underwent the kind of shock-the-world change that Durant did at the end of 2007-08. He'd always shown great potential in Dallas, and when the Nets more or less swapped him for Jason Kidd that spring, it showed what high regard both side held him in. But this year, Harris went from promising talent to devastating All-Star, scoring at an insane clip, greatly improving his shooting, and even looking more confident as a leader on the floor. He has, as another friend put it, "turned up the volume" on what was there all along. ↵

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↵Devin Harris very suddenly got much better than anyone thought he'd ever be. The same goes for the Jazz's Paul Millsap. Except in neither case did their getting better make them as good a player as Kevin Durant ended up. ↵

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↵If we're going to consider Harris, then why not take a look at Danny Granger, another first-time All-Star? All Granger has done is steadily increase his production across the board every year he's been in the league, reaching a near-elite level this season. ↵He's taken on a greater role, as evidenced by an increase in his usage. But his true shooting percentage has remained virtually the same, usually the first stat to take a hit when a player takes on a greater role. Like Durant, his improvement wasn't overly dramatic; unlike Durant, and like Harris, it came as a surprise, since no one knew just how much Granger would continue to improve. He probably deserves a Lifetime Improvement award. ↵

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↵And what about the revitalized Shaquille O'Neal, who late in his career has managed something of a return to form? It seems preposterous that a second-year player and a future Hall of Famer as many years from possible retirement would compete for the same award. But a comeback is a form of improvement, and Shaq this season bears little or no resemblance to the giant-in-decline we'd gotten used to seeing. ↵

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↵Unfortunately, looking to history for answers doesn't provide much clarity, either. Tracy McGrady (2000-01) and Jermaine O'Neal (2001-02) were high school lottery picks who, after having spent their first few seasons learning and maturing, changed teams and came into their own. Zach Randolph (2003-04) started the year as a sleeper in name only. Bobby Simmons (2004-05) and Boris Diaw (2005-06) came out of nowhere. Gilbert Arenas (2002-03) and Monta Ellis (2006-07) both proved that the unexpectedly strong finish their rookie years hadn't been a fluke. Hedo Turkoglu (2007-08) fit the Devin Harris mold. Going back further, you get a curious mix of stars, respectable pros, flame-outs, and forgettable journeyman. ↵

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↵Anyone want to cast a vote for Mo Williams? ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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