Monday April 5th, 2010

The Most Improved Player award tends to be an unpredictable vote. That's certainly the case this season, as the year-to-year change from many players has dramatically altered their team's ranking and playoff outlook.

Some voters cast their ballot for the player who made the jump from star to superstar. Those who voted for Dwight Howard last season will likely cast their ballot for Kevin Durant this year.

Others see the MIP award as belonging to the player who has surged out of relative obscurity to become a bona fide star. Those voters will likely sign Aaron Brooks' name to their ballot.

Several other players will pick up votes, too. San Antonio's George Hill deserves attention for picking up the slack for Tony Parker; Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook will get votes for adding a mid-range shot to his game and teaming with Durant to lead the Thunder's turnaround (they climbed to seventh in this week's rankings); and Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova -- who struggled in his first stint in the NBA, in 2006-07, before playing overseas for two seasons -- will be a popular choice for his role in the Bucks' surprising season.

(All stats and records are through April 4.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
The Cavs have frequently refused to include J.J. Hickson in trade talks the last two years. Now we're starting to see why. With Shaquille O'Neal and Anderson Varejao battling injuries, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas working his way back into shape, Hickson has picked up his game. He is averaging 10.7 points and 6.1 rebounds in 24 minutes a game since the All-Star break.
 
2Orlando Magic
Last Week: 2
Here's why no team wants to play Orlando in the postseason: No player on the Magic's roster is shooting below 41.5 percent from the floor. At the "bottom" is sharpshooting forward Ryan Anderson and just above him is J.J. Redick, who scored 30 points in his last two games combined and has thrived as a regular member of the rotation.
 
3Utah Jazz
Last Week: 4
Utah Jazz (50-27)
The Lakers blew out the white-hot Jazz in the Staples Center last week, marking Utah's 14th straight loss in Los Angeles. Carlos Boozer (20 points to go with 18 rebounds) was solid offensively, but was torched by the quicker Lamar Odom (26 points) all night. "That's the worst matchup in the league for him," a scout said. "He just can't contain Lamar."
 
4Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 6
Phoenix Suns (50-27)
The good news is the Suns are one of four teams tied for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The bad news is they have the toughest road to claiming that spot for good. The Suns close the season with San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Denver and Utah, the only team of the four with no real gimmies on the schedule.
 
5Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 3
L.A. is 4-4 since Andrew Bynum went down last month, including a 1-3 record last week. With the physical Bynum out, the Lakers were manhandled in losses to New Orleans, Atlanta and San Antonio. And neither Josh Powell nor D.J. Mbenga has stepped in to fill the role.
 
6Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 7
A wild card for the Hawks in the playoffs? Zaza Pachulia. One of the few Hawks with the size and strength to match up with the East's beasts, Pachulia had a 10-point, 10-rebound effort against the Lakers and chipped in seven boards in 17 minutes in a win over Detroit. "You can't win the championship with five guys," Pachulia said after the victory over the Lakers. "We have some great players on the bench. Why not use them?"
 
7Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 11
While his change from last season to this season may not be as noteworthy as his teammate Durant's, Westbrook's development can't be denied. He's averaging 8.1 assists, up from 5.3 last season, and his shooting has jumped from 39.8 percent to 42.1 percent.
 
8Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 8
With Kenyon Martin still sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury and Chris Andersen down with a bum ankle, Johan Petro is the face of the frontcourt. And he's starting to show up. Petro picked up his fourth double-digit scoring game of the season with a 14-point outing against the Clippers.
 
9Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 9
There should be a separate award for players like Juwan Howard. The 37-year-old continues to give Portland valuable minutes off the bench, chipping in 12 points in less than 19 minutes in a win over New York. Howard is averaging a respectable 5.9 points and 4.7 rebounds for the season.
 
10Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
The Celtics survived, er, defeated Cleveland on Sunday, but they continue to get punished on the glass. Despite superior size at most positions and a rugged center in Kendrick Perkins, Boston is the second-worst rebounding team in the league. Put in context, in the Celtics' '07-08 title season, they were seventh in the NBA in rebounding.
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