With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we're taking a closer look at each award race. We've already hit on the Sixth Man Award. Here, Rob Mahoney examines the race for the Most Improved Player.
Pardon me for being predictable, but I've cycled through the wealth of choice candidates for the NBA's Most Improved Player award and can find none more deserving than Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday.
Admittedly, I draw that conclusion with some reluctance. I left Holiday off my midseason MIP ballot because I felt his growth had more to do with a shift in his on-court responsibilities than his fundamental ability, and, to some extent, I still feel that's true. But I've come to better appreciate what Holiday has brought to this season aside from claiming a larger share of Philadelphia's playmaking burden. That may be an odd progression for me to make as Holiday has unraveled a bit down the stretch, but I just can't overlook his overall development as a ball handler and the increasing sophistication of his playmaking approach.
As of last year, Holiday was an average passer with a dialed-down offensive game -- patient bordering on passive. He would float around the top of the floor with a live dribble, surveying the defense without really probing it, and generally opt for a basic feed to a teammate hovering or curling into a mid-range jumper. It would be a stretch to say that the Sixers were a crummy offensive team because of those tendencies, but Holiday's knack for settling as both a scorer and playmaker did Philadelphia's limited offense no favors.
This season has provided an immediately discernible contrast. With no Andre Iguodala around to pick up stray possessions or facilitate plays in progress, much of the offense begins with Holiday. That in itself makes him a more valuable player, but it's the way that Holiday has adjusted his game that warrants an award like this one. His game is still informed by the same steady rhythm, but this year that patience breeds greater opportunity because of his widened field of vision. He's not looking to make a certain pass to a certain teammate, but actually reading the court -- and reading back-line defenders -- to set up teammates in the best possible spots.
Though he may not have the speed of some of the NBA's most explosive ball handlers, Holiday has dramatically improved his ability to navigate traffic in the lane (a valuable skill in a pack-the-paint league) and has learned to use his length and size more effectively as a scorer. He's making roughly three percent more of his shot attempts around the basket, according to NBA.com, and increasing the pressure on the defense with his assertiveness off the dribble. A physically overmatched guard is no longer enough to contain him; opponents have to dedicate their full attention to Holiday as he slinks through the paint and deal with every twist and turn of his drives as he courses toward the rim.
That's a dramatic turn for a guard who played it surprisingly safe with his drives a season ago, and it's enabled Holiday to attract extra defensive attention and set up teammates for easy scores. According to Hoopdata, he has assisted on a career-high three baskets per game at the rim this season (a higher mark than that of Tony Parker and LeBron James, among many, many others) despite the Sixers' bogged-down style. He is also setting up an even more impressive 2.1 three-pointers for a team that ranks 24th in three-point attempts. Both marks put Holiday well near the top of the league, making it all the more unfortunate that the Sixers didn't have better luck with injuries (and more help for Holiday).
Holiday redeems what he can from every possession. He is posting clear career highs in scoring (17.9 points) and assists (8.3 per game with a career-best 37.2 assist percentage) while maintaining his shooting percentages in the face of an amped-up role and mounting defensive pressure. He could still stand to be more choosy with his shots at times, but Holiday's accuracy as a spot-up shooter (he makes an impressive 50 percent of his spot-up three-pointers) suggests that his shooting marks would be significantly higher if he had the benefit of more shot-creating talent around him. Andrew Bynum's absence clearly robbed Holiday of that opportunity, but in its place came the chance to fully showcase the leaps he's made as a player.
Here's my full fake ballot for the Most Improved Player award:
1. Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
2. Greivis Vasquez, New Orleans Hornets
The third-year player has evolved from a shaky reserve into a sturdy lead guard. He ranks second in assist percentage, behind Chris Paul. It's been a weird season for the Hornets, who have been without Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon a lot. But Vasquez has kept New Orleans' offense humming at a league-average level -- an impressive accomplishment considering the lottery-level personnel otherwise involved. He may not be much of a defender, but Vasquez is an incredibly viable playmaker with good instincts and a developing scoring game. That he's 26 -- and thus a bit less likely to make this kind of jump -- is even further fuel for his compelling candidacy.
3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder If the ascent from star to superstar is difficult, then the transition from superstar to whatever astounding summit Durant is nearing must be even more so. KD was already the definitive second-best player in the league, but over the course of this season he hasn't just kept pace with LeBron James' own improvements -- he's actually closed the gap. The Thunder's decision to trade James Harden put Durant in a position to create more plays and generally work in a different capacity, and he's responded to that shift by posting career-high assist numbers, cutting his turnover rate ever so slightly and mounting an astounding 40-50-90 shooting season. Those may seem like relatively minor gains for a player who was already so good, but Durant has fleshed out his game and bolstered his efficiency to a truly magnificent degree.