Each year I protest that the Most Improved Player award should go to someone who improves from good to great, because that is the hardest jump to make in this league. By my own dissident standards, the favorite should be Orlando center Dwight Howard (23.2 points, 15.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks through Thursday), who, at 22, has hoisted himself up among the elite.
But that standard would permit no further debate, as no one else can approach the leap Howard is making from All-Star to MVP candidate for the 16-4 Magic.
So for this one week I surrender to conventional thinking and focus on five improving players who appear most likely to receive consideration in the general election next spring ...
5. Antoine Wright, New Jersey Nets -- In the preseason the Nets declined to pick up the fourth-year option on their disappointing 6-foot-7 swingman, making him an unrestricted free agent next summer. Wright has turned that setback into an opportunity by more than doubling his scoring to 10.4 points per game while providing complementary minutes to Richard Jefferson and/or Vince Carter. Last summer he spent close to $40,000 to live in Las Vegas and enroll in Joe Abunassar's Impact Basketball center, where he extended his shooting range over three sessions per day with the likes of Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis. Wright is much more than a situational defender now.
4. Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies -- He ranks second among NBA sophomores in scoring with 18.1 points, a mark that leads the Grizzlies and represents a big hike over the 10.8 points he averaged as a rookie. Memphis has amped up the tempo to 103.8 points (sixth highest in the league) and the 6-9 Gay is their arrowhead, a versatile athlete who is improving his decision-making with the ball.
"He's picking up the whole idea of seeing what are they giving me," coach Marc Iavaroni said. "If the defense says you should be going to the basket, then you should be going to the basket. If they give you a shot, then it's your duty to take that shot."
Despite the frustration of losing five games by three points or fewer, the 6-12 Grizzlies have shown big competitive gains over their 22-win season of last year, and Gay's newfound confidence is helping. The former UConn star had a career-high 31 points (on an efficient 24 shots) against Portland in the second week of the season, and other nights he's kept Memphis alive with big threes or acrobatic tip-ins in the final minute.
3. Beno Udrih, Sacramento Kings -- Udrih has gone from a 5.2-point scorer over three in-and-out years with San Antonio to a 14.3-point starter in his brief time with the Kings. The 25-year-old point guard has added 4.0 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals in his 35.2 minutes as the Kings have gone 6-5 since his Nov. 10 debut (though the return of Ron Artest from a season-opening suspension of seven games has a lot to do with it, too).
While sidelined with a broken finger in the preseason, Udrih was traded by San Antonio and waived by Minnesota before arriving in Sacramento for the minimum $826,046 as a replacement for Mike Bibby, who underwent preseason thumb surgery. The 6-3 Udrih showed he had recovered from the loss of Gregg Popovich's confidence in him by haunting San Antonio with a career-high 27 points in a 112-99 Kings' win last week. If Udrih keeps this up, he'll make it easier for the Kings to eventually trade Bibby and further hasten their rebuilding.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers -- The 6-11 forward/center has gone from 9.0 points to 18.6 this year in 34.5 minutes, filling in for the departure of Zach Randolph and the season-ending knee injury to Greg Oden. Aldridge has emerged as a 22-year-old leader of the league's youngest team. The No. 2 pick of 2006 is the leading scorer and rebounder of his sophomore class and is -- so far, at least -- clearly superior to No. 3 pick Tyrus Thomas, whom the Bulls preferred in that draft.
The Blazers have reconnected with their fans (they are 5-3 at the Rose Garden), and Aldridge has a lot to do with it. Averaging 7.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and shooting 52.3 percent this season, he shows signs of developing the versatility of Rasheed Wallace, but with a friendlier approach to the outside world.
Aldridge also has bulked up to fight his way to the line at a far higher rate than last year, and his approach to hard work is setting the franchise standard for his teammates. While Aldridge finished strong last year with 14.7 points and 7.4 rebounds over his last 18 games, his numbers mean more now that he is being targeted by the defense. Imagine the potential of this front line next year if Oden's health permits.
1. Ronnie Brewer, Utah Jazz -- The Jazz went into training camp uncertain of the answer to their one remaining question: How to fill their need at shooting guard? Would rookie Morris Almond provide the deep range they were seeking? Could they live with Gordan Giricek? C.J. Miles?
The unexpected solution came from Brewer, the son of former NBA player Ron Brewer and a No. 14 pick who gave Utah a spotty 4.6 points in 56 games as a rookie last year.
"This summer I was trying to get in better condition," he said. "And I tried to improve my shot because that's one of the things coach [Jerry] Sloan wanted me to do."
If the starting job was open, then what was to stop Brewer from claiming it? He was the surprise of training camp and has provided a highly reliable -- and altogether unexpected -- 14.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 steals in his 30.8 starter's minutes. At 6-7, he moves nonstop like a smaller version of Andrei Kirilenko.
"I think the Jazz are a little shocked," an opposing team's personnel scout said. "One thing about him and Kirilenko is that they're both long guys. Let's say they're running a regular 'floppy' set -- they call it '11' in Utah. Brewer comes off, and rather than shooting like most teams do, Utah likes to curl [around] screens. So Brewer curls it and it takes him one step to get to the rim. That's how long and athletic the kid is, and he's a very good defender too with his length."
Brewer is not the prototype shooting guard. He appears to stroke the ball diagonally, as if waving mosquitoes away from his forehead. Rather than fundamentally reinvent his jump shot, he worked last summer to become reliable.
"My elbow is going to stick out regardless," he said. "It might not be the prettiest shot or the most fundamental, but I worked on it and made it consistent. Playing with these guys, I'm going to get open shots because they're going to draw attention to themselves."
Brewer's stroke may prevent him from living on the three-point line (where he is 5-of-20 this year) and that's a good thing: He is most effective roaming the floor, shooting 52 percent while exploiting the seams created by Utah's ball movement amid Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams.
"Who's this? Who's this?" Williams said before a recent game in New York, as he shuffled across the visitors' locker room with his head lowered and his hand raised high. Teammates laughed at his impression of Brewer waving for the ball.
"Then the defense tends to overplay me," answered Brewer, who has benefited from more than a few ensuing backdoor cuts this season.
The Jazz could still use a deep backcourt shooter off the bench. But Brewer appears to be a snug fit with their starting lineup -- even if he wasn't quite what they were looking for.
"Ronnie worked very hard in the summer and he deserves the credit for his improvement," Sloan said. "He came in, he wanted the job, he was working very hard, he was very diligent. And it's amazing how that works if you feel like you've been mistreated -- and he probably felt that way a little bit last year, because he was a young player and he didn't understand. But the bottom line was he knew he had to work, and he did the work."
4. Name the first thing to happen this season:
(a) Lakers trade Kobe Bryant(b) Nets trade Jason Kidd(c) Knicks fire Isiah Thomas(d) Gilbert Arenas comes back from knee surgery
The prognosis in Washington is that Arenas may be ready by March 1. The Wizards will be cautious, and they surely won't risk his health to rush him back. But we have a better chance of seeing Arenas on the court again this season than of seeing those other events happening.
3. How long should the average player spend warming up?
(a) Just enough to poke his head out of the locker room and smell the boiled hot dogs(b) 15 minutes(c) 30 minutes(d) One hour
At least that's what Zach Randolph is saying now.
The 6-9 forward spent his opening years in Portland going all-out for 45 to 60 minutes against his fellow young Blazers. He would return to the pregame locker room sweated through like Karl Malone at halftime of the Western Conference finals.
Randolph is a 26-year-old with the Knicks now, and last week one of their assistants asked him to tone down the regimen. Randolph agrees that his pregame work may have been tiring him for the fourth quarter.
"So I'm probably going to go to seven spots and shoot seven times from each spot," he said. "Go into the post, spin move." No more sweating? "No, I'll still work up a sweat," he said. "A little sweat. Nothing crazy."
2. TRUE OR FALSE: Larry Brown will be back coaching within a year.
"When you look at the all-time falls from grace, his has to rank in the top three," said an Eastern Conference executive who doesn't work for Detroit or New York. "The guy went from champion of the league to being run out of town. But if you take away what he did in New York, he should be coaching again."
Now that it looks like his return to Philadelphia has been nullified by the arrival of new 76ers president Ed Stefanski, Brown must make himself attractive. The smart play would be to lower his salary and accept a muted role in personnel decisions. If he plays it humble while swearing to leave his next GM alone, I bet he'll have more than one offer to end his career on a happier note.
1. What do the following have in common:
LeBron JamesDwight HowardTim DuncanKevin GarnettSteve NashDwyane Wade
ANSWER: They are among the exceedingly small group of players who are, at this moment, untradable. There may be other exceptions (Kevin Durant? Greg Oden? Carmelo Anthony?), but for all of the rhetoric about franchise stars who are untouchable, there are very few who couldn't be moved for the right price.
3. A Western Conference GM on Boston's league-leading 15-2 start: "If the Celtics don't have any injuries, they're going to have home court [advantage] all the way through the East, and there are very few teams that could come in there and beat them in a Game 7 in Boston. Detroit is the only team that could do it.
"Let's say Miami gets its ship righted, I still don't think they could do it. Cleveland, Chicago, New Jersey -- none of them could do it. Orlando has really improved and you have to take notice of that road record (11-2) and how Dwight Howard has gone to another level, but I have my doubts about that supporting cast. Detroit is the one team with that starting lineup and that playoff experience and the advantage that Chauncey Billups will probably have [at point guard against Rajon Rondo], you can make the case that they could win in Boston.
"But as strong as that Celtics team is and the way the fans have taken to them, that's going to be a very strong home court in the playoffs. Anybody who plans to beat them had better get that homecourt from them during the season."
2. A league scout on whether the Bulls (5-11) or the Heat (4-14) will come out of their rut: "My bet would be on Chicago, only because they historically have started slow each year. But I had the impression their coaches were nervous not too long ago, and there were all sorts of rumors about Scott Skiles' future there. Now it seems like they're all for one and one for all again. But [Kirk] Hinrich's been terrible, and [Ben] Gordon's been terrible, they have no post game, and when [Luol] Deng is on the bench they're just terrible."
1. An Eastern Conference executive on Billy King, fired this week as GM and president of the 76ers: "Anytime you trade a franchise player, that's the beginning of your demise. I bet you Kevin McHale won't be running the Minnesota Timberwolves this time next year. Whenever you have to trade a guy the way Billy traded Allen Iverson, that's usually the beginning of the end."
2."In the NBA preview in SI, you quote a scout saying that Rasheed Wallace has the highest basketball IQ in the league. Is that for real? What does he mean? I've always liked Sheed and continue to mourn the 2000 Western Conference finals Game 7, but I never thought of him as much smarter basketball-wise than others, especially when it comes to shot selection. What's behind the scout's assessment? And how could he be smarter basketball-wise than Steve Nash or Tim Duncan or Jason Kidd?" --Aaron Brenner, New York
Here is your answer from the NBA advance scout:
"Rasheed really understands the subtle nuances of the game.
"He really understands defensive schemes, situations and rotations. He is like a coach on the floor offensively and defensively in how he verbally communicates with his teammates. He is always calling out situations. He knows how to use his body and length to negate a smaller player's quickness and his agility and timing to bother bigger players. He knows just when to time a double-team, get around a guy to front the post, or play behind and reach in at the last second. He understands using angles.
"Offensively, like many players, he will force the occasional three-point shot. But he really gets spacing, recognizes mismatches and is willing to make the extra pass. He is incredibly unselfish in this regard. He willingly looks for others as much as his own. He doesn't worry about his stats, and he gets it that on teams that win consistently, the players don't [focus on their own numbers]."
1. "Why don't people consider Kobe Bryant as Defensive Player of the Year? He is always guarding top players, but none of them wants to guard him. I think someone should make a strong case for him to be considered for DPY."-- Carlos M., Los Angeles
Lakers coach Phil Jackson credits Bryant with giving a strong effort at the defensive end this year, which goes against the general rule for stars like Kobe. Most scorers are cautious defensively because they don't want to risk foul trouble.
Only once in the last 11 years -- when it was won by the Pacers' Ron Artest in 2003-04 -- has the defensive award not gone to a big man. To overcome that bias, Bryant would have to define himself defensively and win games by shutting down the NBA's most prolific scorers. That's asking a lot of someone who must average more than 25 points to give his team a chance. But Michael Jordan accomplished it in his initial MVP year when he was named the top defensive player in 1987-88 while leading the league with 35 points a game.
"What gives with Phil Jackson signing an extension for $12 million a year? Now I know Jerry Buss is out of his mind. How can any coach be worth more than most of the players in this league? Red Holzman he isn't. I'll be up here pulling all the strings I can to make sure he doesn't break my record for championships -- I don't care if I have to spend time in purgatory to keep it from happening."
Arnold (Red) Auerbach, 1917-2006