By Ian Thomsen
January 22, 2013

I know there are a lot of strong candidates for Most Improved Player, but I think it'll be hard to justify selecting anyone over Paul George if he keeps up his current pace. He's averaging 19.3 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in January, carrying a Pacers team that's playing without its best player (Danny Granger), and his coach has called him the best wing defender in the NBA. Seems like we're watching a superstar blossom before our eyes in Indiana.-- Amanda, Indianapolis

If he keeps up his current pace, Amanda, then you're going to be right -- he'll be a favorite for the award. Right now he's at the top of my list because of the growth he has shown already over the course of the season. The Pacers went 10-11 while struggling to score over the first six weeks in Granger's absence. Along the way they've turned themselves into the NBA's top defensive team, with the 22-year-old George providing leadership on the perimeter. He has also emerged as a go-to scorer and turned himself into a prospective All-Star this season while leading the Pacers to a 16-5 record since that bad start.

[Ben Golliver: Best candidates to make first All-Star team]

Last Friday, in a win against the visiting Rockets, the 6-foot-8 George scored 31 points while adding six rebounds, five steals and exceptional defense on James Harden (who went 5-for-17). "I've never really seen a defender like Paul,'' Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.

Your question inspired me to assemble the candidates for Most Improved. It's a list of impressive performers, and the next five names are going to have a chance to overtake George over the second half of the season:

Serge Ibaka, Thunder -- Oklahoma City hasn't missed Harden because Ibaka has turned into a knockdown mid-range shooter while continuing to build on his strengths defensively.

Greivis Vasquez, Hornets -- The New Orleans point guard has almost doubled his assists to 9.2 per game (No. 3 in the NBA behind Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul) while improving his three-point shooting (38.3 percent this season) and producing huge gains in points and rebounds.

Nicolas Batum, Blazers -- Portland's small forward has emerged as a leader of the league's most surprising playoff contender. He takes and makes big shots and his production has increased across the board -- including a tripling of his assists.

James Harden, Rockets -- Yes, Harden is the defending Sixth Man Award winner, but he wasn't a star who bore the responsibility of carrying a team until this season. He has shown big gains in points and assists, and I'm guessing his experiences with the Olympic team have a lot to do with him fulfilling his great promise.

Jrue Holiday, 76ers -- His assists have doubled since last season and his scoring has risen as the 22-year-old point guard has kept Philadelphia within reach of the playoffs in Andrew Bynum's absence.

Nikola Vucevic, Magic -- Orlando's second-year center is averaging a double-double.

J.J. Hickson, Blazers -- Ditto for Portland's undersized center.

What kind of message does the Kings' sale send to NBA fans? Sactown fans were always loyal and the city seemed committed to getting a new arena deal done. Is any small-market team safe? --Doug Davis, New Orleans

It stinks, Doug. It isn't their fault, but then, is it ever the fans' fault? It is such a disappointing conclusion to the run of the Maloofs, who started out so strong. The combination of problems for their other businesses and the mistakes they've made in their management of the Kings, who are known throughout the league for lacking in leadership and accountability, has led to this sad end for Sacramento.

When they were losing the Western Conference finals in seven games to Robert Horry's Lakers just 11 seasons ago, you could not have convinced anyone that it was doomed to end this way. The Maloofs were ranked among the best owners in the league then, and the Kings' fan base was as loud as any in sports. The Maloofs have lost their reputation and the fans have lost their team, and at this point there isn't anything anyone can do to change any of it.

[Ian Thomsen: Return of Sonics good for everyone -- except Sacramento]

If Bryan Colangelo's contract with owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is not renewed, could Dwane Casey be on the hot seat? I would think if they do not renew Colangelo's contract, a successor might want to go in another direction with the coaching staff. Especially if they do not make the playoffs. Just look at what MLSE bosses did with Brian Burke with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Paul Mariner with Toronto FC just recently. -- Mike Hayakawa, Markham, Ontario

In those cases, Mike, the new team president usually brings in a coach of his own choosing. But it would be an unnecessary mistake in this case. This team was never going to make the playoffs, and there isn't a coach alive (or dead) who could have turned the Raptors into a winner this season. Toronto has been rebuilding throughout Casey's two years and injuries have limited his access to leading scorer Andrea Bargnani. For those reasons they should not be quick to throw away the investment they've made in him. He is a highly experienced coach who was crucial to the Mavericks' 2010-11 championship, and they should continue trying to build an identity through Casey -- regardless of how ownership deals with Colangelo.

With the development of the D-League, do you think we'll see the following changes in the CBA: Change the age limit to 18, but if you enter college you have to stay at least three years, like baseball? -- Josh, New York

It's an interesting idea, Josh, and I can see where you're going: Let 18-year-olds into the NBA as long as they spend their early years in the D-League. I would think the D-League would need to make enormous gains before such a rule could be established. It would have to be a fully established farm system that engaged every NBA owner with the same kind of exclusive access, which is to say that each NBA franchise would operate its own minor-league team in the D-League.

If the D-League were respected as a workshop for young players to become NBA stars, as the minor leagues are for prospects in baseball, then the NBA might be convinced to lower the age and go into all-out competition with the NCAA to lure the best prospects from high school.

In the meantime, however, the NBA benefits from the exposure its future players receive from major college basketball. The NCAA tournament, in particular, enables teenagers like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to develop a larger public following and become stars before they enter the NBA. The D-League, as it currently exists, could never provide such a high platform for the best young players. But maybe, in time, the D-League will establish its own identity.

[Rob Mahoney: Hornets' Davis on track for greatness]

I just don't see LeBron James going back with Dan Gilbert as a free agentafter the way the Cleveland owner ripped him when he left for Miami. Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't see it. -- David Chabon, Marlboro, N.J.

I'm on the record as agreeing with you, David. I don't think Gilbert's tirade was as damaging as the fact that he and James failed to connect during their six seasons together in Cleveland. They obviously never developed a bond in all of that time, and there is no longer any demand on LeBron to return to Cleveland to repair the relationship.

[LeBron sings Michael Jackson]

And yet, maybe he'll decide that he wants to return to the area anyway. It's where he grew up, after all. None of our guesswork amounts to much of anything, because it all comes down to this: James is the best player in the world, a status he has earned, and he alone is going to decide what is most important if he should become a free agent after next season.

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