Realistic Candidates for NBA Most Improved Player Award

Andy HuSenior Writer IIJanuary 3, 2013

Realistic Candidates for NBA Most Improved Player Award

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    Approximately a third of the NBA season has already gone by, and there have been a handful of players who are starting to make the jump from a role player to a star. Whether it is an increased amount of playing time or more opportunity, these players have demonstrated they are ready to take the step to the next level.

    Although perennial superstars like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony—who has been playing out of his mind by the way—are arguably playing the best basketball of their respective careers, it is highly unlikely that either of them will win the Most Improved Player award.

    Here is my list of the most likely players to be named the 2013 NBA Most Improved Player if they keep up their current level of production throughout the season

10. Eric Bledsoe

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    Out of all the players considered for MIP, Bledsoe is probably the second-most talented player among each and every one of them. The only thing holding him back is playing time on the loaded Clippers team.

    Once Billups returns, Bledsoe will probably see his minutes decrease even more, which is why he won't be a practical selection for the MIP Award unless Chris Paul goes down with a season-ending injury. Bledsoe is an athletic beast on defense and has a crafty offensive game as well, so look for him to break out if he ever gets an increased amount of playing time.

9. Goran Dragic

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    If anything, Dragic should have won the award last season when he took over the role of starting PG when Kyle Lowry was out. He nearly led a Rockets team whose best player was Luis Scola to the playoffs. 

    This season, not much has changed with Dragic. He already proved to everyone that he can lead a team, but the Suns have the second-worst record in the West. If not for Dragic's Houston stint last season, he may very well be a front-runner for the MIP award right now.

    Right now, it's unlikely that Dragic will win the award because he is simply matching up to his production as a starter in Houston. Four years ago, who knew that the best player on the team would be Dragic instead of Michael Beasley?

8. Klay Thompson

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    Thompson probably deserves to be one of the top five candidates for MIP because he's scoring more and his team is doing exceptionally well. However, his jump shot hasn't been connecting as well as last season, which has led his field-goal percentage to hover around 40 percent. 

    He's also averaging over 10 more minutes per game compared to last season, but it has only translated to three more points per game (12.5 vs. 15.8). His defense has been decent, but far from spectacular. His shot selection has improved recently, but he was jacking up a lot of bad shots towards the beginning of the season.

    If Thompson continues this level of production for the rest of the season, he will remain in the backseat to the MIP candidates in front of him.

7. Chandler Parsons

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    If there was anything we learned about Parsons last season, it was that he was the steal of the draft. There's hardly a chance that a mid second-round pick can be a solid role player in his rookie season. It's even less likely that the player becomes one of the most important players in his second year. Well, that's exactly the case with Parsons. 

    In his second season, Parsons is putting up a solid stat line of 14.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 3.6 apg. He's also made himself known as one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA. Even at Florida, Parsons displayed his versatility by playing up to four positions. If there was an award for best player scouting, the Rockets would probably win it.

6. Larry Sanders

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    It looks like the Milwaukee Bucks have found their own Serge Ibaka. Nobody knew who he was last year, but now Sanders is posting an incredible defensive rating of 94.5. The Bucks are allowing 10 points per 100 possessions less when Sanders is on the floor, which may also be because everyone else on the Bucks just can't play defense.

    However, Sanders still hasn't shown much of an offensive game. His presence on the floor clearly hurts the Bucks on offense, as they score nearly 10 points per possession less.

    He is kind of like a double-ended sword, if I might add. Sanders will remain in the MIP race, but will not be a top candidate unless he shows some improvement on offense during the early parts of 2013.

5. Omer Asik

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    When Asik was offered a three-year, $25 million contract in the offseason, it seemed worse than Jeremy Lin's contract because Asik had career averages of 3.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg in 13 minutes per game. If a player signs a large contract of $25 million, he must be expected to play a big role for the team.

    Now, it seems that Asik was the bargain. He has a strong seven-foot body and can defend bigger power forwards and centers as well as anyone. One of the knocks on Asik when he was on the Bulls was that he had a very limited offensive game, and even had trouble finishing around the rim.

    This season, Asik's offensive game has increased dramatically. He is the main receiver of pick and rolls from James Harden, Lin and Parsons and has proved that he can finish them with strong dunks. 

4. Paul George

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    With Danny Granger still out with his knee injury and Roy Hibbert underachieving, Paul George has stepped up his game tremendously. Last season, he was a mere role player on a good Indiana Pacers team. Now, he is sharing the spotlight with David West and George Hill, but he will be the future face of the franchise without question.

    Reported to be 6'10", George is a matchup nightmare for every small forward and shooting guard (yes, he does play shooting guard) in the league. He posts a stat line of 16.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks. 

    George had some ups and downs this season, shooting only around 40 percent in November, but that's expected when you're a young role player thrown into a bigger role on a playoff contending team. He has shouldered the load well. George and the Pacers have been playing well as of late, so look around for George's name for MIP if he can improve even more.

3. Jrue Holiday

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    Holiday has been playing like a top five point guard thus far, and he deserves to be recognized as one of the most improved players. Because of Holiday's play, the 76ers are still in contention for a playoff spot in the East.

    This season, he's recording 18.8 ppg, 9.0 apg and 4.2 rpg while shooting a career-high 45.1 percent from the field. His points and assist numbers greatly trump his career averages of 12.5 ppg and 5.3 apg.

    Like Paul George, Holiday has been basically thrown into the field and given the opportunity to show what he can do. With Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand gone in the offseason and Andrew Bynum still recovering from his knee issues, Holiday has become the undisputed "man" of the 76ers, and now he's demonstrating why he's ready to join the elite group of point guards in the NBA.

2. Anderson Varejao

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    You usually don't see a 30-year-old improve during his ninth season in the league, but that's the case with Varejao. He has literally doubled his career points and rebounding averages this season, posting 14.1 ppg and a league-leading 14.4 rpg.  He is also posting more than three times the number of assists compared to his career averages (3.4 vs. 1.1).

    The Brazilian hasn't been able to stay healthy since the 2009-2010 season, so it's even more of a surprise that he is contributing this much in his ninth season after two injury-plagued ones. Hopefully, his most recent injury isn't a sign of bad things to come for Varejao and the Cavaliers.

    Varejao is also posting a PER of 22.1, over five points higher than any of his previous seasons if you don't include the 25 games he played last season. We'll see if Varejao can stay healthy and maintain his most dominant season by far. If he can continue his production, he will be the favorite to win the MIP award.

1. James Harden

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    The bearded one stepped up his game to a whole new level this season. His numbers this season are 26.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.8 steals on 45 percent shooting from the field. All of those numbers are career highs by a large margin, except for field-goal percentage, but that's only because defenses are centered to stop the scoring machine that is James Harden.

    Harden went from being the sixth man and third option of a championship-contending team to the first option on a rebuilding team full of young players. Last season with the Thunder, he was recognized as one of the best shooting guards in the league, which wasn't a lot to say considering the low amount of talent in the shooting guard position. Now, he's considered one of the best scorers and overall players in the league.