Why Jeff Green Is Definitive Dark Horse for NBA's Most Improved Next Season

Mike Walsh@WalshWritesCorrespondent IAugust 9, 2013

Can Jeff Green become 2013-14's Paul George?
Can Jeff Green become 2013-14's Paul George?Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Green’s return last season was a campaign of improvement. Next up should be a fight for the award that goes along with that phrase, the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

Returning from a year off, Green played in 81 games for the Boston Celtics, starting 17. He averaged 12.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. Playing most of the year as Paul Pierce’s backup, he saw 27.8 minutes on average. 

Now Pierce is gone and Green will enter next season as the likely starter at small forward. This will be his first full year as a starter since 2009-10, which for Green is a lifetime ago. His career has essentially restarted. The doctors who repaired that aortic aneurysm gave Green another chance at a life and career.

It is up to the player himself to work on improving what that career could be. What started around the All-Star break a year ago must continue into 2013-14. Even though the Celtics may be nothing special, Green has the opportunity to be just that.

Of the past 10 Most Improved Player winners, an even number came from nonplayoff teams. This serves as proof that even if the Celtics don’t shock the league and win a lot of games, Green still has a shot. 

Also, only two of the past 10 winners, Zach Randolph and Kevin Love, have been to multiple All-Star Games, with Paul George most likely joining them shortly. To win the Most Improved Player award, one does not have to be a superstar, which should help Green’s case.

The basis for a player to be in this award’s conversation starts with minutes. The last four winners saw an average minute increase of 8.9 per game during the season they won. Those same players managed to turn an average of 4.78 more shot attempts into 6.35 more points per game.

If those averages were to seamlessly tack onto Green’s production, his 2013-14 season would look something like: 36.7 minutes, 14.78 field-goal attempts and 19.15 points per game. 

At 14.78 shots, Green would size up with the likes of George, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson. Those are decent enough offensive wing comparisons; however, none scored more than 17.4 points per game. With a Celtics team light on offensive firepower, Green will be expected to come in north of that.

These numbers aren’t too far-fetched, though a lot will depend on if Gerald Wallace is with the Celtics all season. He played 30.1 minutes in 68 starts for the Brooklyn Nets last year. The minute distribution between Boston’s small forwards may be more like what Green experienced last year. Paul Pierce saw 33.4 per game, while Green got 27.8. This time around, he’ll be in the mid-30s, while Wallace gets reserve duty.

Green’s push for this award is unique. His heart ailment, along with the Oklahoma City Thunder trade have to be taken into account. Otherwise, he is historically a bit old to be named most improved. Green will turn 27 before the 2013-14 season. Guys like George, Love and Ryan Anderson all earned this recognition in their early 20s. 

We know Green lost an entire season to recovery, and another was wasted trying to fit in with a team set in its ways when he first got to Boston. That puts his game really in its fifth or sixth season, even though he left Georgetown in 2007.

While clutch isn’t a measurable stat, Green may just have some flair in him. It has been that way for a while, though maybe a little tough to notice. Unlike their recent floundering, when Green was a Georgetown Hoya, they made serious noise in the NCAA tournament. As a sophomore, he helped them to the Sweet 16. Before declaring for the 2007 NBA draft, Green led Georgetown to a Final Four appearance as a junior.

Last season we saw that dramatic flair once again. Green sealed the deal with game-winners against the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers just 21 days apart in March.

In Game 5 of the playoff series against New York, Green scored eight straight Celtics points late in the fourth quarter. He drilled a pair of threes to stave off the Knicks and elimination. Throughout that entire series, Green averaged 20.3 points per game and was the best overall player on the court for Boston.

His ability to come through in these situations should come as little surprise. Green is a very loud player. Unfortunately, that is sometimes detrimental, because when he has an off night it can be quite glaring. The highlight dunks, graceful slashes, fast breaks and dagger threes (10-of-22 in playoffs) are memorable. When it comes to end-of-season awards, memorable plays stick out. 

George had a season full of memorable moments, playing his best basketball against some of the league’s top teams. Anderson had multiple seven- or eight-three-pointer games the season he won.

When a player has the ability to be that exciting, the highs are always much easier to remember than the lows. Green had plenty of both in 2012-13.

Toward the end he began flipping the ratio in his favor, with more good moments than bad. Through the spring months it became more difficult to watch games without realizing he was on the floor. A major problem with his overall season, and the Celtics’ failure to rise above mediocrity, was Green disappearing in games.

By the time the calendar flipped to 2013, Boston had played 30 games. Green was in double figures just 14 times, scoring five or less points in eight games. In March and April, he scored 10-plus in 21 of 24 games, topping 20 eight times. Mind you, this is also with Avery Bradley as his main point guard.

Green totally flipped his own script in the middle of last season. It was a step in the right direction, and perhaps a minor crest in the journey back from heart surgery.

The climb only gets harder now, though. Defenses won’t have Pierce’s shot creation, or Kevin Garnett’s hard screens to worry about. Rajon Rondo will have the ball in his hands a lot more, which can be a detriment for certain players. Green can also expect to have the full attention of basketball’s best defenders each night.

If he has worked as hard this summer as he did throughout last season, it is a sure bet that he will be among the league’s most improved players come spring of 2014.