Is Goran Dragic the Favorite for 2014 Most Improved Player Award?

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Is Goran Dragic the Favorite for 2014 Most Improved Player Award?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Goran Dragic has posted a herculean 2013-14 campaign by leading the upstart Phoenix Suns. He may have been snubbed from the NBA All-Star Game, but his overall performance has warranted serious consideration for the Association’s Most Improved Player award.

In addition to his remarkable durability, the Slovenian floor general has seen his scoring output soar under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek.

Goran Dragic's Stats By Season
Year MPG FG% 3P% PPG RPG APG SPG
2012-13 33.5 44.3% 31.9% 14.7 3.1 7.4 1.6
2013-14 34.9 50.8% 41.7% 20.5 3.2 5.9 1.3

ESPN.com

Despite splitting time in the backcourt with Eric Bledsoe for chunks of the season, the only statistic that has dipped for Dragic compared to a year ago is assists. Because “The Dragon” is spending more time off the ball at shooting guard, he’s been able to focus more attention on scoring. His efficiency has been reaping the benefits.

According to NBA.com, Dragic is shooting 52.3 percent on drives to the basket. Only two players have driven to the basket more times than the Suns 1-guard—Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague—and among the top-20 players in terms of total drives, only Tony Parker (53.1 percent) and LeBron James (65 percent) have been better when finishing at the rim.

Additionally, Dragic has an effective field-goal percentage of 63.8 percent in catch-and-shoot situations, per NBA.com. That mark is better than sharpshooters like Carmelo Anthony (59.6 percent), Ray Allen (57.6 percent) and Klay Thompson (60.2 percent).

As a result of those advanced statistics, Dragic is notching career highs in field-goal percentage (50.8 percent), three-point percentage (41.7 percent) and, consequently, points (20.5 per game).

Only two players in the league are scoring a minimum of 20 points per game while shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc: Dragic and Oklahoma City Thunder MVP front-runner Kevin Durant.

On top of the scoring numbers, the 27-year-old kept Phoenix afloat during Bledsoe’s prolonged absence. He lead the Suns to a 17-15 record without the former Los Angeles Clipper during 2014.

His scoring prowess coupled with team success makes him a strong candidate for Most Improved Player, but whether he should be considered the favorite for the honor is up for debate. As a matter of fact, Dragic may not even be the most deserving candidate among his own teammates.

 

Other Deserving Candidates

Dragic’s calling card for MIP is a significant boost in scoring and scoring efficiency. Unfortunately for the talented southpaw, crowning a Most Improved Player award winner on a scoring jump alone doesn’t happen often.

One such exception was former Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger, who won the award in 2008-09 after upping his scoring output to 25.8 points per game from 19.6 the year prior. His percentages remained almost identical, but he was attempting four more shots per contest.

Upping his percentages in addition to the volume of his points helps the Slovenian’s case, but other talents around the league have shown improvements in a variety of different categories.

Jonathan Bachman

New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis, for instance, certainly didn’t experience a sophomore slump.

Anthony Davis's Stats By Season
Year MPG FG% 3P% PPG RPG APG BPG
2012-13 28.8 51.6% 0.0% 13.5 8.2 1.0 1.8
2013-14 35.2 51.9% 22.2% 20.8 10.0 1.6 2.8

ESPN.com

In addition to posting more than seven additional points per game when compared to his injury-riddled rookie year, AD is hauling in more rebounds, dishing out more assists and swatting more shots.

He’s certainly living up to the hype of being a No. 1 overall pick—and he’s still just 21 years old, which is downright ridiculous considering how his skills have developed.

If voters were looking to reward a player based on scoring, wouldn’t they lean toward a guy who has also upped the ante in a plethora of additional statistical categories? That’s certainly logical, even if the Pelicans haven’t been able to win many games.

Jack Dempsey

Pacers defensive-minded shooting guard Lance Stephenson is another worthy contender for Most Improved.

Lance Stephenson's Stats By Season
Year MPG FG% 3P% PPG RPG APG SPG
2012-13 29.2 46.0% 33.0% 8.8 3.9 2.9 1.0
2013-14 35.2 48.8% 34.9% 13.8 7.2 4.5 0.7

ESPN.com

“Born Ready” is shooting a better percentage from deep (and the field in general), while scoring more points and dishing out 4.5 assists per contest. His biggest selling point, however, is rebounding.

The 23-year-old is snatching 7.2 boards per contest, which earned him a starting nod on the All-NBA Rebounding Team written by B/R’s own Adam Fromal. He noted that Stephenson is leaving every other qualified 2-guard in the dust, while adding the following:

Any guess how many guards have pulled down at least four percent of the available offensive rebounds and 17 percent of the available defensive rebounds when they're on the court? 

Stephenson is the lone qualifier this season, and (Jason Kidd) and Carlos Delfino are the only players to join him over the course of the past decade. Basically, what he's done during the 2013-14 campaign is nearly unprecedented.

The Pacers youngster is having a historically great year on the glass. The fellow All-Star snub may have Dragic beat in the MIP race as a result.

Davis improved through NBA experience and overall comfort level, while Stephenson has been out to prove himself after getting one year as a full-time starter under his belt. A third candidate for the award is Sacramento Kings floor general Isaiah Thomas.

Ross D. Franklin

The diminutive point guard has upped his per-game averages in points, assists, rebounds and steals. He’s established himself as one of the Association’s best score-first point guards despite his size, but his MIP resume is hindered by one key caveat—minutes.

Isaiah Thomas's Stats By Season
Year MPG FG% 3P% PPG RPG APG SPG
2012-13 26.9 44.0% 35.8% 13.9 2.0 4.0 0.8
2013-14 35.0 45.3% 35.4% 20.7 3.0 6.4 1.3

ESPN.com

While Thomas has bumped up his numbers nearly across the board compared to a season ago, he’s receiving more than eight additional minutes of court time in 2013-14. Logically speaking, the former Washington standout’s numbers should increase with more playing time; unfortunately for him, turnovers are part of that equation.

Thomas is coughing the ball up three times per game for the Kings—up significantly from the 1.8 he averaged as a sophomore and 1.6 he notched as a rookie.

His third campaign in the pros has been an impressive one, but it isn’t without its own inherent flaws.

Dragic may finally have the edge over another deserving candidate here, as his own boost in production can’t be tied to a minutes increase. Also, his team has actually been winning games with regularity.

 

Most Improved Sun?

“The Dragon” has been torching everything in his path under Coach Hornacek, but he isn’t the only Suns player to show drastic improvement under the new man on the sidelines.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Gerald Green—who was seen as a throw-in piece to the Luis Scola trade last summer—has shed his reputation as “just a dunker” en route to a career year.

The 28-year-old has been scorching-hot of late. He averaged 18 points on 43.9 percent shooting from the field and 45.2 percent shooting from deep during the month of March. That streak included a career-best 41-point outburst against the juggernaut OKC Thunder.

“I love the way he’s playing right now,” Hornacek said of Green after the scoring explosion on March 6, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). “We knew he could shoot the ball. There’s not too many guys that can get on a roll like that.”

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Amazingly, “The Green Machine” has been even better in four April games by notching 23 points per game on 57.1 percent field-goal shooting and 55.6 percent three-point shooting.

Relative to expectations entering 2013-14, Green has shown far more improvement compared to Dragic. After struggling as a role player for Indiana, he’s been a dynamic scorer who can single-handedly win the Suns games. His presence in the absence of Bledsoe prevented a potential collapse.

So is Dragic deserving of the league’s Most Improved Player award? Yes, he certainly is—but he was also deserving of an All-Star nod.

As was the case during All-Star weekend, expect Dragic to be beaten out by other candidates who—ever so slightly—edge him out.

The veteran lefty is in the midst of a career year, but guys like Davis, Stephenson and Green—his own wingman—better fit the title of “Most Improved.”

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