Is it even possible for a former NBA MVP to win the Most Improved Player award? Why not, right?
With that question in mind, I will now state a claim, which I assume many of you will believe to be asinine: Kevin Garnett deserves to be the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
Don’t think so? Maybe that’s because the award has never been given to an established star. Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, and Danny Granger have all won the award. But those players won while still young, while still taking the next step to stardom. None of those players won the award after already being big names. In fact, if Garnett were to win it, he would have (by far) the best resume of any winner. When it comes to the MIP, Garnett’s like the Harvard graduate who applies to flip burgers at McDonalds: “Umm, sir, you’re quite over-qualified for this position.”
If you judge strictly based on the definition of improvement (“the action of making or becoming better”), the award has nothing to do with resumes or reputations. It simply has to do with the amount of betterment a player has undergone, from one season to the next. If that’s the case, Garnett could still be in the running.
Just because he’s in the running, though, doesn’t mean Garnett is a worthy candidate.
Note: This is where I run down Garnett’s case, as well as the cases of three other worthy candidates (in no specific order).
Roy Hibbert (Last year: 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds. This year: 15.3 points, 8.4 rebounds)
How did Hibbert help turn the Indiana Pacers into a payoff contender? He spent the summer slimming down and working on his game. It’s paying dividends. Hibbert has turned into a borderline All-Star center (never thought I’d write that), and he has the Pacers making noise. Hibbert has always had the low-post skill. Now, he has the conditioning to be able to utilize it.
Russell Westbrook (Last year: 16.1 points, 8.0 assists, 41.8% shooting. This year: 23.7 points, 8.6 assists, 44.0% shooting.)
With Kevin Durant struggling (and by struggling, I mean averaging only 28 and 7), Westbrook has kept the Thunder on pace to surpass last season’s 50 wins. How has he done it? By improving his offensive efficiency, while also shouldering a greater offensive load. One can only believe a summer playing against the likes of Derrick Rose and Chauncey Billups helped Westbrook’s maturation.
Michael Beasley (Last year: 14.8 points, 6.4 rebounds. This year: 22.0 points, 6.0 rebounds)
I could have selected Beasley’s teammate, Kevin Love. But the “Free Kevin Love” movement began before the season even started, and everybody suspected Love would post dynamic numbers with more playing time. With Beasley, on the other hand, we had no clue what to expect. In Miami, he was largely overwhelming. Not anymore. Beasley is now 12th in the league in scoring, while playing only 33 minutes per game. Even better, he is posting career highs in field goal shooting (47.2%) and three-point shooting (40.9%), all while becoming his team’s go-to scorer. One still gets the feeling Beasley’s ceiling remains “best scorer on a bad team,” but — damn it! — he’s still improved enough to make you wonder, “What if the Heat had kept Michael Beasley?”
Kevin Garnett (Last year: 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds. This year: 15.6 points, 9.6 rebounds)
Okay, so Garnett’s traditional stats aren’t as improved as the other candidates. (Note: they’re still much improved.) What those stats don’t properly encapsulate is Garnett’s overall presence. Last season, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year was routinely beaten by quicker power forwards (and some not-so-quick ones). To summarize, Kris Humphries still haunts Garnett’s dreams. Now, Garnett isn’t just quick enough to defend any power forward. He’s also quick enough to defend any player, period, at least for short bursts. Note last night’s final Sixers possession, when a defensive switched forced Garnett onto Andre Iguodala. Iggy, one of the league’s best athletes, couldn’t go anywhere. He ended up launching a fadeaway jumper, with Garnett draped all over his shooting hand.
In the span of one offseason, Garnett experienced a total renaissance. Last season, he was average on most nights, and could even be exploited at times. This year, he is a menace on both ends, and — far from being exploited — has actually returned to playing Defensive Player of the Year-level defense. The difference is illustrated by Garnett’s on-floor defensive numbers. Last year, Garnett’s defensive rating was 101. So far this season, it’s 94 — or, in other words, the second-best number of Garnett’s career. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), that was the year Garnett won MVP.
Boston’s team defense is infinitely better with Garnett on the court. According to Zach Lowe, “Every single five-man lineup that includes Garnett and has logged at least 15 minutes has outperformed Boston’s overall defense, according to Basketball Value. That’s seven different lineups including guys as diverse as Shaquille O’Neal, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels and Glen Davis, and all of them are allowing fewer points per possession than the best defense in the entire league.”
I cannot stress how impressive that is.
Defense is not his only improvement, of course. Last night’s game-winning alley-oop would not have been possible if it weren’t for Garnett’s athletic revival. He has improved his balance and lift, and again provides a versatile, inside-outside option. The extra bounce in Garnett’s leg, and the ensuing increased defensive attention, have freed open shots for teammates all season. He is once again a dynamic threat, someone who commands double-teams. He is back to being an all-around force, someone capable of leading a team to a championship, not just a supporting piece.
Am I naive enough to believe Garnett will be voted Most Improved Player? No, I’m not. Nate Robinson will play center in the NBA before a former MVP wins the MIP.
But if Russell Westbrook is the quarter-season leading candidate, Garnett’s name certainly merits mentioning.