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Steve Aschburner

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Danny Granger (center) won the 2008-09 NBA Most Improved Player award.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Most Improved sometimes a path to Missing in Action


Posted Mar 22 2010 11:46AM

Watch out, Rajon Rondo. Tread lightly, Marc Gasol. Be careful what you wish for, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry or any of you guys who have significantly stepped up your games this season.

The Most Improved Player award is one you might not want to win.

Oh, it's a fine honor in the moment, an acknowledgement of undeniable year-over-year progress in the previous 12 months. The trophy itself is nice enough, worthy of gracing most mantels or bookshelves (though as hardware goes, it isn't as snazzy asthis[or this or this. It certainly isn't as coveted overall as this one.

The tricky part is what happens after a fellow gets chosen by NBA writers and broadcasters as the player who improved the most from the previous season. Tracked that way, the Most Improved award has a growing legacy -- or would it be curse? -- that soon could challenge Coach of the Year in the Least Desired Award race.

The coach's annual honor, we know, could almost be subtitled the NBA Kiss of Death Award. Eight of the past 10 winners -- Byron Scott (2008), Sam Mitchell (2007), Avery Johnson (2006), Mike D'Antoni (2005), Hubie Brown (2004), Rick Carlisle (2003), Larry Brown (2002) and Glenn (Doc) Rivers (2000) -- soon got fired or otherwise left their positions. Four of them aren't even plying their trade these days, and only two -- Gregg Popovich (2003) and so far, Mike Brown (2009) -- still are with the teams with which they won it.

Lately, though, the MIP award has produced a high percentage of MIAs in subsequent seasons.

Consider Danny Granger, Indiana's talented and often overlooked leading scorer. Granger earned the MIP trophy in 2008-09 by boosting his play to All-Star levels; his 25.8 scoring average was the highest by a Pacers player in more than 30 years (Billy Knight, 26.6 ppg in 1976-77) and it was the culmination of three consecutive seasons in which Granger hiked his scoring output.

Well, one year later, that streak is in jeopardy. Granger is averaging 23.4 points, a slip from last season. He has been hurt, missing 20 of the Pacers' 70 games, and his shooting has been down (from 44.7 percent from the floor to 42.6, from 40.4 from the arc to 35.9). Give him credit for a late push -- Granger has averaged 27.3 points on 47.2 percent shooting over his past eight games -- but he has a ways to go to improve, lower case, on his Improvement, upper case, of last season.

Besides, he's just one guy. A glimpse at other past MIP winners reveals an unfortunate pattern of slippage, disappointment, injuries and relocation. Remember, these are players who, based on the implications of the award -- someone good getting better -- should have been cornerstone guys for their teams for years to come. Here is look back at the nine who won prior to Granger:

2008: Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando

If you looked closely, you noticed that Turkoglu already had slipped a bit individually the year after he won the MIP (from 19.5 ppg to 16.8, from 45.6 percent shooting to 41.3). But it didn't matter because the Magic made it all the way to the Finals, giving the multi-dimensional Turkoglu momentum in last summer's free-agent market. He landed a $52 million deal and the Raptors have benefited -- they're .500, with one more victory (34) than all of last season -- but Turkoglu has numbers (12 ppg, 42.7 FG percent) that are below his career averages (12.3, 42.7).

2007: Monta Ellis, Golden State

Judged only by his current stats, Ellis would seem a worthy candidate to break the unwritten rule that no one wins the MIP more than once. But he'd have a better shot if this were the defunct Comeback Player of the Year award. The NBA did away with that one after several winners rebounded from layoffs or setbacks that stemmed from illegal drug use. Well, Ellis and his notorious moped accident in August 2008 limited him to 25 games. Given his play this season, it didn't derail his career but it sure caused a detour.

2006: Boris Diaw, Phoenix

Diaw was terrific and won the MIP trophy just in time to cash in with a new contract. Then he slipped into single-digit scoring and fell out of the Suns' plans. Traded to Charlotte, he averaged 15.9 points the rest of 2008-09, but he's been down at 11.2 since.

2005: Bobby Simmons, L.A. Clippers

Milwaukee figured Simmons was a growth stock; after all, the Clippers had lost plenty of promising players on the rise. But paying him $47 million over five years didn't make him a $9 million-a-year player in production. It's as if the MIP hardware had wheels on it, and it's been pushing Simmons downhill from that high point ever since.

2004: Zach Randolph, Portland

The only reason Randolph has been mentioned again as a candidate for this honor is that his play in Memphis in 2009-10 has been so refreshing. The first five years after he won it were about big numbers, small results and a poor reputation off the floor and as a leader. Six years is a long time from MIP winner to All-Star.

2003: Gilbert Arenas, Golden State

Remember when Arenas was considered a disappointment because he kept getting hurt? Seems like wistful nostalgia now, compared to his miserable 2009-10, which began with inconsistent, shoddy play and nosedived with his season-ending suspension.

2002: Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana

O'Neal in some ways was a perfect MIP winner. Just 23 at the time, he had gotten his NBA legs under him after arriving as a prep hopeful in 1996. He was named to five All-Star teams after the honor and played in 47 postseason games. But the games he has missed -- almost two full seasons of the seven since he won it -- have been the problem.

2001: Tracy McGrady, Orlando

Two all-NBA first team selections, three second team berths. A 22.1 scoring average. No second-round playoff appearances. Extended injury layoffs. And unwanted by the end in Houston. A guy some expected to some day follow up his MIP with an MVP was coveted last month for his expiring contract. Who sketched out McGrady's career arc? Charles Addams?

2000: Jalen Rose, Indiana

Nothing wrong with Rose's career arc -- he averaged more than 20 points three times after winning the MIP with an 18.2 scoring average. But he did so mostly by shooting more; for instance, when he averaged 22.1 with Chicago in 2002-03, he took 4.3 more shots than in 1999-00 to get 0.8 more field goals. Rose changed teams four times after his MIP season, en route to his entertaining career as a broadcaster.

We'll stop here, but it's worth noting that many of the earlier winners -- from Alan Henderson (1998) and Gheorghe Muresan (1996) to Don MacLean (1994) and Pervis Ellison (1992) -- never fulfilled the promise this award suggests. Some stuck at that level, some regressed, some got hurt.

It is the nature of this award -- trying to catch a star on his way up -- that leads to some blips and flukes slipping through. In movie terms, it's like director Michael Cimino going from Clint Eastwood's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to the darling of Hollywood for The Deer Hunter. Who knew he would follow that up with Heaven's Gate?

In terms of All-Star appearances, the 24 players who have been voted Most Improved earned a total of 29, though McGrady (seven), O'Neal (six) and Alvin Robertson (four) accounted for 17 of those. Fourteen MIP winners never got there at all. Hall of Fame? Nobody yet.

Then there is the matter of NBA championship rings: No Most Improved Player has one. Over the same period (1986-present), the MVP winners have totaled 31 championships across their careers. The league's top Defensive Players have 24 titles among them, while the Rookies of the Year eventually won 12. Even the Sixth Man winners since 1986 have eight rings to their names.

Taken together, the conclusion is obvious: Plenty of room for improvement among players already deemed to have improved the most.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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