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Scott Howard-Cooper

Jeremy Lin may be back for the second round of the playoffs, if the Knicks get that far.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Through twists and a sudden stop, Lin earns Most Improved

Posted Apr 23 2012 11:03AM

Like the sudden rise of Jeremy Lin from the end of the bench to the top of the world, Lin's candidacy for the league's Most Improved Player award has taken its own bends. Most recently in reverse.

Near the end of his regular season, what seemed to be a runaway win for Most Improved unexpectedly turned into a tough call. There is the easy recollection of the Knicks' last-resort point guard playing like a hero without acting like it. And there is the newer image of the March 31 medical bulletin that a torn meniscus in the left knee would keep him out until approximately the second round of the playoffs were New York to make it that far.

So now there is the dilemma: Is 35 appearances, barely more than half the schedule in the compressed calendar of 66 games, enough to win any award?

And it's not really even 35 appearances. Seven of them totaled six minutes or less, back in the days of scrub duty, before he became the Jeremy Lin of New York tabloid fare and Sports Illustrated covers. Lin didn't get double-figure minutes until the season was a little more than a month old, or (in another sign of how infrequently he got off the bench) Lin's seventh game.

We're really talking February and March. Twenty-seven games, 25 starts, 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 44.5 percent shooting in 33.1 minutes. The season-long numbers: 35 games, 25 starts, 14.6 points, 6.2 assists, 44.6 percent shooting and 26.9 minutes.

But yes. Playing barely more than half the season, the equivalent of 43 games in a season with an ordinary calendar, is enough to earn Most Improved.

Lin was barely in the league when his world permanently changed with 25 points, seven assists and 36 minutes against the Nets on March 4. None of the other candidates was signed after the regular season had started, none was clinging to NBA life to the extent that cracking the rotation would have been an accomplishment, and certainly none produced at such a high level under an intense international spotlight that would have frazzled most anyone else.

Lin never lost his focus or energy in what had to have been an exhausting time, and if his game slipped slightly in the final couple weeks before the injury, he still offered a composure and toughness any coach would want from a point guard. The only thing he really lost was his health.

Lin came the farthest and accomplished the most. He had been cut by the Warriors -- his hometown team -- and the Rockets since the end of last season. He couldn't get off the bench for a team so desperate for help at the point that the Knicks signed Baron Davis and Mike Bibby. But when he finally did, he played a key role in bringing a sense of stability to a roster without Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.

The debate is further complicated because Most Improved is a particularly subjective award, more than the others in that media members in the United States and Canada must weigh past performance as a comparison to the 2011-12 campaign platform. Even eligibility is a grey area -- a note at the top of the official ballot explains the recognition is for "an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons. It is not intended to be given to a player who has made a 'comeback.' " It doesn't define "up-and-coming player."

Andrew Bynum jumped from 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds in 2010-11 all the way into the conversation for the best center in the league. But this is his seventh season. It's hard to consider that up-and-coming. Marcin Gortat is a major reason the Suns have remained in playoff contention. But he is 28 years old and in his fifth NBA season. Tony Parker has made several gains critical to the success of the Spurs as the possible top-seeded team in the West -- leadership, defense, passing -- but he might as well be an octogenarian in this conversation.

Ryan Anderson is a serious contender, even with a late shooting slump, in going from an additional piece in the Vince Carter acquisition in 2009 to the only keeper in the deal. Greg Monroe, though already coming off a promising rookie campaign, has made a significant jump. James Harden will probably get votes here on his way to a deserving, and possibly easy, win as the Sixth Man of the Year.

Ersan Ilyasova has had commendable gains. Same with Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, DeMarcus Cousins and Nikola Pekovic. There is no shortage of up-and-comers to consider.

The race probably comes down to Lin, Anderson and possibly Harden, with the footnote that Harden's chances may be hurt by voters choosing him for Sixth Man and unlikely to give him double recognition.

This race definitely comes down to whether voters believe that 53 percent of any season -- even one as briefly remarkable as Lin's -- is enough.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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