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Mark's Mailbag: Oladipo's Case for NBA's Most Improved Player

by Mark Montieth Writer

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Editor's Note: Some Mailbag questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. As our team continues to impress us with the quality of their play this season, I've been reading some people considering Oladipo as a strong runner for the Most Improved Player Award. I would like to know your opinion about it, considering Sabonis is an option for the Sixth Man of the Year award and Pritchard as an obvious choice for the Executive of the Year award for making the most of the awful situation he was put in with the Paul George trade.

— Carlos - São Paulo, Brasil

A. I do believe Oladipo is a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player. Heading into Wednesday's game at Atlanta, his stats have improved in virtually every category, and the fact the Pacers are exceeding expectations helps his cause as well. Here's a look at his improvement:

Last season This season
Points 15.9 24.9
Field goal % 44 48
3-point FG % 36 43
Free throw % 75 78
Assists 2.6 3.9
Steals 1.2 1.8
Minutes 33.2 34.5

As you can see, his numbers are up despite barely playing more than last season. The only area in which he has declined is turnovers (from 1.8 per game to 3.1). That's the result of having the ball in his hands far more often, but it's an area in need of improvement.

There are other candidates for the award, though, such as New York's Kristaps Porzingis, who has improved his scoring average from 18.1 to 25.5, and has received a lot of publicity. The award is voted upon by media members, so I don't know if the fact someone plays in a major market matters that much. The Pacers have had four players win the award, more than any other NBA team but Orlando, which has had five winners. The Pacers who have won: Jalen Rose (2000), Jermaine O'Neal (2002), Danny Granger (2009), and Paul George (2012).

Sabonis is a legit candidate for the Sixth Man award, but has a lot of competition. The leading candidate at this point probably is Houston's Eric Gordon. He started 13 games while Chris Paul was out, but as long as he comes off the bench for most of the remaining games he is eligible for the award. The only qualifier is coming off the bench for more games than starting. Lou Williams of the Clippers also is a strong candidate. The only Pacers player to have won the award is Detlef Schrempf, in 1991 and '92.

I believe Pritchard has an excellent chance of winning the Executive award. That award goes to the leader of one of the most surprising teams in the league, or a team that dominates the league. The Pacers could wind up being one of the surprise teams at season's end. Although Pritchard did not enter the summer looking to trade Paul George, and was practically forced into doing so, the return on that deal has been tremendous for the Pacers. His other moves have worked out well, too.

That award voted upon by fellow executives, so it would depend partly on one's popularity with his peers. Larry Bird is the only Pacers executive to win the award, in 2012. It's surprising that Donnie Walsh never won it, given his reputation around the NBA.

Q. Assuming that the return of GRIII will add value to the team's overall performance, do you think the Pacers could shock the league and finish in the top four of the East?

— Krzysztof

A. I do. They are one-half game back of the fourth spot heading into Wednesday's game in Atlanta, so they're obviously in the mix.

Detroit holds that spot now, and Milwaukee and Washington are tied with the Pacers. New York is one-half game back of the Pacers. It will be a sprint to the finish line for the last spot that provides home-court advantage in the playoffs. Injuries certainly will come into play, but Robinson's return should be a boost for the Pacers.

Q. How wrong were the "experts" about Bogdanovic's defense? My goodness, he has played excellent defense and may be one of the top 10 wing defenders in the league. Would you agree with that, Mark?

— Jared

A. I wouldn't say the experts were wrong about Bojan Bogdanovic's defense, because he was regarded as one of the worst at his position in the league prior to this season. That was based on analytics and eyeball analysis.

He worked on his footspeed over the summer. Playing on a competitive team also helps. He said himself that playing on those poor Brooklyn teams made it difficult to judge his defense. They were getting beat so badly, how could anyone really know whose defense was at fault? And, it was no doubt difficult to be inspired to play hard defensively if it wasn't emphasized or teammates weren't pulling their weight.

I'm not sure he's a top 10 defender now, but he's certainly adequate, and better than expected.

Q. Sorry one more question. Who has a better shot of winning the award. Victor Oladipo for Most Improved Player, or Kevin Pritchard for Executive of the Year?

— Jared

A. That one's a tossup. I would lean toward Oladipo at this point, because I think the performances of the leading teams in each conference, Boston and Houston, make their presidents the leading candidates. A lot can change between now and the end of the season, however.

Q. I was wondering why Sabonis is not shooting 3-point shots anymore? From being primarily a non-efficient stretch five who mostly shot threes, to not shooting threes at all, there's a big gap this year compared to what he was doing in OKC. Do you think it's simply statistical, and they prove that he's just not a good 3-point shooter, so he's been asked to stop? Wouldn't it be another threat if he could shoot more from deep?

— Onra

A. I agree, Sabonis should look for that shot a little more often. He was 5-of-11 from there recently, but has missed his last two attempts, so his percentage is now .385. Last season in Oklahoma City he shot .321.

I believe he's free to take it, but the coaches understandably want to use him around the basket and setting screens, because he's the best player on the team in those areas. That limits his opportunities from outside the 3-point line, and the Pacers have plenty of other threats there.

Still, if he has open looks there, I'd be fine with him taking them.

Q. Who will be the next jersey retired for the Pacers? Rik Smits' name always comes up. I remember his battles with Ewing, and Shaq fondly. I hoped he would have had a chance to play Sabonis in the 2000 Finals. And speaking of that Finals Pacer team, would they ever induct that entire team? I know it's highly unlikely but players like Mark Jackson, Dale Davis, Derrick Mckey were such a big deal to me and I would love to see their jerseys hanging.

— Tony

A. I've written about this before, and I'm sure some are tired of hearing it, but I believe the no-brainer candidate for jersey retirement is Freddie Lewis. He was the starting point guard and captain of all three ABA championship teams, the MVP of the 1972 ABA finals and was a strong candidate for MVP of the '73 finals before he was injured. He also was a multiple All-Star and the MVP of the All-Star game while playing for St. Louis. That, at least, spoke to his talent. His scoring was depressed with the Pacers because of the talent surrounding him, and people tend not to look at leadership and defense when considering jersey number retirements.

Smits had a great career with the Pacers and is their second all-time leading scorer, but retiring his number would open the proverbial can of worms. He was a one-time All-Star, in 1998. If his number were retired, other Pacers who made All-Star teams – such as Bob Netolicky, Billy Knight, Don Buse, Jermaine O'Neal, Danny Granger and Paul George - would have a legitimate complaint. To me, there's a clear difference between making an All-Star team and being a captain of three championship teams and the MVP of the finals.

I don't see the 2000 team being honored as a group. It was really good and brought a lot of entertainment to fans, but it wasn't a championship team. And if it were honored, what should be done about the three championship teams?

Q. It's premature to say, but can you please give your opinion about TJ Leaf? And how about Joe Young? He is in his third year and has not "happened" yet. I was really expecting a lot from him.

— Luciano

A. I think Leaf is going to have a good NBA career. He's only 20 years old, but shows great potential. He's already had a couple of NBA "moments," such as scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter of a preseason game in Cleveland, and 17 points in his second regular season game against Portland.

He was recently sent to Fort Wayne to get playing time and responded with 20 points and nine rebounds in his first game and 31 points and nine rebounds in his second game. He's a great shooter and can put the ball on the floor. That's a good start.

Joe Young was described as a second-round draft pick with first-round talent when the Pacers selected him with the 43rd overall pick in 2015. He's excelled in summer league games, but either hasn't earned or been given the opportunity to get extended playing time in the NBA.

He was said to have worked on improving his core strength in the off-season to improve his defense, which has been an issue for him. He has averaged 2.6 points in 5.8 minutes in limited appearances this season, but has recently received more than "garbage time" minutes. He can score and is athletic enough to play point guard in the NBA. The challenge for him is running an offense and handling the mental elements of the position. That's difficult to do without experience, so it's a bit of a dilemma for him. There's no question about his attitude and work ethic, however.

Q. How do the Pacers address the rebounding problem? Do we look to a real five and let Turner move to a four spot with guys more his size? Overall, the team never seems to be in the right position. Situational awareness is lacking. Coaching?

— Ray

A. The Pacers simply aren't designed to be a strong rebounding team, and the coaches knew this going into the season. You can make moves to improve it, but you would give up something in another area, such as scoring or defense. A lot of people would like to see Turner and Sabonis play together more often but if one of them is playing "four," there's going to be some issues with perimeter defense in today's "smaller" NBA.

The Pacers rank 22nd in the NBA in overall rebounding, giving up less than one per game. The bigger issue is offensive rebounds, where they rank 27th and give up 1.3 more than they get. They talk about "gang" rebounds, meaning the perimeter players have to get in and help. There's no doubt about that. With all the 3-point shots taken these days, a lot of missed shots ricochet long off the rim, over the heads of the taller players.

It's a constant emphasis of the coaches. The players simply have to make the effort. But it's like telling non-shooters to shoot well. You can't get results just by asking or demanding, players have to be cut out for the task. It's possible to address it via a trade, but you can't predict what opportunities might become available.

Q. If you could pick a former NBA player to train with each of the following, who would you pick and why? Oladipo, Sabonis & Turner.

— Surya

A. Interesting question. A former player isn't necessarily a better mentor than an actual coach, but a great one would command the respect of a current player wanting to learn, and could no doubt teach nuances.

Oladipo has worked with Dwyane Wade in Miami, and Wade has been a huge influence. But if you insist on him being with a former player, I would go with Kobe Bryant. Bryant had a legendary work ethic, and Oladipo by all accounts rededicated himself last summer. I think they would enjoy being with one another. Reggie Miller would be a good choice, too, as far as learning the nuances of his position.

Sabonis could always turn to his Hall of Fame father, but another great choice would be Larry Bird. He would be available, right? Bird was more of a perimeter player, but had skills around the basket. Sabonis' hand-eye coordination is somewhat reminiscent of Bird's. Dave Cowens and Bernard King could be good choices as well.

Turner has the right mentor in the locker room to learn post-up skills in Al Jefferson. He's not yet a former player, but I've never seen one who has a better collection of post moves than Jefferson. If you need a retired player, get Kevin McHale.

Turner needs to become a better rebounder, but you can't really teach that. It's about strength and will. Turner will get stronger, but he doesn't really have a rebounder's mentality yet. That's understandable. Rebounders have certain personalities and athletic gifts, and you can't blame someone for not having them.

Q. We've lost two games in a month on inbounds plays in the last ten seconds. Is this indicative of McMillan's coaching?

— Tim

A. I don't think so. An NBA player should have enough poise to make common-sense decisions. No amount of coaching can overcome that. In the most recent example, against Boston, Cory Joseph would have been smart to just hang on to the ball and wait for the foul. I can understand him passing, though, because Bogdanovic was open and the Pacers wanted the clock to keep running. Bogdanovic obviously should not have passed the ball as he did, but it's not like he was coached to do that.

Q. Sabonis sure seems better than Turner at this point. Should he be starting?

— David

A. I understand that argument. When statistics are extrapolated over 36 minutes per game – and I never pass up an opportunity to use the word "extrapolated" because it makes me sound intelligent – Sabonis comes out ahead. He would be averaging 18.3 points and 12.4 rebounds, while Turner would be averaging 16.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. Sabonis also has a better shooting percentage in all areas, and is a better passer.

Seniority might come into play here, as Turner has been here longer and was voted co-captain by his teammates. But, Sabonis' versatility makes him a perfect reserve, because he can back up at both four and five and provide a lift off the bench. The trick is to get him enough minutes to take advantage of his skills. He averages 24.2 minutes per game. I don't know of anyone who would object to him playing more.

Q: Do you think the Pacers should be looking to add/subtract anyone from this roster, or should they just wait to see how this year pans out before making any moves?

— Gary

A. Teams are always looking to improve their roster. I'm sure Pritchard would be happy to make a move if the right one came along. He has an open roster spot, so that provides some flexibility.

The real opportunity will come in the off-season, however, because he'll have more cap room to work with. He can sign a notable free agent, or make a trade that brings a higher-salaried player or players than the one(s) going out.

This roster has the nucleus of a promising future, but it's hardly a finished product. So, anything is possible.

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