In high school, winning "most improved player" is often deemed a slap in the face. Maybe it goes to the token cheerleader of the team who knows he’s not very good, or the player who thinks he’s really good and then realizes he never actually was. “Just how bad was I?” he thinks. I remember my freshman year when a buddy won the award -- he threw it away. But, in the NBA, winning the Most Improved award is a little bit different. For these three players, it means going from productive to really good, or in the case of Kevin Love, great.
1). Kevin Love (Minnesota) - When Kevin Love left UCLA for the NBA, the general consensus was that he would be a decent glue guy for a good team. Pundits questioned his lack of athleticism and dexterity, and wondered whether a below-the-rim player could consistently get his shot off against longer athletes.
But, in his third season, Love now leads the NBA in rebounding and has become a surprisingly stout defender, and a reliable offensive option.
He is the only power forward in the league to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive rebounding, and is the only high level rebounder who can step outside and hit the three with ease. Case in point: When running the pick-and-roll, it’s easy to see that Love isn’t a traditional roll man in the sense that he doesn’t always roll. While he certainly does finish at the basket, he has mastered the ability to pick-and-pop, thus creating an immediate mismatch -- he’s forcing other big men to guard the three, something they’re not accustomed to doing. His 41.7 three-point percentage is brilliant for a shooting guard, let alone incredible for a power forward.
But what really separates Love is his work on the glass. When he’s not drilling deep threes, the 6-foot-9-inches, 260-pounder is brutalizing opponents on the low block, bullying his way to rebounds left and right. Much of this can be attributed to his unparalleled ability to forecast how the ball will bounce off the rim, along with his equally impressive capability to clear out space on his box-outs. As a result, the first time All-Star averages a league best 15.2 rebounds, and an astounding 4.5 on the offensive end. He has four games this season with 30-plus points and 20-plus rebounds, topping the three such games in the NBA all of last season. Moreover, just recently he broke the all-time record for longest streak of consecutive double-doubles, eventually topping out at 53. Most important, Love posted the biggest increase in Win Shares, a statistic that estimates the number of team wins attributable to an individual player, of any player in the league this season.
2). Eric Gordon (Los Angeles Clippers) – I know, I know, you thought I’d go with the guy drafted three spots ahead of Gordon right? Without question, Russell Westbrook has been stellar this season for Oklahoma City. Virtually all of his numbers across the board are up, but so are Gordon’s, and Gordon’s are WAY up.
The third-year man from Indiana has parlayed his selection to Team USA last summer into a marvelous season for the Clippers (and a boon to my fantasy team). A deadly long-range poacher when he entered the league, Gordon has dramatically improved both his handle and capacity to score off the bounce, becoming one of the more versatile two guards around.
Armed with great lower body strength and a deadly first step, Gordon has perfected his jab-step blow-by on both the left and right sides, torching defenders with an array of pull-ups and
finishes in the lane. While he can surely still shoot the three (36.7 percent), he is for the first time using it as a real threat to then attack the basket. Defenders have always honored his three-point ability, but this season, Gordon has been much more aggressive in his offensive approach. His 6.4 free throw attempts per game are easily a career high, and one of the highest clips for any shooting guard in the league. All in all, this has helped him become one of the truly premier scorers in the game. His 22.5 average would be good enough for 12th in the NBA (tied with teammate Blake Griffin), but a re-aggravated injury to his right wrist kept him out too many games. Better yet, Gordon is a clutch scorer too. According to 82games.com, he ranks 12th in clutch scoring, ahead of better known stars such as Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Since he is getting into the lane more, Gordon has been able to be a better play-maker for others. His 4.3 assists per game (up from three per game), is more than respectable for a shooting guard, and he displays an unusual selflessness for such a young and gifted scorer. He is also a highly committed and effective defender, who -- despite lacking size for his position -- hounds the opposition with his bruising strength and ace footwork. If it weren’t for the unprecedented improvement by Love, Gordon would be my pick for Most Improved.
3). LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland) – Aldridge has always been a superior talent. He showed glimpses of it at Texas and more throughout his first few years in the NBA. A good athlete with terrific length, he relies on a Kevin Garnett-quality jumper with range out to 18 feet. The problem with Aldridge was that, until this season, he relied so much on his face-up, high post game that he rarely worked the low block. In a way, his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness.
Still just 25 years old, the 6-foot-11-inch pivot has now become a dedicated low post scorer and rebounder for the first time. He still needs to become more of a defensive stopper (1.2 blocks are an improvement but still average), but with devastating injuries to teammates Brandon Roy and Marcus Camby, Aldridge's career highs of 21.9 points and 8.6 rebounds have been a revelation for playoff-bound Portland.
Beyond the numbers though, it’s the style in which Aldridge is playing with that’s so striking. He displays remarkable composure in the post, rarely turning the ball over and always evaluating the defense. His post up game, on either block, is quickly becoming one of the most lethal in the game. Instead of settling for the high post jumper or even the turnaround, Aldridge has used his increased bulk and superb footwork to bully his way into the paint, shooting a career-best 5.6 free throws per game, or 1.5 more than last season. He has a reliable left hand and a barrage of moves down low that could soon make him a perennial All-Star.