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Stephen Curry: From Most Valuable Player to Most Improved Player?

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Stephen Curry walked into the Warriors’ locker room in Cleveland clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy, squinting to keep the champagne from falling into his eyes. He was atop his sport – NBA champion and Most Valuable Player.

“We’ve got to celebrate this trophy,” Curry declared at Golden State’s championship parade a few days later, “like there’s no tomorrow.”

Of course, Curry did nothing of the sort.

He stayed hungry, worked hard and got even better.

Curry returns to Cleveland for tonight’s Cavaliers-Warriors game carrying MVP frontrunner status and the league’s most bizarre Most Improved Player case – maybe ever.

His points per game (23.8 to 29.9), 2-point percentage (52.8% to 57.8%), 3-point percentage (44.3% to 44.7%), rebounds per game (4.3 to 5.3) and steals per game (2.0 to 2.1) are all up from last season.

From MVP to MIP one year later – could it really happen?

“Yeah, why not?” said Golden State forward Draymond Green, who immediately answered his own question. “I mean, it’s weird.”

Yes, it is.

Just four players have received an MIP vote after winning MVP:

  • Bill Walton won MVP in 1978 then missed substantial time over the next several years, including three full seasons. He emerged as Sixth Man of the Year with the Celtics in 1986, also getting one MIP vote that year. He was a much better fit for the now-defunct Comeback Player of the Year, an award that caused confusion with MIP.
  • Karl Malone won MVP in 1997 and received an extremely curious MIP vote the next year. There’s no good reason to believe he improved significantly from age 33 to 34, let alone more than anyone else in the NBA.
  • Shaquille O’Neal, the 2000 MVP, drew a first-place MIP vote in 2005. He had the best field-goal percentage of his career to that point, 60.1%. But that was only slightly better than the 59.9% he shot in his second season, and the gain was due to becoming more selective than actual improvement. Shaq didn’t suddenly become better at age 32.
  • LeBron James – who won MVP in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 – received a second-place MIP vote from Michael Smith of Prime Ticket in 2014. Smith’s first- and third-place MIP votes in 2014? Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Yup, Smith mistakenly put his MVP picks on his MIP ballot.

I’d hardly be surprised if Malone’s and O’Neal’s votes were due to similar errors – or just voters honoring a player they liked. Before the NBA began releasing voter-by-voter ballots two years ago, there was far less accountability.

Curry, on the other hand, actually deserves consideration.

Despite a quicker trigger on 3-pointers, Curry is making them at a higher clip. He’s getting to the rim more, finishing better and drawing more fouls. He’s hitting the defensive glass harder, helping the Warriors transition to offense more quickly.

Curry has taken a couple small steps back. His defense isn’t quite as sharp, and he’s not facilitating as much. But in turn with hunting his own shot more often, Curry has lowered his turnover percentage. And individual offense is more important than individual defense, given a greater emphasis on team defense.

“He’s better,” Warriors acting coach Luke Walton said. “I don’t know how to put that on a scale, but he’s definitely playing at a higher level.

“I think that comes from gaining even more confidence from winning a championship and winning an MVP and then putting in the hard work along with that.”

This degree of improvement from a reigning MVP is unprecedented.

Curry has increased his PER from 28.0 last season to 31.7 this season. His jump of 3.7 from an MVP year is the most ever – trumping Larry Bird’s +2.3 after winning MVP in 1984.

Here’s the PER difference for every MVP from their MVP season to the following year:

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MVP PER PER next season Difference
2015: Stephen Curry 28.0 31.7 +3.7
1984: Larry Bird 24.2 26.5 +2.3
1992: Michael Jordan 27.7 29.7 +2.0
1974: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 24.4 26.4 +2.0
1999: Karl Malone 25.6 27.1 +1.5
1977: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 27.8 29.2 +1.4
2005: Steve Nash 22.0 23.3 +1.3
1961: Bill Russell 18.1 19.4 +1.3
1963: Bill Russell 18.2 19.3 +1.1
2012: LeBron James 30.7 31.6 +0.9
1971: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 29.0 29.9 +0.9
1986: Larry Bird 25.6 26.4 +0.8
1981: Julius Erving 25.1 25.9 +0.8
1956: Bob Pettit 27.3 28.1 +0.8
1994: Hakeem Olajuwon 25.3 26.0 +0.7
1976: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 27.2 27.8 +0.6
2006: Steve Nash 23.3 23.8 +0.5
1979: Moses Malone 23.7 24.1 +0.4
1995: David Robinson 29.1 29.4 +0.3
2008: Kobe Bryant 24.2 24.4 +0.2
2003: Tim Duncan 26.9 27.1 +0.2
1980: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 25.3 25.5 +0.2
2002: Tim Duncan 27.0 26.9 -0.1
1960: Wilt Chamberlain 28.0 27.8 -0.2
1989: Magic Johnson 26.9 26.6 -0.3
1969: Wes Unseld 18.1 17.8 -0.3
2000: Shaquille O’Neal 30.6 30.2 -0.4
2011: Derrick Rose 23.5 23.0 -0.5
2009: LeBron James 31.7 31.1 -0.6
1988: Michael Jordan 31.7 31.1 -0.6
1985: Larry Bird 26.5 25.6 -0.9
1964: Oscar Robertson 27.6 26.7 -0.9
1997: Karl Malone 28.9 27.9 -1.0
1970: Willis Reed 20.3 19.3 -1.0
2004: Kevin Garnett 29.4 28.2 -1.2
1962: Bill Russell 19.4 18.2 -1.2
1972: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 29.9 28.5 -1.4
1990: Magic Johnson 26.6 25.1 -1.5
1973: Dave Cowens 18.1 16.6 -1.5
1996: Michael Jordan 29.4 27.8 -1.6
1982: Moses Malone 26.8 25.1 -1.7
1967: Wilt Chamberlain 26.5 24.7 -1.8
1966: Wilt Chamberlain 28.3 26.5 -1.8
2001: Allen Iverson 24.0 21.9 -2.1
1958: Bill Russell 22.8 20.7 -2.1
2014: Kevin Durant 29.8 27.6 -2.2
1965: Bill Russell 19.5 17.3 -2.2
2013: LeBron James 31.6 29.3 -2.3
1975: Bob McAdoo 25.8 23.3 -2.5
1968: Wilt Chamberlain 24.7 21.9 -2.8
2007: Dirk Nowitzki 27.6 24.6 -3.0
1993: Charles Barkley 25.9 22.8 -3.1
1957: Bob Cousy 21.0 17.9 -3.1
1983: Moses Malone 25.1 21.8 -3.3
2010: LeBron James 31.1 27.3 -3.8
1991: Michael Jordan 31.6 27.7 -3.9
1987: Magic Johnson 27.0 23.1 -3.9
1959: Bob Pettit 28.2 23.7 -4.5
1998: Michael Jordan 25.2 X X
1978: Bill Walton 24.8 X X

Two players – Bill Walton due to injury in 1978 and Michael Jordan due to retirement in 1998 – didn’t play the season after winning MVP.

Curry has gone from someone who had a great season to someone playing like an all-time great. Michael Jordan comparisons, at least offensively, are not out of line (even if Curry still falls short of that mighty standard).

Though a holistic view of Curry’s progress treats his MIP case favorably – even after the incredibly high bar he set for himself last season – voters often take a more simplistic view. Whose scoring average increased the most from the previous season? That question will send you in the direction of likely, though not necessarily deserving, MIP candidates.

Curry holds up reasonably well. His points-per-game increase of 6.1 ranks 12th in the NBA. Two players ahead of him, Paul George and Julius Randle, missed significant time last season due to injury, making their scoring bumps somewhat less telling.

Another factor that sets Curry apart: He started on a whole different level. Here are the 15 players who’ve increased their scoring averages most from last season, with the low end of the bar showing last season and the high end showing this season:

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Player PPG 2015 PPG 2016 Diff.
Paul George 8.8 24.0 +15.1
C.J. McCollum 6.8 20.4 +13.6
Will Barton 6.8 15.8 +8.9
Julius Randle 2.0 10.5 +8.5
Allen Crabbe 3.3 11.2 +7.9
Kent Bazemore 5.2 12.8 +7.6
Gary Harris 3.4 10.9 +7.4
Jae Crowder 7.7 14.6 +7.0
Otto Porter 6.0 12.5 +6.5
Nicolas Batum 9.4 15.7 +6.4
Danilo Gallinari 12.4 18.7 +6.2
Stephen Curry 23.8 29.9 +6.1
Raymond Felton 3.7 9.3 +5.6
Isaiah Thomas 16.4 21.8 +5.4
T.J. Warren 6.1 11.3 +5.2

It’s often said it’s harder to go from good to great than bad to good. But what about great to greater?

Just four players have EVER averaged as many points per game as Curry last season and increased their scoring average by so much the following year:

Player Years PPG first year PPG second year Diff.
Wilt Chamberlain 1961 to 1962 38.4 50.4 +12.0
Kobe Bryant 2005 to 2006 27.6 35.4 +7.8
Bernard King 1984 to 1985 26.3 32.9 +6.6
Tracy McGrady 2002 to 2003 25.6 32.1 +6.5
Stephen Curry 2015 to 2016 23.8 29.9 +6.1

Full disclosure: I didn’t pick Curry as my mid-season MIP. I took C.J. McCollum, and Lance Thomas and Reggie Jackson rounded out my mythical ballot.

Yet, I’m most fascinated by the candidacy of Curry, who made my short list.

We’ve never seen anything like this before. MVPs just don’t improve this much.

It’s hard to grasp.

I don’t think Curry will win MIP. But I think he’ll get more MIP votes after winning MVP than every other MVP combined. With Bill Walton, Malone, Shaq and LeBron getting one a piece, the bar is four.

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, when asked whether Curry had improved, shared a thought process I believe will be common with voters:

“Oh, I don’t know,” Van Gundy said. “That’s not even something I think about. He’s great. He was great last year. Is he better? I don’t know. He’s pretty damn good.”

We can all agree Curry is amazing. Why debate his level of improvement?

But there’s an award specifically dedicated to that. It’s incumbent on voters to consider Curry’s kooky case. Voters complain about this award more than any other. What does it mean? Who is it for?

It seems outlandish even to consider the reigning MVP.

But as Draymond Green said: “If you deserve it, you deserve it.”

Hornets’ rookie P.J. Washington out weeks with fractured little finger

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In what has been a disappointing rookie class so far, Charlotte appears to have a steal drafting P.J. Washington at No. 12. The power forward out of Kentucky has started every game for the Hornets this season and is loving the spacing in the NBA game, scoring efficiently in the paint while shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc on 3.4 attempts per game, plus is averaging 5.3 rebounds a game.

Now the Hornets are going to be without him, likely for a couple of weeks, due to a fractured fifth finger on his right hand (pinkie). He suffered it in the fourth quarter against Chicago Friday night.

While the Hornets officially only list him as out for Sunday against the Pacers, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports he’s going to be out through Christmas, which would mean at least five games.

Usually this would mean more minutes for Marvin Williams, but he is out with a sore right knee. Most likely, coach James Borego slides an undersized Miles Bridges over to the four — which had been the preseason plan until Washington surprised everyone — but he has a variety of small-ball players who likely will get a little run there.

The 12-16 Hornets are hanging around the playoff picture, just 1.5 games out of the eight seed (Orlando).

Watch Zach LaVine’s driving and-1 game-winner to lift Bulls past Clippers

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CHICAGO (AP) — After blowing several late leads to lose games, the Chicago Bulls were able to flip the script Saturday night.

Zach LaVine scored 31 points and converted a decisive three-point play in the Bulls’ 109-106 victory over the short-handed and weary Los Angeles Clippers.

Chicago trailed by five points with less than two minutes to go. Tied at 106, the Bulls inbounded with 5.4 seconds left. LaVine got the ball near the 3-point line, drove to his right and was fouled by Montrezl Harrell as he scored with 2 seconds left.

Paul George then missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“We made big plays,” LaVine said. “I think that’s what it comes down to, making plays.

“We’ve been playing good, but we just haven’t been able to get that win in the last two minutes, three minutes of the game. Hopefully, we can start stringing some together.”

Lauri Markkanen had 13 points and 17 rebounds, Thaddeus Young scored 17 points, and Denzel Valentine had 16 for the Bulls.

Harrell had 30 points and George had 27 for Los Angeles. The Clippers had won four in a row.

Besides playing for the third time in four days at the end of a six-game trip, the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard (injury management, left knee soreness), Lou Williams (right calf), Patrick Beverly (concussion) and JaMychal Green (tailbone contusion).

This was the eighth game Leonard has missed. He scored 42 points Friday night at Minnesota.

George was asked if the poor finish was a result of fatigue. “Not necessarily,” he said. “This isn’t new. We just got outplayed tonight.”

Los Angeles led by 15 points midway through the second quarter before Chicago closed the first half with a 19-6 run to pull to 57-55.

The Bulls continued the surge early in the third, scoring 17 straight points for a 75-61 lead. The 75 points were two more than Chicago scored Friday night in an 83-73 home loss to Charlotte.

The Clippers answered with a 12-1 run to trim the deficit to 76-73 and pulled to 81-79 in the final minute of the third on a three-point play by Harrell. LaVine then hit a 3-pointer to give Chicago an 84-79 lead entering the fourth.

In the final three minutes, George hit a pair of free throws to break a tie at 98 and Landry Shamet hit a 3-pointer for a 103-98 Clippers lead with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. With L.A. up by five a minute later, LaVine and Valentine hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions — sandwiched around one of two free throws by George — for a tie at 106 with 47.9 seconds left.

Blake Griffin does not play second half due to knee soreness; Pistons hang on to beat Rockets

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This summer, Blake Griffin had arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee, it cost him the first 10 games of the season.

Saturday night, Griffin sat the second half against the Rockets because that same knee is sore.

That’s concerning, although there have been no further reports on the severity of the issue. Griffin is averaging 17.4 points and 4.8 rebounds a game — both career lows — and remains the fulcrum of the Pistons offense.

Even without him and Andre Drummond, the Pistons held on to beat the Rockets 115-107, thanks to 12 points from Derrick Rose and 11 from Bruce Brown in the second half.

Luka Doncic leaves Mavericks game with sprained ankle, does not return

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It was just one of those flukey plays.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was driving to the rim when his right foot stepped on the side of the foot of Miami’s Kendrick Nunn, and Doncic’s ankle rolled pretty badly.

Fortunately, X-rays came back negative, but Doncic is not returning to the game.

It will be tomorrow morning before Dallas knows the severity of the injury and how long Doncic will be out, how his ankle responds to a night of treatment will determine a lot. There are good signs, with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reporting it is a moderate sprain.

In his second season, Doncic has exploded on the scene and played at an MVP level: 30.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game. He is, at age 20, as good as any pick-and-roll ball handler in the league, and is the engine for a Dallas offense that has been the best in the NBA this season. Dallas’ offense is 6.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

It goes without saying if he is out for an extended period that is terrible news for 17-7 Dallas, which currently sits third in the West.