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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.”

Did JaVale McGee feign injury to set up open dunk? (video)

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I’m extremely reluctant to accuse anyone of faking an injury, but…

1. It’s JaVale McGee, who has a history of antics.

2. There’s no obvious cause of an injury.

3. McGee recovered incredibly quickly.

If he weren’t actually hurt, this was an illegal play by McGee. Healthy offensive players can’t run off the court like that. The penalty is loss of ball, but I don’t envy officials who had to determine whether the injury was real.

It’s also inconclusive whether McGee established himself in-bounds before catching the pass it. It’s close.

Another debatable point if McGee did this deliberately: Did he waste a clever play in the preseason? Even a sharp defender, Draymond Green, understandably lost track of McGee once McGee limped off. Or was the preseason the only time to have fun like this?

What is clear: The Lakers had another nifty play in their exhibition win over the Warriors last night. LeBron James switched hands mid-air to throw a kickout pass to a wide-open Danny Green:

Rookie of the Year predictions: Can anyone beat out Zion Williamson?

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With the start of the NBA season just more than a week away — it’s predictions time. We’ll be covering most of the postseason awards between now and the opening tip of the NBA season.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks. Today…

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans). This is the obvious pick, but it’s also the only logical one. The guy scored 55 points on 71 percent shooting across two preseason games already, and defenses aren’t sure how to stop him. Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete who will put together a lengthy highlight reel of dunks this season (with Lonzo Ball throwing him some insane alley-oops), but he can do much more than that and will show it as the season wears on. Plus, he has a strong team around him, which makes him even more of a lock for this award. What will be interesting is to see who else is on the ballot at the end of the season (voters have to rank three guys). Ja Morant is going to have the ball in his hands and plenty of opportunities in Memphis. RJ Barrett will get touches in New York. Will Tyler Herro‘s impressive play this preseason carry over. Can Coby White in Chicago or Rui Hachimura in Washington force their way into the conversation? The race for second may be far more interesting than who wins.

Dan Feldman: Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans).  Unlike most preseason award picks, I’m not just taking Williamson as the single most likely winner. I’ll take him over the field. He enters the race with the most hype, and he has the talent to back it up. He’s far more than just a dunker. At Duke, he showed he could translate his athleticism to production. That should continue with the Pelicans

Dane Delgado: Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans). Anyone picking against Zion Williamson must be hoping for some kind of catastrophic injury to befall the New Orleans Pelicans star. And he is already a star, by the way. Preseason statistics aside, Williamson is an electrifying player who will have the kind of narrative and media coverage necessary to make a successful and relatively easy Rookie of the Year campaign happen in 2020. He may not be a shooter just yet, but Williamson will buck the trend in NBA stars having to have a 3-point shot to garner serious attention. It’s already here, and there’s nothing Ja Morant or RJ Barrett can do about it. New Orleans won’t have to make the playoffs in order for Williamson to win the ROY, and if they’re a postseason entrant there’s no chance for anyone else.

Bradley Beal signing two-year, $71,764,428 contract extension (player option) with Wizards

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Good thing the Wizards didn’t trade Bradley Beal, as some moron suggested they should have.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal has agreed to extend his deal for two years on a $72 million maximum contract, agent Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports told ESPN on Thursday morning.

Beal’s extension, which begins with the 2021-22 season, includes a player option for 2022-23

Beal’s contract terms (extension terms bolded):

  • 2019-20: $27,093,018
  • 2020-21: $28,751,774
  • 2021-22: $34,502,129
  • 2022-23: $37,262,299 (player option)

What Beal loses with this extension:

  • A chance to hit 2021 free agency, when his projected max starting salary would’ve been $38 million
  • A chance to trigger super-max eligibility by making an All-NBA team this season or next, which would’ve increased his max salary in 2021-22 to $44 million
  • The ability to get traded this season

What Beal gains with this extension:

  • A guaranteed $71,764,428

That security obviously mattered greatly to Beal. I’m genuinely shocked he’s signing this extension. He’s an excellent 26-year-old wing who has stayed healthy the last few years. Bigger offers likely awaited if he played out his current contract. But an extension now was the only way to lock in major money.

Beal certainly plans to opt out in 2022. His $37,262,299 player option is just a hedge against something going wrong. If he opts out, his max in 2022 projects to be about about $47 million.

Projecting max salaries that far out is difficult. Consider that a rough estimate.

What’s clear: In 2022, Beal will have 10 years of experience and therefore qualify for the highest max tier (35% of the salary cap). The super max is also for 35% of the salary cap (for players with eight or nine years of experience, who can typically receive just 30% of the salary cap).

So, Beal is positioning himself to sign for a 35%-max contract on his next deal – just as he would’ve been without this extension.

The big differences: He’ll have no chance of getting the 35% max a year earlier through the super max, and he’ll be aiming to sign it at age 29 rather than age 27 or 28. The older he is, the less likely someone gives Beal a huge long-term deal.

For the Wizards, this is a coup. They secure their best player at less than his likely market value. It’s for only one more year, but they need all the time they can get to build a winner around him.

Washington remains in rough shape, yet another reason Beal signing this extension is so surprising. But he has touted his loyalty to the Wizards. He’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Of course, this doesn’t get Washington out of the woods. Beal alone can’t lift the team from the cellar. The clock is now ticking toward 2022 free agency.

But this gives the Wizards more runway. They have three years to build an appealing supporting cast. Heck, if it comes to it, they could even trade Beal as soon as this offseason. He’ll hold much more value with two years, rather than one year, remaining on his contract.

Washington ought to be thrilled with this extension. If Beal is also happy with it, good for him.

With fantasy basketball season about to start, time to get Rotoworld Draft Guide

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Winning is far more fun than losing.

In the case of fantasy sports, it’s also far more profitable. Plus you get bragging rights, which is almost as good as the cash. Almost.

When the NBA tips off next Tuesday, so does fantasy basketball season. If you want to dominate your league, or be ready for daily fantasy leagues, or you’re just a hoops junkie happy to read lengthy breakdowns of players, then you need the Rotoworld Draft Guide. Or, better yet, the entire season pass.

Right now, you can get all of that at a discount.

It’s an investment that will have you ready for fantasy basketball season.

If you’re looking for a way to brush up on top picks during your commute or time on the elliptical at the gym, check out the PBT Podcast below where Tommy Beer joins me to talk top picks, sleepers, and guys to avoid.