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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.”

LeBron James’ voting rights group converting arenas into polling places

LeBron James Orlando
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ATLANTA (AP) — If basketball icon LeBron James gets his way, NBA arenas and other sports venues around the country will be mega polling sites for the November general election.

James and his voting rights group, formed this spring with other black athletes and entertainers, are joining with other professional basketball leaders and Michigan’s top elections official to push for mega voting sites to accommodate in-person balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Than A Vote, the James organization dedicated to maximizing Black turnout in November, shared its plans with The Associated Press on Wednesday after the Detroit Pistons became the second NBA franchise to announce plans to use its arena for voting later this year. In Georgia, Fulton County elections officials this week approved the Atlanta Hawks’ proposal to use State Farm Arena as a polling site. Plans call for the arena to serve as a countywide early voting site ahead of Election Day.

The idea, which comes after Kentucky used large facilities in its June 23 primary, is to use large spaces that allow for in-person voting while still enforcing social distancing guidelines. It also underscores the attention on the mechanics of voting amid the pandemic, with the intensity already reflected in both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden warning that state and local officials have the power to “corrupt” the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called her “partnership” with the Pistons an “blueprint for other teams and leagues seeking to advance our common goal of protecting access to the vote for all.”

Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said the arrangement in his city ensures “high turnout” in a safe environment. Benson, Pierce and David Fizdale, former New York Knicks head coach, will advise NBA franchises and arena management entities around the country on how to replicate the existing deals.

The Milwaukee Bucks also confirmed they are willing to use their home arena as a voting site in the most populous city in the key battleground of Wisconsin.

The coordinated push is a turnabout, of sorts, in the often-partisan jousting over voting procedures.

Some Democrats panned Kentucky elections officials for limiting in-person June primary voting in the state’s two most populous counties to Louisville’s Exposition Center and the University of Kentucky football stadium in Lexington. Voting rights advocates argued in federal court that the plan, part of culling voting sites statewide amid coronavirus concerns, would harm minority voters.

A federal judge rejected their claims, and voting proceeded without the melee that some advocates had forecast.

Now, Benson, a Democrat, is pushing the arena model not as an example of potential voter suppression, but a way to fight it. “One of our greatest challenges in protecting voters’ access to democracy this November is identifying accessible locations where citizens can safely vote in person,” she said.

Amid COVID, that could outweigh potential logistical difficulties of large sites. Lines for such venues can still be long — just as with normal polling locations — as was seen in Lexington at some points on primary day. Voters also could face traffic jams or public transit hiccups given the number of people involved. General elections also have considerably larger turnout than primaries.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing bipartisan push for large-venue voting. NFL executive Scott Pioli last week presented the National Association of Secretaries of State a plan for widespread use of professional and college sports facilities.

James’ group is officially nonpartisan. But the NBA star has been open about its emphasis on the Black community, where Trump faces intense opposition for his white identity politics. James has not endorsed Biden, but he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Bucks owners, the Lasry family, are major Democratic Party donors. Bucks executive Alex Lasry helped lead the effort that landed the Democratic National Convention in the city.

Missouri man freed from prison with help from WNBA’s Moore

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A Missouri man was freed from prison Wednesday after a county prosecutor declined to retry his case, punctuating years of work by WNBA star Maya Moore and other supporters who argued he was falsely convicted of burglary and assault charges.

Moore was on hand when Jonathan Irons, 40, walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. She clapped as Irons approached a group of people waiting for his release. She then dropped to her knees at one point before joining a group hug around Irons.

He had been serving a 50-year prison sentence stemming from the non-fatal shooting of a homeowner in the St. Louis area when Irons was 16. But a judge threw out his convictions in March, citing a series of problems with the case, including a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons’ defense team, according to The New York Times.

The Missouri attorney general’s office unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision, and the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County decided against a retrial.

Moore and Irons became friends after meeting through prison ministry, according to the Times. The 31-year-old Moore, a Jefferson City, Missouri, native who starred at UConn before helping lead Minnesota to four WNBA titles, put her career on hold last season to help Irons.

Moore said in January she planned to sit out a second season and miss the Tokyo Olympics. After Irons’ convictions were thrown out in March, she told the AP her plans hadn’t changed.

“’My decision to take another year was bigger than this case,” she said at the time. “But obviously this case was in the forefront of my mind. I’m looking forward when this is done to finally getting some rest and time with my family.”

Adam Silver: Restart broadcasts may need delay to keep cussing off air

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NBA players trash talk and swear more during a game than a Samuel L. Jackson character.

That’s not exactly insider knowledge. However, most of what is said is covered up by the ambient crowd noise and in-arena music at a traditional game. Nobody at home can hear Patrick Beverley‘s stream of consciousness.

But what is going to happen at the NBA’s restart in Orlando? With no crowds and less noise, and courtside microphones can pick up everything. Including language some fans may not want to be brought into their homes.

This is why the league many need a broadcast delay — similar to the seven-second delay used on some live broadcasts — so it can drop any offensive language, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Time 100 interview.

“I think often players, they understand when they’re on the floor, they’re saying certain things to each other because it’s so loud in the arena, they know a lot of it is not being picked up. They may have to adapt their language a little bit knowing what they say will likely be picked up by microphones and in all seriousness, we may need to put a little bit of a delay.”

One solution would be to have a live stream available to fans where nothing is dropped. There are those of us — hard-core NBA fans — who want to hear the trash talk, want to listen to the coaches call out the play as the defenders call out what is coming and talk about set picks, etc. We all what to hear what LeBron James is going to say to J.R. Smith on the court. That should be available to fans, along with the video game look and other customizable streams.

The league may have fan’s faces on video boards around the court and music pumped in, but this is just not going to look and feel the same. There may need to be a delay to keep some of the language off the air (that happens at sporting events anyway), but it would be fun to give the viewers the option, as ESPN did with The Last Dance.

Report: Rockets signing Luc Mbah a Moute

Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute
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Rockets forward Thabo Sefolosha is sitting out the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Enter Luc Mbah a Moute.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like Sefolosha, Mbah a Moute is a versatile defensive forward who can make open 3-pointers and fits well into Houston’s system.

In theory.

Mbah a Moute, who played well for the Rockets in 2017-18, looked like a major loss when he left for the Clippers in 2018. But he has struggled to stay healthy. He hasn’t played in the NBA since October 2018. Houston worked out the 33-year-old in March – and didn’t sign him. That’s telling.

Expect Mbah a Moute to fall behind Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll and Danuel House on the Rockets’ depth chart. It’d be a good outcome for Houston if Mbah a Moute helps in spot minutes.

But if Mbah a Moute proves to be effective in a Rockets uniform, that’d at least look quite natural. We’ve seen it before.