The Most Valuable Player Award is the most fun to debate, the Rookie of the Year is the most fun to choose, the Sixth Man of the Year is the most rewarding to hand out, but for some reason the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is nearly “taboo”. CBS’ Matt Moore recently wrote a great article on why that is, but basically it comes down to how you define “improvement”. How do you take scheme changes, personnel changes, and other factors into account when determining how much a player has improved? More than any other award, the MIP is a crapshoot among NBA analysts.
But let’s be real here. If the season were to end now, Jrue Holiday should run away with the award. No offense to guys like Blake Griffin, Greivis Vasquez, and Kemba Walker, who’ve all become much better players this season, but Holiday has gone from a decent starter with potential to one of the top guards in the league.
Let’s look at the numbers: Last year Holiday averaged 13.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 43.2% from the field. Those are good enough numbers for a decent starter on a low playoff seed.
This year, however, has been completely different. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game. He’s also shooting 46.3% from the field and has nearly doubled his daily output from the free throw line. That’s a 43.7% increase in scoring, a 27.3% increase in rebounding, a 97.8% increase in assists and a 3.1% increase in FG percentage. Talk about improvement.
“It’s just because of an increase in minutes, right?” you ask. Wrong. He’s only averaged 38.4 minutes per game this year, up just 4.6 from last year. That’s only a 13.6% increase. That means that he truly has improved statistically across the board beyond his minute increase. In short, he’s much more efficient now than he was last year.
But it’s not just the statistics. The improvement is visible as well.
Let’s start with the offense. He’s flourished as the team’s primary ball-handler, making smart passes and taking good shots. Last year, when he didn’t have the ball in his hands as often, he would try to force things inside or try to do too much himself. This year he’s been able to create good scoring chances for his teammates by forcing the defense to collapse in on him which has allowed him to kick it out to his teammates on many an occasion. In fact, if it weren’t for his teammates’ shooting struggles, he might be averaging over 10 assists per game.
He’s also become a much better jump shooter, which has helped his game a lot. You saw the improvement in field goal shooting percentage above, and a lot of that has to do with his ability to hit mid-range jumpers in Doug Collins’ scheme, which is all about the mid-range jumper. He, however, has been one of the few Sixers who hasn’t gotten caught up in the mid-range game, still taking open three-pointers and getting to the basket with consistency.
Now, detractors attest this offensive improvement to the trade of Andre Iguodala, which forced Doug Collins to make Holiday his main offensive facilitator. A bigger role equals better numbers, you say. He’s not a better player, he’s just a higher-volume guy, you say. Well, I already pointed out the irrelevant nature of his minutes increase, but the fact that he gets more touches per possession is an important one. Yet, there is a simple answer: not every player shines when the spotlight is on him, and given the keys to the Sixers franchise, Jrue Holiday has been stellar. That, in and of itself, is a tremendous change from last year.
Holiday has also improved drastically when it comes to his defense. Last year, most Sixers fans complained about Holiday getting shredded by the league’s elite point guards, namely Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, even Chris Paul when he came to town. Holiday didn’t have the footwork to stay with them on the drive or the presence to contest all jump shots, which meant he was giving up 25-30 points every single night.
Now, things are different. Just lately, he’s defended some solid point guards, including John Wall, and Jason Kidd. He limited those two to a combined 9 points and 6 assists in 47 minutes. He’s simply become a better on-the-ball defender, forcing opposing guards to use screens and pick-and-rolls/pops more often than last year.
So, in reality, this race isn’t really a close one. Jrue Holiday has made the most meaningful, and in fact the largest, improvement of any player in the league, going from a mid-level starter with potential to one of the game’s elite point guards. With Rajon Rondo out of the picture, a very good argument can be made that Holiday is a top five player at the position. And without him, these Sixers might have 12 or 13 wins rather than 20.