Can Paul George beat the odds as Most Improved Player?

Can Paul George beat the odds as Most Improved Player?
September 17, 2013, 2:15 pm
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Mark Strotman

By season's end Paul George was the surefire pick for the NBA's Most Improved Player award, receiving 52 of the 120 first-place votes and receiving 311 points, more than double New Orleans Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez, who earned 146 points to finish second. The numbers tell the story: His scoring jumped to 17.4 points per game, he grabbed 7.6 rebounds per game and nearly doubled his assists per game while, at age 22, leading the Pacers to a Central Division title. His 6.3 Defensive Win Shares led the league, too.

Those numbers made it easy to see why George won the MIP in 2013. But others numbers of past award winners also tell another story: George will have to beat some pretty large odds not to suffer a regression in 2013.

The criteria for winning the Most Improved Player award isn't all that difficult to understand: Find a player who was a relative unknown with marginal stats prior to winning the award and then exploded onto the scene with All-Star-like numbers while, more times than not, improving the quality of their team as a whole. In 2012 George wasn't a poor player by any stretch and, at 21 years old, his 12.1 points and 5.6 rebounds as a starter suggested he would improve, perhaps to the aforementioned All-Star status. And that happened this past season. He continued to grow, both literally and metaphorically, had a full season as a starter with playoff experience to his name and was playing around solid talent (talent that almost knocked the Heat out of the playoffs).

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But now George won't be flying under any radars, if he was at all in 2013. Even with Danny Granger's return to the lineup, teams will be keying in on George every night, making his job more difficult. And that tends to be the theme recently of players who win the award and face large expectations, a bigger role and steeper competition.

For the last 10 seasons, only two players have put together better seasons, based on PER, the year after they won the award than the year they won it. After winning the award in 2007, Monta Ellis increased his scoring nearly four points per game, averaged more rebounds, shot a remarkable 53.1 percent from the field and lowered his turnovers to an impressive 2.1 per game. Four years later Kevin Love, on the heels of his first All-Star game appearance, dominated "the year after," averaging 26.0 points on 45 percent shooting and 13.3 rebounds.

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Other than those two, though, the results were less than stellar for the other seven players, who regressed the year after being named most improved in the league:

Year Player PER year of award PER year after
2003 Gilbert Arenas 18.6 16.0
2004 Zach Randolph 19.6 18.6
2005 Bobby Simmons 16.1 13.8
2006 Boris Diaw 17.3 13.0
2007 Monta Ellis 15.0 19.0
2008 Hedo Turkoglu 17.8 14.8
2009 Danny Granger 21.8 19.8
2010 Aaron Brooks 16.0 13.1
2011 Kevin Love 24.3 25.4*
2012 Ryan Anderson 21.2 18.1
2013 Paul George 16.8 ??

If Win Shares are more your cup of tea — that is, less individual and more how much or little each player directly affected his team's record — here's how the numbers break down:

Year Player WS year of award WS year after
2003 Gilbert Arenas 6.5 2.6
2004 Zach Randolph 7.1 3.1
2005 Bobby Simmons 6.8 5.3
2006 Boris Diaw 8.9 4.6
2007 Monta Ellis 4.0 9.0
2008 Hedo Turkoglu 9.0 7.3
2009 Danny Granger 8.0 6.2
2010 Aaron Brooks 5.5 1.1
2011 Kevin Love 11.4 10.0
2012 Ryan Anderson 8.9 6.5
2013 Paul George 9.0 ??

In this scenario, only Ellis — who exploded — in 2008 accumulated more Win Shares the year after his Most Improved Player award the year after than he did the year he won. Love's Timberwolves won nine more games but he was less efficient from the field.

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So what does this say about George? It's hard to imagine him regressing after the performance he put on in last year's playoffs, averaging 19.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 19 games while going toe-to-toe with LeBron James and coming one game away from knocking the Heat out and advancing to the Finals. He'll enter the 2014 NBA season with plenty of momentum, a rock-sold core around him and plenty of upside. Not including George, the last 10 award winners were between 21 (Arenas) and 28 (Turkoglu) years old, with an average age of 23.4, so George currently being 22 years old doesn't mean his age will be a factor.

What's more likely is that an adjustment process is necessary after winning such a prestigious award. Outside of Arenas in 2004, Randolph in 2005 and Brooks in 2011, the award winners had above-average seasons the following year, so it's not as if to say those players regressed in talent as much as they regressed to the mean of their eventual career averages. After all, winning the Most Improved Player means putting up noticeably improved numbers, sometimes having an "outlier" of a season in terms of career numbers.

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With just about everyone from last year's team returning, as well as the additions of Granger (knee surgery) and Luis Scola (free agency), the Pacers don't necessarily need George to be better than he was last year to be a successful team. Still, seeing as he'll be the primary scorer and the go-to defender on a nightly basis, he projects more towards what Ellis and Love were able to do rather than a Bobby Simmons or Hedo Turkoglu.

Whether that's enough for the Pacers to retain their crown as the Central Division champions remains to be seen, but expectations have been set for George and he'll need to rise to the occasion to avoid the downfall that sometimes occurs after being named most improved.