Posted April 15, 2013

The Case For: Jrue Holiday as Most Improved Player

Award watch, Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers, Rob Mahoney
Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday has carried the Sixers’ offense this season. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we’re taking a closer look at each award race. We’ve already hit on the Sixth Man Award. Here, Rob Mahoney examines the race for the Most Improved Player.

Pardon me for being predictable, but I’ve cycled through the wealth of choice candidates for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and can find none more deserving than Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday.

Admittedly, I draw that conclusion with some reluctance. I left Holiday off my midseason MIP ballot because I felt his growth had more to do with a shift in his on-court responsibilities than his fundamental ability, and, to some extent, I still feel that’s true. But I’ve come to better appreciate what Holiday has brought to this season aside from claiming a larger share of Philadelphia’s playmaking burden. That may be an odd progression for me to make as Holiday has unraveled a bit down the stretch, but I just can’t overlook his overall development as a ball handler and the increasing sophistication of his playmaking approach.

As of last year, Holiday was an average passer with a dialed-down offensive game — patient bordering on passive. He would float around the top of the floor with a live dribble, surveying the defense without really probing it, and generally opt for a basic feed to a teammate hovering or curling into a mid-range jumper. It would be a stretch to say that the Sixers were a crummy offensive team because of those tendencies, but Holiday’s knack for settling as both a scorer and playmaker did Philadelphia’s limited offense no favors.

This season has provided an immediately discernible contrast. With no Andre Iguodala around to pick up stray possessions or facilitate plays in progress, much of the offense begins with Holiday. That in itself makes him a more valuable player, but it’s the way that Holiday has adjusted his game that warrants an award like this one. His game is still informed by the same steady rhythm, but this year that patience breeds greater opportunity because of his widened field of vision. He’s not looking to make a certain pass to a certain teammate, but actually reading the court — and reading back-line defenders — to set up teammates in the best possible spots.

Though he may not have the speed of some of the NBA’s most explosive ball handlers, Holiday has dramatically improved his ability to navigate traffic in the lane (a valuable skill in a pack-the-paint league) and has learned to use his length and size more effectively as a scorer. He’s making roughly three percent more of his shot attempts around the basket, according to NBA.com, and increasing the pressure on the defense with his assertiveness off the dribble. A physically overmatched guard is no longer enough to contain him; opponents have to dedicate their full attention to Holiday as he slinks through the paint and deal with every twist and turn of his drives as he courses toward the rim.

That’s a dramatic turn for a guard who played it surprisingly safe with his drives a season ago, and it’s enabled Holiday to attract extra defensive attention and set up teammates for easy scores. According to Hoopdata, he has assisted on a career-high three baskets per game at the rim this season (a higher mark than that of Tony Parker and LeBron James, among many, many others) despite the Sixers’ bogged-down style. He is also setting up an even more impressive 2.1 three-pointers for a team that ranks 24th in three-point attempts. Both marks put Holiday well near the top of the league, making it all the more unfortunate that the Sixers didn’t have better luck with injuries (and more help for Holiday).

Holiday redeems what he can from every possession. He is posting clear career highs in scoring (17.9 points) and assists (8.3 per game with a career-best 37.2 assist percentage) while maintaining his shooting percentages in the face of an amped-up role and mounting defensive pressure. He could still stand to be more choosy with his shots at times, but Holiday’s accuracy as a spot-up shooter (he makes an impressive 50 percent of his spot-up three-pointers) suggests that his shooting marks would be significantly higher if he had the benefit of more shot-creating talent around him. Andrew Bynum’s absence clearly robbed Holiday of that opportunity, but in its place came the chance to fully showcase the leaps he’s made as a player.

Here’s my full fake ballot for the Most Improved Player award:

1. Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

See above.

2. Greivis Vasquez, New Orleans Hornets

The third-year player has evolved from a shaky reserve into a sturdy lead guard. He ranks second in assist percentage, behind Chris Paul. It’s been a weird season for the Hornets, who have been without Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon a lot. But Vasquez has kept New Orleans’ offense humming at a league-average level — an impressive accomplishment considering the lottery-level personnel otherwise involved. He may not be much of a defender, but Vasquez is an incredibly viable playmaker with good instincts and a developing scoring game. That he’s 26 — and thus a bit less likely to make this kind of jump — is even further fuel for his compelling candidacy.

3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

If the ascent from star to superstar is difficult, then the transition from superstar to whatever astounding summit Durant is nearing must be even more so. KD was already the definitive second-best player in the league, but over the course of this season he hasn’t just kept pace with LeBron James’ own improvements — he’s actually closed the gap. The Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden put Durant in a position to create more plays and generally work in a different capacity, and he’s responded to that shift by posting career-high assist numbers, cutting his turnover rate ever so slightly and mounting an astounding 40-50-90 shooting season. Those may seem like relatively minor gains for a player who was already so good, but Durant has fleshed out his game and bolstered his efficiency to a truly magnificent degree.

6 comments
jared peyton
jared peyton

Paul George? From secondary scorer to primary score lead defender and All-star.

SteveFranz
SteveFranz

Larry Sanders. Far and away. A jump from 3.6 PPG to 9.8 (270% increase). A jump of 3.1 RPG to 9.5 (306% increase). A jump of 1.5 BPG to 2.8, second in the league (he was averaging over 3 BPG for most of the season). A jump in minutes from 12.4 to over 27. A jump in FG% from 46 to 51. A jump in FT% from 47% to 62%.

These are all one-season leaps.

He is also the league's best interior defender, with metrics to justify the assertion. Nobody affects the paint on defense more than Larry Sanders while he's on the floor: http://www.bucksketball.com/2013/02/larry-sanders-is-the-best-according-to-science-2/

He has over 500 more rebounds this season than last season. Almost 130 more blocks. And he has the highest player efficiency rating (18.8) on his entire team.

DavidosaurusCawston
DavidosaurusCawston

@SteveFranzAll those stats are somewhat dependent on "A jump in minutes from 12.4 to over 27" which is in fact and increase just below 300%. He has made big improvements but those stats do not point to MIP, just more minutes = more stats

JonCBK
JonCBK

How about Andray Blatche? He went from unplayable even for a bad team so much so that he was Amnestied, to a center that you can run your offense through and who rewards you with fairly efficient scoring and slightly above average rebounding.

jsteppling
jsteppling

KD? Come on.............maybe Faried.......larry sanders...........vasquez for sure.....Id even give a vote to david lee for improving his defense, at least until recently. Chandler parsons too an hon mention, and how about Javale McGhee.....from punch line to serious contributor on contending team.