With 20% of the season to judge, Who’s the Most Improved Player so far?

Justin Oppenheim
I know what you’re thinking: it’s Jimmy Butler. He’s the leading scorer on a star-laden Chicago Bulls team, he’s averaging almost nine more points per game than last year and he’s managed to increase both his usage and his efficiency against all measures AND he’s an all-around swell guy. But you’re wrong. It’s Brandon Knight.

While the rest of the Bucks are like the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Knight is the Tomorrowland Speedway. You don’t know what you’re going to get on a given night from most of the Bucks roster, and half the time you can’t even guess which direction whatever it is you do end up getting is going to come from. Knight is the exception, and he’s the reason Milwaukee has a winning record. While Giannis is doing Giannis things, and Jabari Parker is taking his lumps as a rookie, Knight never veers out of his lane. He’s the veteran leader of a reckless group despite only being in his fourth season, and he’s counted on to be the team’s sole consistent scorer.

Butler, Reggie Jackson, Evan Fournier and Jared Sullinger have all seen their numbers rise dramatically this season, no one in the league has matured as much as Knight. Having leadership thrust upon you not due to merit, but because no one else is capable of taking those reigns, is always a tricky thing. Knight has worn it well.

Jacob Noble
This has to be the hardest decision. Not because it is so early in the season and these improved players could fall off but because there are players improving in different ways. You have some players who have improved their efficiency, some have improved their passing or rebounding and some who have improved because they got more minutes. Below are some players who should be up for this award. The stats below are how much they improved, for example, Evan Fournier is averaging 7 points more per game this year than last.

Evan Fournier (7 pts, .9 ast, .2 stl, 3.6% FG, 6% 3PT)
Draymond Green (6.3 pts, 2.3 reb, 1 ast, 5.4% FG, 4.2% 3PG, 5.4% FT)
Anthony Davis (4.1 pts, 1.3 reb, .2 blk, .8 stl, 3.8% FG, 1.3% FT)
Brandon Knight (1 ast, 1.2 reb, .3 stl, 2.3% FG, 7% 3PG, 8.4% FT)
Derrick Favors (2.6 pts, .2 ast, 4.1% FG)
Courtney Lee (2.3 pts, .6 ast, .2 stl, 5.6% FG, 18.7% 3PG,)

As you can tell, a lot of competition for this award. I know people will want to look at Anthony Davis because of his MVP type season but the real most improved in my eyes belongs to Jimmy Butler.

Jimmy Butler (8.8 pts, .8 reb, .5 ast, 10.1% FG, 2.5% 3PG, 5.7% FT)

Butler has had to be the lead scorer for the Bulls when Rose is out, which ironically has still been more games than fans would have liked. Butler has improved his shooting by 10% and clearly showed his hard work over the summer paying off. Now in his third year, everyone around the league is taking notice.

Justin Salkin
DeMarcus Cousins. Anthony Davis is a great choice, and Brandon Knight a sneaky one, but I am thoroughly impressed with Cousins. I have always been one of Cousins’ largest detractors. He started his career as the classic malcontent, the classic player who has all the talent, but does not make the most of it, because his attitude gets in the way. Players like that often do not fulfill their potential, and bounce around the league. And even when they do find it, it usually occurs with their second, third, or fourth team, after they’ve given give up on and left to bounce around the league. Cousins this year? He has cleaned it up, and developed into a legitimate star player, not just star talent. His shot selection is better. He has evolved into a devastating offensive weapon, as opposed to a talent that floats through games. The Kings are also significantly better defensively when Cousins is on the court – Cousins was once a minus on that end. It seems clear that after some early bumps, Mike Malone has solidified himself as Sacramento’s coach and has rubbed off on Cousins. Most importantly for Cousins? He is leading and taking it upon himself to drag the Kings out of the lottery. He may not this year, but he has his Kings on the right track. His once panned 4 year, $62 million contract is now worth every penny.

James Holas
Their are plenty of players are having eyebrow raising years. Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic are all wrecking shop down in Orlando. The Bucks’ Brandon Knight is at damn near 17-5-5, which is leaps and bounds above his previous years. All pale in comparison to the stratosphere Jimmy Butler has reached. Jimmy Buckets is slapping up 21.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3 apg, and 1.5 stl/g, up across the board from last season’s unspectacular 13 ppg on sub-.400. Butler has vaulted himself into the “elite shooting guard” discussion.  The only players averaging at least 21 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 steals this year? James Harden and Jimmy Butler.

What are the Clippers missing in order to make the leap to the NBA Finals?

James Holas
A summer or two of rehab for the Clipper big men: they seem to simply not know how to really rebound. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are 2 of the most athletic bigs in the NBA, yet I’m not sure if they’re “doing the early work” to attack the boards effectively, it seems as if they’re content to out-jump the competition for boards in their area. Griffin in particular is worrisome: his 7.5 rpg is the lowest he’s averaged in his career. The Clips are dead last in offensive rebound percentage.

Surgically attach one 6’8″ long armed defender who can hit the corner 3 to the roster. Perry Jones: 32 points. Gordon Hayward: 57 points in 2 games. Kawhi Leonard: 26 points. Rudy Gay: 25 points. Mike Dunleavy: 19 points. This is a short list of wing players who go nuts against the Clippers’ weak perimeter defense. Doc Rivers can’t keep up the “Matt Barnes is a starter” charade much longer.

Take some sort of daily vitamin. At times, as cliche’ as it sounds, the Clippers seem to have gone Hollywood. Maybe the recent 6 game winning steak means they’ve vanquished this issue, but it seems like they think that by just showing up and being talented, the other team will be cowed into submission. Blake lacks the “oomph” of years past, shooting too many jumpers and not putting bigs on posters. Until Griffin comes out to dominate nightly and energizes this team, the Clips may be in trouble.

Jaime Oppenheim
The Clippers are a lot like the League Pass experience once you get past the first week of the season and it stops being free. You make your account, pay up, receive e-mail confirmation…and then it won’t let you log in. Or it lets you log in but none of the games will load. Everything’s in order but it refuses to work. And you can’t call up someone to complain because it’s the Clippers and no one cares. You’re stuck having to spend the night on Twitter, making inflammatory comments about Kobe so the stans can provide you with some form of evening NBA entertainment.

The Clippers have all the ingredients of a championship team: star players, multi-faceted role players, leadership and good coaching. For whatever reason, those ingredients don’t mesh into a championship combination once the playoffs roll around. While there is truth to the criticism they lack depth, I think the biggest issue has to do with chemistry.

Winning teams have fun and play hard for each other. From top to bottom, do you ever get the sense the Clippers feel that way about each other? They lack that joy and passion, and I’m not sure they’ll ever have it with CP3 and Blake leading the charge.

Justin Salkin
The main issue for the Clippers is they struggle defensively. The Clippers rank 15th defensively, squarely league average. For all the talk that the Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns did not guard anyone, they typically ranked right around there with historically good offenses and even that was not enough. The Clippers are obviously talented, but not record setting offense talented: their defense will not get it done. DeAndre Jordan still struggles defensively, the Clippers only slightly better on that end when he is on the court. Beyond that, the Clippers desperately need better wing play, where they sorely lack athleticism and production. Just looking at the other western conference contenders, they are all much stronger in that area. Having an elite defender like Trevor Ariza on the wing would balance the roster, and help a frontline that is not going to get the job done defensively without a better perimeter. The Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Rockets are off to elite starts defensively, and in a conference so fierce, merely putting up a bunch of points is not going to get it done. Doc Rivers came to Los Angeles with a reputation for being an elite defensive mind, but the Clippers are proving that you cannot be elite defensively without the talent on that end to do it. The Clippers are not full of one end players and many of their players have improved defensively, but are loaded with guys whose forte is scoring the basketball. The other issue not being discussed enough: Doc the GM has been inept, and has misused what little flexibility the Clippers have on players who do not solve these issues.

Jacob Noble
Honestly I don’t think the Clippers are missing anything. Everything from coach to their roster, the Clippers are contenders. If I had to pick one thing they lack, but it actually comes from their coach, is the knowledge of winning. What I mean by this is someone who knows what it takes to win. Everyone thinks they know what it takes to win but until you actually win and understand what is necessary to do that, you really don’t know. The Clippers have stars, role players and a deep bench but they don’t have anyone who has won. Chris Paul is one of the few superstars in the league who actually plays worse in the playoffs. Whether it’s the more physical style of game or that officials let the teams play more, Chris Paul has dropped in averages from regular season to post season. Outside of the Hornets taking the Spurs to 7 games with an inferior roster in 2008, Chris Paul has been a disappointing player in the post season. In order for the Clippers to make that hurdle, they will need him to figure out how to lead the team in the post season or have Blake Griffin be the catalyst that takes them to the promise land. I don’t think Blake has that ability. So In short, the Clippers need to trade Chris Paul or Blake to get a superstar who knows how to win.

Which team currently seeded in a playoff spot will most likely not make the playoffs?

Jacob Noble
This should be an easy answer and I am not sure why it is not. Out of the teams that might not make the playoffs who are currently in are Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Phoenix. Looking at this from a strictly, “who is the worst of this bunch” view you would have to say Milwaukee. However, don’t you worry, I have further proof that Milwaukee will be the team most likely not to make the playoffs. After starting 10-8 in the season and seeding in the 6th playoff spot (sixth?!), Milwaukee might end up on a 10 game losing streak due to their schedule. They have already lost two in a row out of this proposed 10 game losing streak, against Cleveland and Dallas. Their next eight games are against Miami, in Dallas, in Oklahoma City (with Westbrook and Durant back), the Clippers, at Phoenix, at Portland, at Sacramento and at the Clippers. This will be a telling test for the young team. If they can escape anywhere close to .500 basketball, they might prove me wrong and sneak into the playoffs. Don’t worry Nets fans, I am not buying your team either, I just think the Bucks are more likely to miss the playoffs.

James Holas
Woah boy. Let’s start in the East: this summer I figured that the East would be 1) Cleveland 2) Chicago 3) Wizards 4) Hawks 5) Hornets 6) Nets 7) Heat and 8) Stan Van Gundy-led Detroit.

BOY was I wrong. LeBron and the Cavs crapped the bed out of the gate, the Hornets look like the Charlotte Generals and the league has 29 Globetrotter squads, and Jason Kidd has the Bucks looking surprisingly competitive. Toronto is proving that last year wasn’t a fluke and the Wizards got deeper and tougher.

Then there’s the Brooklyn Nets.

Brooklyn has a top 10 center,a Hall Of Fame bound veteran power forward, a top 15 point guard, a top 10 shooting guard, a savvy foreign rookie, a strong minded, confident coach, and an owner with oodles of money. Yet somehow, the Nets are residing in the Uncanny Valley of the NBA: they look so much like a real team that their losses and lapses are unsettling. Yes, Brooklyn now has back to back wins (the 1st was over the 4-15 Knicks so I don’t know if it should count), but there’s a certain…”angry soul” missing in Brooklyn. A certain edge. Sometimes the Nets just don’t play hard or with purpose. I don’t know what exactly is missing, but I know that the Pacers have a rock solid defensive identity, a top 5 coach, and will be a homeless man’s Grit n’ Grind squad once all hands are back on deck (waiting on you, George Hill). I’m pretty confident that, barring major injury, the Raps, Wiz, Bulls, Cavs, Hawks, and Heat will be embroiled in the post season. By the time the playoffs roll around, look for the Pacers to cut down the Nets for one of the last 2 spots.

The West is both easier and tougher to call. The Oklahoma City Thunder were probably the most snake-bitten team in the league for the 1st 4 weeks of the season, at one point missing 3 of it’s 4 top players and without the services of the reigning MVP and the best point guard in the game for 16 of their 18 games. Russ and KD had to watch in dress casual attire while their squad tried to scrap and claw for 48 minutes, only to wilt offensively down the stretch over and over. After a few games to get up to speed, the League in general will feel their wrath, and the Nuggets, Pelicans, and Kings are as good as roadkill in OKC’s rear view mirror. The Suns were last year’s Cinderella story (Cinderella who got booted from the ball), but seem to be struggling to recapture that energetic lightning in the figurative bottle. Adding Isaiah Thomas was a shrewd move, but so far, he, Goran Dragic, and Bledsoe have looked like 1 + 1 + 1 = 2.5 more often than not. Look for OKC to come out on top for that 8th spot in the West, leaving the Suns out in the cold.

Jaime Oppenheim
It’s painful to say this, but Phoenix will not make the playoffs this year. As much fun as they are to watch, they remain a step below the eight best teams in the West. They’ll probably even end the season a step below the Pelicans, too. In the end, they’re in a bad spot in an ugly numbers game.

With a cache of talented players on rookie contracts and a couple extra picks (including the Lakers’ first rounder protected 1-5 this year), you almost want to see the Suns make a run at a veteran wing (Joe Johnson?) who can make them a real threat to steal the 8th seed. They have enough assets to get a deal done and still have something left to supplement their core in the coming seasons. The problem Ryan McDonough will find is that there might not be any players on the market worth trading for.

Brooklyn is the other team worth keeping an eye on in this discussion, and not just because they currently hold the 8th seed in the East. There’s no incentive for them to tank – they don’t have sole ownership of their first round pick until 2019 – but they are looking to cut costs, both for luxury tax benefits and in preparation for the 2016 free agent bonanza. Deron Williams has a player option for $22 million in 2016, and Billy King would jump at the chance to move both a headache and that salary obligation.

Justin Salkin
To me, the answer to this one is obvious, and it has to be the Phoenix. Phoenix has plenty of talent, but the west is loaded, and this is a matter of simple math. Sacramento and New Orleans look good enough to remain scrappy all season, and Denver has recently become frisky, so that makes for three competitive teams pushing Phoenix as we speak. Most importantly, however, is the one obvious point: Oklahoma City is sitting at 5-13, having been ravaged early by injuries to Durant and Westbrook, as well as injuries elsewhere on the roster. Oklahoma City has 64 games to make up the gap separating them from playoff contention, and they are going to do it: the team is too good not to. And once they do, someone in the top 8 has to fall out of it. The best bet is that the team to fall out will be Phoenix. The top 7 teams all sit between 16-2 and 13-5 (holy cow!), and Phoenix, for all their talent, is likely the 8th best of those 8 teams. I just do not see how they fend off Oklahoma City for another 64 games. Phoenix, as fun as the are, is sadly likely to finish on the outside looking in once again. It is true that in the east, there are playoff teams that appear vulnerable. Brooklyn has looked incredibly nonchalant and bleh on a nightly basis. Milwaukee, having lost 3 straight and on pace to nearly triple last year’s win total, may be coming down to earth. Miami is incredibly shallow and Wade and Bosh are used to the luxury of taking nights off: a key injury to one of them could spell doom. However, while Phoenix is better than all three of them, all 7 east lottery teams are on pace to lose 50+ games, which puts all 3 in an enviable position as compared to Phoenix. Phoenix is the pick here in an unfortunate numbers crunch.

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