Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
On Friday, Ryan Anderson became the fifth player for the Orlando Magic to win the Most Improved Player award in the franchise’s 23-year history (the other four players? Scott Skiles in 1991, Darrell Armstrong in 1999, Tracy McGrady in 2001, and Hedo Turkoglu in 2008).
Except there’s one problem. Anderson didn’t deserve to win the award.
That statement has nothing to do with Anderson’s struggles against the Indiana Pacers in the Magic’s first round playoff series, either. The Pacers have gameplanned against Anderson, almost always accounting for him while he’s roaming on the perimeter as well as using their collective length to disrupt him offensively (and using that length to limit his effectiveness on the offensive glass). Head coach Frank Vogel and Indiana’s coaching staff is well aware that, with Dwight Howard out, Anderson is Orlando’s best player and they have done everything in their power to contain him — something they’ve done successfully in the first four games of the series so far.
That speaks to the level of respect that coaches and players around the NBA have for Anderson. It says something about the voting contingent, too, that they voted for him as the league’s Most Improved Player.
Anderson is a very good player. The problem is that it seems like people are just realizing Anderson is a very good player, perhaps because the Magic have been on national TV quite a bit this season, Anderson himself participated in the 2012 NBA Three-Point Shootout during All-Star Weekend in Orlando, and he’s taken on a more prominent role as a starter. In other words, Anderson’s national profile has grown over time, which certainly helps in being considered for a major NBA award as more of the media is aware of who he is.
The reality is that Anderson has been a very good player, not just this season but last season as well.
During the 2010-2011 season, after Rashard Lewis was traded to the Washington Wizards, Anderson became a permanent fixture in head coach Stan Van Gundy’s rotation as a reserve and these are the numbers he put up.
I noted in my player evaluation of Anderson, after Orlando lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, that it could have been argued — quite strongly I might add — that he was the team’s second-best player after Dwight when comparing his production to the rest of his teammates. What made Anderson a unique player was his ability to shoot three-pointers with proficiency while also being an effective rebounder. It also helped that he didn’t turn the ball over very often, which aided in his ability to be an efficient player on offense.
Those “poor man’s Kevin Love” comparisons you’ve been reading or hearing this season associated with Anderson?
Anderson was already emerging as that type of player in 2011.
So what changed for Anderson in the 2011-2012 season?
With the departure of Brandon Bass in an offseason trade executed by general manager Otis Smith, in which the Magic received Glen Davis and Von Wafer in return, Anderson became the de-facto starting power forward. In turn, these are the numbers that he put up.
Anderson’s production flatlined. Yes, Anderson led the league in three-point shots made (166) and attempted (422) but that’s not improvement. That’s getting more opportunities. Anderson’s three-point percentage in 2011 and 2012 was identical at 39.3 percent. It’d be one thing if Anderson became an improved three-point shooter by way of a percentage increase. But Anderson saw a spike in his three-point makes and attempts from 2011 to 2012 because of a spike in his minutes per game. The correlation is undeniable.
Anderson’s “improvement” revolves one thing — an “improvement” in minutes per game. That’s it. Did he become a better offensive rebounder this season (note the increase in offensive rebound percentage from 2011 to 2012)? Yes, he did. Did he become a better defender this season? Tougher to say. But, ultimately, Anderson in 2012 was almost no different than the player he was in 2011, sans a change in role from reserve to starter. That change in playing time influenced a change in his per game averages but not in his per minute averages or advanced stats.
This is the lens that the voting contingent likely was looking through.
This is the reality.
At the end of the day, Anderson’s case is a classic example of voters looking at a player through a broken prism. Per game averages tell a misleading story. For example, this season, Anderson and Kenneth Faried both averaged 7.7 rebounds per game. The difference? Anderson played 32.2 minutes per game to reach that number. Faried? 22.5 minutes per game. However, if you compare their rebounding totals per minute, Faried averaged 12.2 rebounds per 36 minutes while Anderson averaged 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. And that makes sense. If Faried averaged the same amount of playing time as Anderson, he’d average more rebounds per game.
Here’s another way to look at it. Faried’s total rebound percentage this season was 19.8 percent. Anderson’s percentage was 13.8 percent. That explains why Faried averaged the same number of rebounds per game as Anderson despite playing almost 10 less minutes per game. Faried rebounded the basketball at a higher rate than Anderson.
Looking at a player’s stats per minute makes more logical sense than looking at it per game. Research has shown that a player’s per minute numbers will likely remain consistent even if his playing time goes up or down, unless the player’s role changes significantly.
Advanced stats like total rebound percentage are no different. The rate (or percentage) by which a player produces matters a great deal more than his per game averages because playing time has to be taken into account. The rebounding numbers of Anderson and Faried are a prime example of a better way to look at a player’s production.
If Anderson improved as a shot creator and developed a post game, then that’s a story.
When ascertaining whether or not a player has improved from one season to the next, per game averages are probably the last thing to look at. Again, an increase in per game averages from year-to-year doesn’t necessarily gauge improvement as so much it marks an increase in minutes played.
None of this is meant to be a knock on Anderson, by the way. It’s a recognition of a player that’s been this good for two seasons now.