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Since its inception, the Most Improved Player award has gone to an Orlando Magic player five times in 27 years. If you include Gilbert Arenas, who earned the award in 2003 while he was in Golden State, 22 percent of the Most Improved Player award winners since 1985 are Magic players — a sort of cosmic and longstanding joke to the Magic faithful who have yet to win a championship. Good job, fellas. Keep it up. You’re improving. Some day, guys. Some day.
If you’re like me, you operate under the assumption that sportswriters voting for awards has almost nothing to do with statistics, and everything to do with narrative popularity and social context. This was seen most clearly in the 2011 MVP voting where (somehow) Derrick Rose took home the award over the likes of LeBron James and the then-beloved Dwight Howard.
We can only assume an award as superfluous as Most Improved Player, an award being voted on by the same cast of writers triumphantly chanting “we love drama,” will at best be as unfounded and inane as the coveted MVP award. After all, these writers are only human, and statistics are just a silly, insignificant game played by smarty-pants blog junkies who have no concept of how the game is meant to be played.
The pragmatist in me wants to write off this award completely, to discard it the same way I trash Academy Award winners for Best Supporting Actress for their role in a miserably unwatchable art film.
But never mind the meaninglessness of the award. Never mind the fallen system these writers use to determine who in fact “improved the most.” Forget the fact that the system itself is an exercise in arbitrary futility. This year, even if it was by accident, when they named Ryan Anderson the Most Improved Player in the league, they got it right. And with one swift move that sent Anderson to New Orleans in exchange for Gustavo Ayon in a sign-and-trade, the Orlando Magic once again got it wrong — but that’s another topic altogether.
The 2008 NBA Draft class was awesome, and in retrospect ranks in the upper half of draft classes for this generation. Anderson was taken No. 21 overall in the draft, behind Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, and both Lopez brothers (Brook and Robin), all of whom he outscored in his last collegiate season. In a word, Anderson was not the hottest commodity coming into the Association, but generally people had faith he would succeed on some level due to his basketball IQ and fundamental effort.
The scouting material on Anderson coming into the league out of college said that he was not a consistent offensive rebounder and not strong or explosive enough to score. Addressing a player’s projected weaknesses may not be the leading procedure for diagnosing how “improved” a player is, but it’s what we’re going to do now. It’s a new spin, folks.
Perhaps the biggest strength that Anderson possesses in the league right now is his ability to hit the offensive glass and hit it hard. Anderson is now among the best in terms of offensive rebounding, which is a far cry from where he was projected to be coming out of college.
Anderson’s offensive rebounding has gone from 2.9 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes in his rookie season to 4.1 offensive rebounds per 36 last season. Kevin Love’s offensive rebounding shrunk from 4.8 offensive rebounds per 36 to 3.8 offensive rebounds per 36 in the same four-year timeframe. Brook Lopez has gone from 3.2 offensive rebounds per 36 to 2.1 offensive rebounds per 36 in four seasons.
Anderson also had a higher offensive rebound percentage than Love last season.
If we’re talking “improvements,” there is no question that Anderson takes the cake. Not only for himself, but compared to his contemporaries.
Strength and athleticism
Anderson was a player known for his consistency, but not necessarily his athletic ability or his ability to score. Years later we have a player even more consistent at scoring than the feeble late first round pick was projected to be entering the league in 2008. He found his comfort zone quickly in Orlando and found ways to score, contribute on the offensive glass, and ultimately help lift the Magic to a playoff berth in 2012.
If we are using scouting reports as a way to prove that Ryan Anderson is the league’s Most Improved Player, he is. If we’re using his contemporaries, he still is. If we’re using the guys drafted above him his same year, he’s definitely the Most Improved Player.
There is not much to be happy about right now in Orlando. With Dwight on his way out, Van Gundy on a long vacation, and a rebuilding phase on the horizon, it would have been nice to see the Magic hang on to a guy like Ryan Anderson.
Alas, the only thing we can do is look back and say thank you. Thank you for years of improvement, thank you for hustling, thank you for fulfilling a generally thankless role, and thank you most of all for an awesome final season with the Orlando Magic — a season that made us collectively realize the importance of crashing the boards, hitting open shots, and working your way up to being undoubtedly the second-best player on the roster.