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Ryan Anderson is not the Most Improved Player


Ryan Anderson still gets overlooked in opponent gameplans. No matter how many 20-plus point, 3-point barrages he puts up, teams invariably leave him open and Anderson invariably finds a way to get himself involved on the offensive end.

He may very well win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. As a young player given the chance to shine, he fits the archetype of players who win the thing. And he is a very worthy candidate.

Anderson has taken to the starting role and blossomed — averaging a career-best 15.9 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 41.5 percent from the beyond the arc. Anderson has been a pleasant surprise, picking up way more of the slack than he was expected to while veterans Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu have taken turns struggling this season. Anderson has scored more than 20 points 15 times this season. He had accomplished that feat just nine times in his previous three seasons.

More than that, Anderson has proved himself adept at being at the right place at the right time on the offensive glass and has improved greatly as a rebounder. Stan Van Gundy is constantly pushing him to make himself known as more than just a 3-point, spot-up shooter, and with some expected growing pains, Anderson has largely done that this year.

Again, Anderson is certainly a worthy candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player Award. Nobody had the late first-round pick in 2008 playing this well and contributing this much to a Playoff-worthy team, even after he led the Pac-10 in scoring and rebounding in his sophomore year at California.

But Anderson is not the Most Improved Player. He has been producing at this rate for almost his entire career. He is just now (finally) getting the minutes to really show off.

Anderson is averaging 18.4 points per 36 minutes and 8.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. Neither of those are career-highs for per-minute production for Anderson. Those career-highs came in 2010 (19.3 points per 36 minutes) and 2011 (9.0 rebounds per 36 minutes). You could argue this is not Anderson’s best season, just the one where he is getting the most opportunity — he is averaging a career-high 31.2 minutes per game this year.

This is not to say that Anderson has not improved.

His PER this year is a career-best 21.8 and he has a career-best 7.6 win shares — most of it coming from his offensive contributions. Anderson has gone from “throw in” for the Vince Carter trade in 2009 to one of the strongest offensive weapons the team has. The Magic have relied on Anderson’s shooting ability to space the floor and give the team a big boost.

Plainly, when Anderson is scoring the Magic are winning. Orlando is 13-2 when Anderson scores 20 or more points and is 3-5 in games where he scores fewer than 10 points.

His role on the team has expanded and Anderson has responded. That certainly is worhty of consideration for improvement. The question when it comes to this award is how do you define improvement?

If it is getting the opportunity to play and thriving with that new opportunity, you could certainly say Anderson has improved in that sense. But actual improvement, it is hard to argue that he has had that much.

Anderson’s points per 36 minutes have increased only 7.0 percent and his PER has increased only 14.7 percent. Those are significant, but not horribly significant.

Recently the Orlando Sentinel suggested several candidates for the award. Here is a chart mapping their improvements this year:

Player11 PP3612 PP36% Change11 PER12 PER% Change
Ryan Anderson17.
James Harden16.419.418.316.421.430.5
Greg Monroe12.217.946.718.022.122.8
Marcin Gortat14.517.822.817.821.621.3
Kyle Lowry14.216.113.416.519.317.0
Jeremy Lin9.619.6104.214.819.934.5
Nikola Pekovic14.618.426.011.221.592.0
Andrew Bynum14.718.324.521.123.09.0

When you look at the chart, you should note that, unlike many of the players being considered for the league’s Most Improve Player award, Anderson started at a much higher points per 36 possessions and PER than many of his competitors. This is to say that Anderson would have been expected to continue the kind of production he was achieving with fewer points with more opportunity to play.

These numbers from the previous year were no guarantee that Anderson would make this kind of a leap this year. It took a lot of work for Anderson to match the production that made him so promising coming off the bench. And Stan Van Gundy will tell you that he still has a ways to go in certain unmeasurables — rebounding and defense — to get to the player he will eventually become.

Getting into All-Star consideration this year certainly warrants putting Anderson in the conversation.

One thing the chart makes clear though is that Anderson was already this good. He has improved because he has gotten more opportunity not because he has gotten significantly better like Greg Monroe did or Nikola Pekovic did.

The other candidates have made more vast and wide-ranging improvements to their game. Anderson has not.

This should not diminish what Anderson has accomplished this year. Again, it takes a lot to go from solid bench player to solid starter. But this is the kind of season we maybe should have expected from Anderson considering his past numbers.

That is why it is so hard to say he has “improved.” Anderson was always this good, he just needed the opportunity to show it.