Danny Granger named Most Improved Player!

May 13, 2009 in Basketball, Indiana Pacers, NBA by pacejmiller

The only bright spot of the Indiana Pacers’ season (unless you believe the spin doctors as Pacers.com) has continued to shine brightly.  Danny Granger, who was a first-time All-Star this year, has been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player (MIP) for the 2008-2009 season.

The MIP was the last award to be handed out, and it was also the closest, with Granger edging out early favourite Devin Harris (of New Jersey) by a point total of 364-339.  Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was a distant third with 83 points.

Granger joins Jalen Rose (1999-2000) and Jermaine O’Neal (2001-2002) as the third Pacer to win this award.

Before discussing anything further, let’s check out some of Granger’s highlights of the season.

Did he deserve it?

In my earlier post on NBA Award Winners for 2008-2009, I said I hoped for a Granger win but I thought Harris would get it (based on his strong performance early on in the season) and Durant deserved it most!  But clearly, the voters thought otherwise, and much of it probably had to do with (1) Granger’s improvement on offense; (2) Granger’s clutch performances; and (3) Granger becoming the clear face and future of the Pacers’ franchise.

(1) Granger’s improvement on offense

Statistically, the only significant jump in Granger’s game has been his points per game.  In 67 games this season, he averaged 25.8 points per game, good for 5th in the league.  In doing so, he became the first player in NBA history to up his scoring average by at least 5 points for 3 consecutive seasons (7.5 as a rookie, 13.9 in his sophomore year and 19.6 last season).  He also became one of the best 3-point shooters in the league (despite bombing out in the first round of the 3P Contest), hitting over 40% while putting up almost 7 shots behind the arc per contest.  And how is this for a fact?  Granger has hit more 3 pointers in his first 4 seasons than Reggie Miller did (493 to 419)!

While his shooting percentages remained virtually identical (with a slight improvement in FT%), Granger put up an average of 4 more shots per game this season compared to last (from 15.1 to 19.1, including 5.3 to 6.7 in 3-point attempts).  He also increased his free-throw attempts from 4.7 to 6.9 per game.  Bear in mind, Granger played only 0.2 minutes more per game this season than the previous season (36.0 to 36.2).

As impressive as that is, Granger didn’t really improve by much in many other aspects of his game, at least on paper.  He improved in blocks from 1.1 to 1.4 and assists from 2.1 to 2.7, but his stats actually got worse in steals (1.2 to 1.0), turnovers (increased from 2.1 to 2.5, though that comes with the territory of being the primary offensive option) and most noticeably, in rebounds, which saw a drop from 6.1 to 5.1 per game.

However, the general consensus from players and coaches around the league is that Granger has really upped his game this season.  Rather than being just another good offensive player (of which there are many in the NBA), he’s taken it to another level with his shot-making ability and versatility.  He can shoot 3-pointers at over 40%, is extremely efficient from mid-range, can drive the ball and get to the line, where he is as steady as they come.  He doesn’t overwhelm you with speed or power or thundering dunks, but he gets the job done in a variety of ways.  As Granger said himself, “I think in my fourth year, I just had the experience of playing a lot of minutes.  I could read defenses a lot better. I could get my shot a lot easier than what I had in the past. I think I just thought my way through the game a little more than I had previously.”

Another factor that must have crept into voters’ minds is that Granger finished off the season strong, whereas Harris and Durant dropped off from their frenetic pace earlier on in the season.  As I noted in another post, Granger averaged 31.1 points per game in his final 11 games of the year, leading the Pacers to a 7-4 record.  The Pacers were also much closer to the playoffs than the Nets or the Thunder.

(2) Granger’s clutch performances

Granger was clutch this season

Granger was clutch this season

The Pacers had been longing for another guy they can count on in the clutch ever since Reggie Miller retired (Jermaine O’Neal just wasn’t getting it done!).  Well, judging from Granger’s late-game heroics this season, it appears the wait is finally over.  He hit a couple of game-winners: to beat Houston (a tip in) and Phoenix (a 3 at the buzzer).  He also hit several big shots down the stretch (including a big game-tying 3 against the Hornets, before Chris Paul drained one of his own at the buzzer) and ranked among league leaders in points in 4th quarters (4th behind Lebron, Kobe and D-Wade).  He actually led the NBA in a statistic calculated by STAT Inc called ‘field goals made with the game on the line’.  According to this stat, Granger made 7 baskets (in 10 attempts) in the final 24 seconds of the final quarter of a game in which the margin was three points or less.  Obviously this needs to be taken with a grain of salt considering the Pacers played more close games than any other team in the league.

Becoming a big-time player is another important step in Granger’s development and will enable him to distinguish himself from the other ‘good’ players in the league.  Lots of players in the NBA can put up points, but few have a reputation for being able to do so consistently in crunch time.

That being said, guys like TJ Ford, Jarrett Jack and Troy Murphy also hit a few game-winners for the Pacers this season, but when the game is on the line, Granger should be their first option.

By the way, I’m certain that Harris and Durant hit some big shots this season, but I can’t be bothered looking them up.

(3) Granger becoming the clear face and future of the franchise

I’m not sure if you can really call this an ‘improvement’, but Granger has stepped into the role of franchise leader admirably this season.  Of course, he became so by default, with Jermaine O’Neal finally being put out of his misery (by getting traded) and with Mike Dunleavy Jr battling serious injury all year.  Arguably, however, he would have become the face of the franchise this season even if those two guys were still playing and in Indiana.  Some may say he already became the face of the franchise last season.

Nevertheless, he has done well in the role, setting the example with his work ethic and lifestyle off the court, which has been particularly important for the Pacers given the indiscretions in recent years that have alienated their fans.  He’s become one of the best offensive players in the league, earned a reputation for hitting big shots and is now recognised as THE guy that opposing teams are most concerned about when they play the Pacers.

Team president Larry Bird sums it up as follows: “He is the face of our franchise, and he handles himself well on the court and off.  I think going forward, he will continue to do the things he’s doing, and continue to improve. That’s all you can ask for.”

Earlier on in the season, people were saying that Devin Harris had become the face of the New Jersey Nets, but I’m not sure Vince Carter has handed the mantle over yet.  On the other hand, Durant is undoubtedly the face of the Thunder franchise, but he came into this league with that reputation as the second overall pick, and there really isn’t anyone else on the cellar-dwelling Thunder squad that can come close to competing.  By contrast, Granger was drafted 17th in the first round and has gradually evolved into the franchise-player role over the past couple of years.  There aren’t many players in the NBA these days that come into the league with as little hype as Granger had that end up attaining a reputation bordering on superstar level (well, at least ‘above-average star’ level) in just four years.

So, if you are simply looking at statistics, there are probably players who appear more deserving than Granger to win the MIP award.  But if you factor in these other considerations, which I’m sure the voters did, perhaps Granger is the most deserving after all.

What’s next for Granger?

Get that wafer out of here, Von!

Get that wafer out of here, Von!

For Granger to evolve from Most Improved to true superstar, he needs to become more than just a scorer.  He does have the occasional highlight block, but for the most part his defensive brilliance has been sporadic this season.  Both Coach Jim O’Brien and Larry Bird have both remarked that Granger needs to improve on defense because he has the potential to be a great defensive player with his athleticism and long arms, but often loses focus because he is so dedicated to the offensive end.

Next season, Granger intends to establish himself as a genuine defensive stopper, kind of like what MVP Lebron James did this season.  It’s a bit of a stretch to expect Danny to land on the All-NBA First Defensive Team as Lebron did this season, but he needs to make some visible strides.  Granger has made this his focus next season:  “I don’t just want to be a better defender, I want to be an elite defender,” he said. “I really modeled my defensive game after Ron Artest when he was here. He was a phenomenal defensive player when he was here. I probably got away from that the past two years. Next year, that will be my big focus…We scored a lot of points but we also gave up a lot of points and I think as a leader it starts with me. I have to be better on the defensive end.”

As long as he ONLY models his defensive game after Ron Ron that would be fine, but let’s just hope he doesn’t pick up anything more than that!

Additionally, Granger needs to improve those playing around him.  Part of that will involve Granger becoming a better distributor of the ball.  2.7 assists per game is not too shabby for a small forward, but to put himself in the same sphere as a D-Wade or Kobe or a healthy Tracy McGrady (note I left out Lebron because he’s in a sphere of his own), he’ll need to improve on that drastically.  He should get his opportunities as I’m sure he’ll face some double teams next season.

Lastly, there was some mention of Granger being on the 2012 US Olympic team.  That’s an interesting idea because Granger is an excellent shooter and is fundamentally sound enough to play the international game.  He will also learn a lot from his teammates on being a better leader.  As long as it doesn’t tire him out for the regular season then I’m all for it.

NBA Awards Round Up

So, all the NBA Awards for this season are out.  Just to recap:

MVP: Lebron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)

Defensive Player: Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic)

Rookie: Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls)

Most Improved: Danny Granger (Indiana Pacers)

Sixth Man: Jason Terry (Dallas Mavericks)

Coach: Mike Brown (Cleveland)

Amazingly, I managed to predict all the winners (not that they were difficult this year) with the exception of Granger!  As a Pacers fan, I ought to be ashamed.