Bridges, Poole, Maxey and the NBA's most improved player candidates

By Sports Desk January 06, 2022

There are no hard and fast rules for voters to determine the winner of the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. 

Does it go to a player who came out of nowhere to become a big-time contributor? Is it geared more toward players who take the next step on their journey to superstar status? Or is it for players who rebound from disappointing seasons for whatever reason?

The award can reasonably fit players from several different categories so as the season nears the halfway point, now is a good time to look at some of the leading contenders for a trophy that nobody is sure what it takes to win. 

MILES BRIDGES - CHARLOTTE HORNETS

The betting lines for the Most Improved Player Award have had Bridges on top for most of the season and it's not hard to see why. 

Bridges has improved every season since he was the 12th overall selection out of Michigan State in 2018, and he has taken a huge leap forward in 2021-22. 

With career highs of 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists, Bridges can affect the game in a myriad of ways. He is one of only 12 players averaging at least 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal per game this season.

Like a lot of players who ended up winning the Most Improved Player Award, Bridges has benefitted from a big increase in minutes. He has jumped from 29.3 minutes per game last season to 35.8 this year. 

While Bridges' field goal and three-point percentages are down from last season, that can be partly attributed to a change in his approach as he's attacking the rim more efficiently and shooting 40.9 percent from midrange, up from 28.6 last season.

Though he's proven capable of doing more than scoring, Bridges' ability to put up points in bunches has been a welcome sight for the playoff-hopeful Hornets. He already has six 30-point games this season after he had just three in his first 211 NBA games.

Bridges' case for the award gets even stronger with the success of the Hornets, who are in position for a playoff spot with 20 wins after winning 33 games all last season. With Bridges leading the way, Charlotte ranks second in the NBA with 115.5 points per game and features five players averaging at least 15 per game.

JORDAN POOLE - GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Perhaps no player with a legitimate chance to win this award has come further than Poole, who struggled mightily as a rookie in 2019-20 and was even sent to the G League in January 2021 after struggling to carve out a role with the team. 

This season, though, Poole has been nothing short of a revelation for Golden State, who are vying for the league's best record and are back among the NBA's elite after a dismal 2019-20 and a mediocre season last year. 

Poole has replaced the departed Kelly Oubre in the starting lineup and been the perfect complement for Stephen Curry while the Warriors await Klay Thompson's season debut. Poole is averaging 17.7 points – nearly six more than last season - and has increased his rebounds from 1.8 to 3.3 and his assists from 1.9 to 3.4. He's done all that as his minutes have jumped from 19.4 last season to 29.9 in 2021-22 while going from a fringe rotation player to the third-scoring option behind Curry and Andrew Wiggins. 

Golden State coach Steve Kerr said that Thompson will move into the starting lineup as soon as he's ready and that will certainly have an effect on Poole. Curry's ability to create open shots for his teammates simply by existing is obvious and Poole could struggle to adapt with only so many touches to go around between the Splash Brothers and Wiggins. 

The Warriors' stellar season thus far should only help Poole's case even if he does play in the same backcourt as the possible league MVP.

TYRESE MAXEY - PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

No player has improved his scoring at a greater rate than Maxey, who is more than doubling his scoring average, rebounds and assists from his 2020-21 rookie season. After making just eight starts all last season, Maxey has helped fill the void left by Ben Simmons with 31 starts in 32 games and is a big reason why the 76ers are fifth in the Eastern Conference.

Maxey entered the league with the reputation of a scoring guard, but he has added a new dimension to his game this season and looks more like a true point guard with each performance. He has overcome some early season turnover issues and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.58 ranks seventh in the league, not bad for a player who is in his first full season running an offense. 

His improvement in scoring stems mainly from a more polished shot and it's proven in his percentages. 

After shooting 30.1 percent from three-point range last season, Maxey is connecting on 38.0 from deep this season and has made double figures in field goals five times after doing so just twice in all of 2020-21. 

Additionally, Maxey hasn't had a problem being Philadelphia's primary offensive weapon when Joel Embiid sits out. In the 11 games Embiid has missed this season, Maxey has averaged 22.4 points on 49.2 percent shooting compared to 13.9 points on 45.9 percent when the two are in the same lineup.

DESMOND BANE - MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

There's an argument to be made that teammate Ja Morant is as worthy of the Most Improved Player Award as Bane but the difference lies with expectations. The otherworldly Morant is ascending as most believed he would after he was the second overall pick in 2019, while Bane has had a far more dramatic leap as the 30th overall selection the following year. 

Bane was an impressive shooter in his rookie season, averaging 9.2 points and hitting on 43.2 percent from long range. He has continued the stellar shooting in his sophomore season and has developed other areas of his game. Bane is tied for seventh in the league in three-pointers made (112) and at 17.4 points per game, only Tyrese Maxey has improved his scoring from last season at a greater rate. 

Bane's evolution truly became evident from November 28-December 19 when Morant was sidelined for 12 games. 

During that span, Bane averaged 17.5 points and 5.0 rebounds while making 36 of 79 (45.6 percent) from beyond the arc as the Grizzlies won 10 of 12 without their best player. In a 108-95 win over the Lakers on December 9 and Memphis also missing second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, Bane scored 23 points on nine-of-20 shooting, including five of 11 from downtown.

With almost no fanfare, Bane has become one of the elite shooters in the league. 

Earlier this season he became just the sixth player in NBA history to make 200 three-pointers and shoot at least 40 percent from deep in his first 100 career games. The others are Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Duncan Robinson, Voshon Lenard and Landry Shamet.

DEJOUNTE MURRAY - SAN ANTONIO SPURS

With the offseason departure of DeMar DeRozan, Murray has become the unquestioned leader of the rebuilding Spurs and he seems to finally be getting the attention he deserves as one of the best point guards in the league. 

Murray has improved his scoring in each of his five NBA seasons and is up to a career-best 18.0 this season. He's also averaging 8.4 rebounds - the most of any guard in the NBA – and ranks in the league's top five in assists (8.9), steals (2.03) and triple-doubles (6).

Whereas many of the candidates for this award have seen a huge uptick in minutes, Murray is averaging barely two more minutes per game (31.9 to 34.2). 

One area of his game that could prevent Murray from winning this award is his shooting. His 44.2 field goal percentage puts him 16th among point guards, while his 33.6 three-point percentage is ranked 23rd. He also is connecting on just 69.6 percent from the foul line.

San Antonio is currently 10th in the Western Conference and has a shot at qualifying for the play-in round of the playoffs. This award has traditionally gone to a player on a team that experiences a certain level of success so the Spurs finishing at least in the top 10 in the conference would be a big help to Murray's case. 

Related items

  • Juventus 1-0 Lazio: Bremer sends embattled Bianconeri to Coppa Italia semi-finals Juventus 1-0 Lazio: Bremer sends embattled Bianconeri to Coppa Italia semi-finals

    Juventus cast aside their recent woes to tee up an enticing Coppa Italia semi-final against Inter on Thursday as Gleison Bremer's first-half header guided them to a 1-0 win against Lazio.

    The Coppa Italia appears to represent Juve's best chance of silverware this season after a 15-point deduction ended their slim Serie A title hopes, and the hosts were good value for their win after dominating for long periods.

    Massimiliano Allegri's men missed two good chances before hitting the front on the stroke of half-time, with Bremer flicking Filip Kostic's inch-perfect delivery home.

    Juve were rarely troubled at the other end as Maurizio Sarri's visitors disappointed in the final third, and they will face their Derby d'Italia rivals across two legs in the last four after this routine win.

    Kostic drew a fingertip save from Luis Maximiano as Juve got on top after a tight opening to the contest, before Adrien Rabiot headed straight at the goalkeeper when left unmarked just before the half-hour mark.

    The Bianconeri made their pressure count one minute before the break as Bremer met Kostic's inswinging cross with a glancing header, which beat Maximiano to nestle in the bottom-left corner.

    Luis Alberto saw a long-range strike deflect narrowly over as Lazio improved following the half-time introduction of Pedro, while Danilo Cataldi worked Mattia Perin with a 25-yard free-kick.

    Juve substitute Moise Kean forced Maximiano into action at his near post following a rapid break with 20 minutes remaining, as the hosts looked to put the game to bed.

    Adam Marusic fizzed a long-range effort wide of the bottom-right corner as Lazio continued to hunt a leveller, but that was as close as they came to breaking down a resolute Juve backline.

  • Chelsea's spending spree, FFP and the real European Super League Chelsea's spending spree, FFP and the real European Super League

    The January transfer window set several records in the Premier League, with Chelsea's eye-watering spending spree sending shock waves across the football world.

    Todd Boehly's takeover last year resulted in major acquisitions ahead of the start of this season, including Raheem Sterling, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly, but it is the mid-season business that has really thrust the club under the spotlight.

    Chelsea's spending has split the footballing world down the middle, with some concerned by the outlay and what it means for Financial Fair Play (FFP), while others praised the club's hierarchy for their determination and ambition.

    Here, Stats Perform has broken down the Blues' activity, the controversies and FFP impact, as well as the vast differences to Europe's other top leagues.
     

    Spending spree

    Eight new faces arrived at Stamford Bridge in the mid-season window, seven of which were permanent signings, and all of whom were aged 23 or under.

    Chelsea's business shows a focus on the future, having paid a premium price for talent and potential rather than established stars – the exception perhaps being Atletico Madrid loanee Joao Felix.

    Capped 28 times by Portugal, Joao Felix was a statement addition until the end of the season with the hope he can provide the cutting edge Chelsea have lacked in the final third and push the club back into the hunt for Champions League football.

    The other seven additions, however, fit a different mould. While they will likely be utilised by Graham Potter this season, they all represent a relatively unknown quantity, despite some impressive feats.

    In the record-breaking deal to sign Enzo Fernandez from Benfica, Chelsea paid a fee higher than a British club ever has previously to bring in the Argentine, who was named young player of the tournament in his nation's World Cup-winning campaign.

    Yet he does not even have a full year of European football under his belt, with the situation similar for Mykhaylo Mudryk – a player who caught the eye with his Champions League displays, but one who has not featured in a top domestic league.

    In total, Chelsea reportedly spent more than £280million on Fernandez, Mudryk, Benoit Badiashile, Noni Madueke, Malo Gusto, Andrey Santos and David Datro Fofana.

    Only two, Badiashile and Gusto, were signed from one of Europe's top-five European leagues, and Ligue 1 is widely considered to be the weakest financially compared to the Premier League, LaLiga, Serie A and Bundesliga.

    While the figures spent have led to scrutiny, a bigger cause of controversy is the apparent exploitation of a loophole in FFP regulations by issuing long-term deals to spread the fees across several years of financial reports.

    According to reports, the Chelsea hierarchy believe they are the first to exploit a football transfer market weakness in the valuation of younger players and with the length of contracts given to signings.
     

    Chelsea controversy

    Amortisation of the fees spent in the January window has allowed Chelsea to spread the costs of their spending spree for budgetary purposes across the next eight seasons and beyond, handing out contracts with lengths that have rarely, if ever, been seen before.

    Mudryk penned an eight-and-a-half-year deal at Stamford Bridge, tying him down beyond 2030, with similar deals issued to the rest of their January additions.

    In fact, the shortest contract issued by the Blues was the six-year deal for striker Fofana, running until 2029, and even that is longer than most of the rest of the Premier League teams have handed new signings last month.

    To put how it works into context, the majority of Chelsea's spending spree in excess of £280m will be spread across eight years, resulting in an annual cost of just £35m.

    Chelsea can easily offset that cost with player sales which, unlike transfer fees for purchased players, are booked immediately into the financial records in one lump sum – and Potter has a number within his squad who could be sold at the end of the campaign.

    This approach, crucially, is not against FFP regulations but UEFA has reportedly identified the loophole and are shifting the goalposts in future by setting a five-year limit for FFP – although this would not change things hugely.

    If Chelsea's £280m spree was spread across five years, it would equate to £56m a year. Again, that is a fee the Blues can offset with player sales, TV revenue and sponsorship deals.

    On top of this, from 2023-24, the allowable loss limit in FFP will be doubled from €30m (£26.6m) to €60m (£53.2m), while clubs judged to be in good financial health will be granted a further €30m in allowable losses over a three-year period.

    That means that Chelsea could be permitted to lose as much as €90m (£80m) over three years, triple the old limit.
     

    European impact

    The most eye-catching fact from the January window is that Chelsea spent more than the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A and LaLiga combined – as well as spending more than the other 19 clubs in the Premier League.

    Spending in England dwarfed that on the continent, with a reported outlay of over £800m from the Premier League compared to £110m in Ligue 1, £60m in the Bundesliga, £25m in Serie A and £25m in LaLiga.

    While Chelsea's spending made up the majority of the Premier League figures, the divide between English football and the other top leagues in Europe is highlighted by spending elsewhere in the league.

    Four of the bottom five clubs in the Premier League spent a reported total of £175m on new players, a figure that eclipses the total spending from any of Europe's other top five leagues.

    European clubs, to put it simply, cannot compete. Brighton and Hove Albion staved off bids in excess of £70m for Moises Caicedo and it is difficult to imagine a similar situation had such a figure been offered to a side on the continent amid the current economic climate in football.

    The biggest difference is that Premier League sides can afford to take risks and fail in the market, whereas those in Europe have no choice but to be more shrewd in their spending or suffer huge consequences – just take a look at Barcelona.

    English clubs, meanwhile, can simply cut ties if things do not work out. Chelsea spent a reported £97.5m to sign Romelu Lukaku, only to loan him to Inter just a year later, while Timo Werner arrived from RB Leipzig in 2020 for a reported £45m and returned to the Bundesliga side last year for almost half that fee.

    Chelsea are not alone in that regard. Arsenal's club-record signing Nicolas Pepe, signed for a reported £72m, is spending the season on loan at Nice, Tottenham's club-record signing Tanguy Ndombele is similarly outcast and Paul Pogba left Manchester United for nothing after the club paid a reported £89.5m to capture him from Juventus.

    Two years ago, football rallied against the creation of a European Super League but the reality is it already exists – it's just known by a different name.

  • Harden on All-Star chances: 'I'm not going to make a case... the numbers show it' Harden on All-Star chances: 'I'm not going to make a case... the numbers show it'

    James Harden has shrugged off any stress over his chances of making the All-Star Game, saying his numbers speak for themselves.

    Harden had a double-double of 26 points and 10 assists as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Orlando Magic 105-94 on Wednesday.

    The 33-year-old is a 10-time All-Star, but an 11th successive appearance in the mid-season exhibition game is not guaranteed.

    Harden faces stiff competition from several other star names, including Sixers team-mate Joel Embiid, in the Eastern Conference to make the reserve list for the All-Star Game. There are seven spots available for each conference.

    Yet Harden, who is averaging 21.4 points per game – Embiid, with 33.5, is the only Sixers player to boast more – 6.4 rebounds and 11 assists this season, believes he has done enough.

    "If my name is called, great," Harden told reporters. "If not, there's bigger and better goals for the season.

    "I'm not going to sit here and make a case. The numbers show it, our seed shows it."

    The Sixers are third in the East with a 33-17 record, having won eight of their previous nine games.

    Harden made three catch-and-shoot three-pointers against Orlando and was thrilled to thrive in an area where he has struggled.

    "That's pretty exciting, I didn't want to do too much, just catch and shoot," he explained.

    "You put the work in, I work on it every day. So opportunities are going to come whether it's Joel or dribble penetration."

    Embiid added: "That's not something he was comfortable with, but he's gotten better over time and he's taking more and more.

    "He needs to take more than he does, but it's a good step. He's getting better and he's knocking them down."

    Embiid was marked tightly by the Magic's Franz Wagner, though still topped the scoring with 28 points, adding 11 rebounds and three assists.

    "A really good young player," Embiid said of Wagner. "Obviously, you can tell he's competitive, as he kept attacking even though he was not getting the better of me.

    "But I like him, a great talent and as a team, that's a pretty good team."

    Sixers coach Doc Rivers, meanwhile, saw scope for improvement. 

    "I didn't think we played great, but we played good enough to win," he said. "We'll take that."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.