by Corey Kollbocker, Jordan Lee & Spencer Suk
The 2014-15 NBA Season is rolling along. It’s still early, but teams are beginning to show their true colors, players are figuring out their roles, and fans are beginning to form their opinions. So in case you’ve missed out on the action, the Franchise is here to break down three hot topics from the NBA in three days. This is Part 2, but you can find Part 1 here. So without further ado…
Who is the most improved player so far this year?
Corey Kollbocker: Jimmy Butler. Maybe that’s a homer pick by me, but I’ll do my best to prove it isn’t. Coming into this season we knew Jimmy Butler was a lockdown defender; he has an All-Defensive Second team selection to his name. We knew he was an ironman who would log a lot of minutes (his 39.8 are second in the league). We hoped he would flash an improved three-point jumper to bump up his dismal shooting splits from last year (.397/.284/.769). But what Butler has done so far this season drastically exceeds all expectations.
Butler is 15th in the league in scoring, dropping 21.3 ppg on shooting splits of .533/.391/.790. He has also done this while ranking 140th in usage, taking only 13.1 shots per game, less than any top-30 scorer besides Dwight Howard (12.9 shots to score 19.2 points). He’s been getting to the free throw line with remarkable effectiveness, ranking 7th in the league in both free throws attempted (7.8) and made (6.1) per game. He’s in possession of the 4th highest true shooting percentage of any guard to play meaningful time (over 200 minutes) so far this season. Suffice it to say; he has become an absolute force on the offensive end.
So how has he done all this? Most people expected Butler to hone his outside shot over the summer to become an ideal three-and-D prototype. Instead, Butler worked on his mid-range and mid-post game, modeling his footwork after other sizeable two-guards like MJ and Kobe. He’s taking less threes each game (2.9 instead of 3.6) and focusing on getting into the restricted area, which has boosted his shooting percentages and gotten him points at the line. When you consider the extra two rebounds and one assist that Butler has added to last season’s averages (making them 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists), it’s clear Jimmy has been one of the NBA’s best players early in the season. And despite missing a couple early games with a sprained thumb, he’s currently 7th in the league in win shares, ahead of stars like LeBron, CP3, and Dwight Howard. He’s also well on track to break 16 win-shares on the season, which is well above the invisible superstar barrier of 12.
Now I’m not saying Jimmy is a danger to go off for 45 pts on any given night (Saturday marked his first ever career 30 point game), but his new offensive chops make him a dangerous and consistent scorer. Add that to his all-world defense and Chicago’s got a bona-fide All-Star on their hands. And don’t be surprised when he grabs a maximum contract this summer. Jimmy G. Buckets: the G stands for gets.
Jordan Lee: Iman Shumpert.
I recently wrote about my two favorite MIP candidates, Draymond Green and Brandon Knight, so I’m going with Shump here. People seem to forget about Shumpert’s fantastic rookie season just three years ago. Maybe it’s because he only averaged 9.5 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists.
But he did a lot that didn’t show up in the box score. It was his potential and defense that had Manhattan buzzing. After his rookie season, it looked like Shumpert was going to be one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league for years to come. He proved to have the length and athleticism to harass any guard, even sneaking in a vote for Defensive Player of the Year, the only rookie to do so. Shumpert also showed potential on the offensive end with a solid jump shot and his ability to get into the paint.
Unfortunately, Shump would tear his ACL and lateral meniscus in his left knee in the first round of the playoffs. When he returned from this devastating injury the following season, he would never find his groove. But even in New York, nobody was panicking. At least he was healthy at season’s end and would have a full summer to get his game back.
To everyone’s surprise, Shumpert was a complete letdown in his third year. With J.R. coming off a great season, winning 6th Man of the Year, my friends and I had dubbed Shumpert “the Real J.R. Smith.” He was making all the knucklehead plays we were accustomed to seeing J.R. make. It seemed like he couldn’t buy a bucket, never made the right pass, and showed no signs of being the lockdown defender we had fallen in love with. Luckily for Shump, Smith started pulling players’ headbands and untying shoelaces, quickly reclaiming his title.
With new President Phil Jackson and Head Coach Derek Fisher taking over, the Knicks are running the triangle offense, something hard to fathom considering their shoddy big men. And to no one’s surprise, they have struggled mightily. New York is 3-9 in the lousy East, only ahead of the tanking Sixers.
But things can still turn around in this young season. Unlike last year, the Knicks are moving the ball and trying to run the triangle. Even Melo and J.R. are buying in and attempting to get everybody involved, officially ending the era of Mike Woodson’s iso-ball. According to NBA Miner, the Knicks have a 1.67 assist-to-turnover ratio (11th), just better than last season’s 1.61 ratio (13th). Their assisted field goals made percentage (percentage of made shots that were assisted) is .571 (18th), up from .542 (27th). And most importantly, they have jumped from 18th to 2nd in passes per possession, going from 3.069 to 3.988.
The stats don’t show a huge improvement, but it’s clear they are at least trying to play team ball. And the person who has benefited most is Iman Shumpert.
Excluding the game against Utah, where he only played the first 55 seconds before exiting with a hip injury, Shump is averaging 14.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists, all career highs. He is also shooting 52.3% from the field and 52.9% from downtown, hitting 1.8 triples per game. These shooting numbers are definitely going to drop, but I think he can stay in the mid-40s from the field and just below 40% from three-point range. However, it’s important to note that Shump’s added consistency allows him to get into the paint more, and he’s finding teammates better than ever. To back this, his assist percentage has jumped to 20.4%, way better than his career average of 12.3%.
On the other hand, Shumpert’s defense still needs to pick up (and it will). He is simply getting over-aggressive and gambling too much, which he has admitted to. This has caused him to get into early foul trouble, making it harder for him to get into a rhythm.
Even though it’s only been 12 games, it’s fair to say Shump is back, and Phil jackson may be a big reason why. Unlike the rest of us, the Zen Master has been able to stay calm (even in New York). Like Phil, we should all start believing in Shump again. Let’s just hope Jose Calderon is the missing piece to the puzzle and can help turn the Knicks around.
Spencer Suk: Anthony Davis.
I was going to try and pick a more subtle name, but this is too good to pass up. Everyone was anticipating a breakout season from the Unibrow, but I think it’s safe to say he has surpassed even the highest of expectations so far.
Davis is officially a two-way wrecking ball. On the offensive end, Anthony hasn’t come close to his ceiling, which is insane to say about someone who is averaging 25 points per contest. His mid-range jumper is showing signs of drastic improvement, and his face-up game has been thoroughly effective thanks to his nimble footwork. If Davis establishes more post moves, he’s going to be an absolute nightmare to guard.
Defensively, the Brow might be one of the most special players the league has ever seen. We all know about Davis’ freakish wingspan and athleticism, but it is his improved discipline and anticipation that has turned him into one of the most feared rim protectors. An impressive aspect of Davis' defense is that he hardly fouls (just 1.4 per game). This is unheard of for a big man, especially when considering his 4.0 blocks and 2.3 steals per game, both league bests. No one has ever led both categories for an entire season.
But this isn’t the only record Davis is threatening to break:
The Brow is on pace to demolish the Player Efficiency Rating record of 31.7 set by Michael Jordan in 1988. His win share per 48 and total win shares are also on track to set new records. And even though he’s pretty far off the all-time lead in blocks per game and block percentage, Davis would still finish 14th and 12th all-time respectively if the season ended today.
It’s hard to find a comparison for Anthony Davis, who is clearly one of the most unique players ever. However, Davis’ statistics are almost identical to those of David Robinson in his third season.
The main difference between the two? Robinson was 26 in his third season while Davis is merely 21-years old.
It’s only a matter of time until the league belongs to Anthony. Bow to the Brow.