It seems as if every major award has come down to the wire.
James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo have duked it out for the right to the Most Valuable Player award for the entirety of the season. What started as a “race” for Rookie of the Year has quickly become a contentious bout between Luka Dončić and Trae Young. Coach of the Year has seen multiple contenders – Mike Budenholzer, Michael Malone, Doc Rivers and others – deftly navigate their respective seasons en route to their consideration.
The Most Improved Award has proved no different. In fact, it may end up the most competitive race of all.
More often than not, there has been a standout for Most Improved – a clearcut, breakout player and previous relative unknown – but the 2018-19 season has turned that on its head. More than a dozen players could fit that aforementioned description this year.
Meanwhile, a number of already prominent stars – Antetokounmpo, Paul George, etc. – have played so well that they have to be, at least, mentioned. You can’t not consider a player that has taken their already MVP-caliber game to an entirely new level.
Count the Los Angeles Clippers’ big Montrezl Harrell among the former. The center has taken a massive leap in his fourth year in the NBA behind lengthy strides on both sides of the ball; Harrell has diversified his offensive game (via a major improvement as a passer), grown as a defender and has continued to provide the same twitchy, high-intensity energy from the bench.
Empowered by Rivers, Harrell has proved one of the best players on the postseason-bound Clippers and set multiple career marks. 2034 total minutes (and counting) and an average of 26.4 minutes per game are both career highs for Harrell. Likewise, his 16.6 points per game, 6.6. rebounds and 1.9 assists are career bests. According to BBall Index’s player grades, Harrell has earned out as an A- or better in seven of 11 categories this season — including one-on-one, finishing, roll gravity and post play — as well.
No doubt, Harrell has had a great season, one worthy of recognition. But, with such a large field of competition, does Harrell have a realistic shot to take home the hardware?
Unfortunately, probably not.
This is not to take anything away from Harrell, who has played an integral role in the surprise that has been the Clippers’ season. Somehow, there has proved more than a few better cases for the award. That has much to do with the sheer amount of undiscovered talent in the NBA as it does the abundance of possible recipients.
Pascal Siakam, once a fringe rotation player, has quickly become one of the most indispensable players on the Toronto Raptors championship-contending roster. Siakam (17 points per game) is second only to Kawhi Leonard in terms of team scoring, and the forward is top-five on the team in rebounds and assists as well. Much like Harrell, Siakam has been quite a pleasant surprise, and that has played into his case as much as it has for Harrell.
The previously mentioned George, already an MVP-candidate, has increased his play to such a degree that he has to be considered as well. George has carried the Oklahoma City Thunder on his back offensively and has still managed to flash Defensive Player of the Year ability on the other side.
Many others, including the likes of De’Aaron Fox, D’Angelo Russell and Zach Lavine, have transformed themselves from a season ago. Even Harrell’s own teammate, Danilo Gallinari, could steal some votes, vastly improved from the injury-riddled product he was a season ago. There are just so many contenders that it’s going to be hard for anyone, even a player that has taken the steps that Harrell has, to walk away with the trophy.
Many would probably have considered Harrell the favorite prior to the season, had he been projected his current stat line. In fact, in almost any normal year, this would be a slam dunk, open and shut case for him.
Unfortunately, this is anything but a normal year for Most Improved.