As this past offseason started to wind down, the strategy that Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the front office had devised became quite clear: get a group of players who had underachieved in previous spots but still had copious amounts of athleticism and talent, making them available with the limited financial tools the Lakers were afforded, and give them an opportunity to more or less revive their careers under the auspices of Mike D'Antoni. For several of these players, this has been essentially borne out as a success. For instance, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson, both former lottery picks, have posted career high marks in PER and numerous other statistical categories and while their future with the Lakers might be uncertain after this season since both are on one-year deals, it is very likely they will have more suitors than they had this past offseason.
But no player on the team has even remotely approached the baffling level of improvement experienced by Kendall Marshall, who wouldn't even be on the team save for an incredible string of injuries, making his tale all the more ridiculous when looked at now. The gap in improvement between Marshall and just about everyone else really cannot be emphasized more: Henry and Johnson were both poor performers in their past stops, but it doesn't even compare to how bad Marshall was for Phoenix. Johnson was and is certainly a bust relative to his draft position but is still probably a marginal NBA rotation player, whereas Henry has had bad luck with injuries to deal with. Marshall was "doesn't belong in the league" bad. Aside from posting a putrid 7.85 PER last season, he couldn't even cut it in D-League play, averaging 9.6 points on 31.3% shooting. There was a mountain of damning evidence that he probably wasn't a NBA player.
And these weren't the struggles of an inexperienced and raw player who hadn't quite put things together either. Marshall was an elite playmaker for UNC, an All-American performer who walked away with the Bob Cousy Award as the best point guard in the nation. There were questions whether he could score enough to complement his superlative passing ability in the pros, but even in a relatively weak point guard draft in 2012, it wasn't considered a bad selection when Phoenix picked him in a slight reach at the end of the lottery. Steve Nash's status was uncertain for the Suns and the version of D'Antoni's offense that Alvin Gentry was running was supposed to be a decent fit for a player like Marshall. Turns out that both of those factors would be true, only in a different uniform and team context.
To make the difference crystal clear, let's look at Marshall in various statistical categories this season and last:
Yeah. And this isn't a consequence of playing more minutes either, as the change in the efficiency stats points towards. If anything, the increase in efficiency is even more impressive than the raw stat totals, as Marshall climbed over ten points in true shooting percentage and nearly doubled his player efficiency rating, which is nuts. Sure, Marshall still isn't much of a scorer and his scoring attempts are limited to spot-up opportunities and drives to the rim set up by defenses playing him for the pass, but it's a staggering improvement for a guy who posted a PER worse than anything say Derek Fisher put up in his last few seasons in a Laker uniform as one of the worst starting point guards in basketball.
And even if Marshall isn't really a scorer, the increase in his shooting percentages is enormous, going from a liability to an elite three-point marksman in basically one year. He currently ranks third in the entire league in 3P%, equal with the likes of Kyle Korver and better than luminaries in that regard such as Klay Thompson and Wesley Matthews. To be fair, this does ignore context a bit in that Marshall's solely a spot-up shooter whereas those three chase their points off screens and other methods, and we can expect the law of averages to bring Marshall's percentages down some as well. At this point, however, there's really no denying that he's an excellent threat in spot-up situations, which is in and of itself a hugely significant change from year one to two.
Needless to say, this doesn't exactly happen very often: guys are shooters or they aren't and developing a serviceable three-point shot if you don't already have it coming into the league takes years. Making it more shocking from an efficiency standpoint is that Marshall has worked up his TS% almost entirely through his 3P% improvement; his 2P% only climbed from 42.3% to 44.0% and his improved FT% is downplayed in calculating TS% because of how few attempts he has from the line.
The uniform success of the reclamation projects this year and how well the team has done when their corps of point guards is healthy does raise pertinent questions of how much of this overall improvement can be assigned to Mike D'Antoni's system and coaching acumen, but Marshall's situation has plenty of caveats to introduce. First and foremost was that Phoenix basically ran D'Antoni's system as mentioned above and while it's hard to argue that a supporting cast that ended the year with 25 wins was better than this current iteration of the Lakers, it certainly wasn't any worse than the dregs of the Laker roster that have been forced to become rotation players because of the absurd injury situation.
Marshall, moreover, was essentially asked to come in with almost zero prior experience with these players and act as the engine for the entire offense. As his gaudy per game assist totals attest to, this has been done shockingly well, even with the team devoid of other shot creators outside of perhaps Pau Gasol and Marshall acting as the sole pick-and-roll operator for a good chunk of his tenure in Los Angeles. If he played enough minutes, Marshall's AST%, the percentage of the team's field goals he assisted when he was on the floor, would be second in the league only behind Chris Paul.
So that's Marshall's Most Improved Player candidacy in a nutshell: last year he almost had no redeeming features as a serviceable NBA player and this season, he has two arguably elite skills in his long range shooting and his passing. Certainly, he still has very prominent flaws, his awful defense and lack of overall scoring threat save for his three-point accuracy being the most significant of them, but that's not really relevant as far as MIP is concerned seeing as they were roughly the same if not worse last season. As such, does the rise from scrub to decent rotation player merit MIP in this case?
That's a tough question to answer because MIP, often the forgotten stepchild of NBA awards, hasn't exactly been consistent in who it has been rewarded to. Should it be given to a star who has taken the next step from being merely good to elite? Tracy McGrady and Kevin Love took home the award for doing that. Is it for a role player who went from being so-so to decent, as Boris Diaw did when he was traded from the Hawks to D'Antoni's Suns in 2005? Which is the more difficult accomplishment and thus more in the spirit of what "most improved" means? Should young players progressing down their development curve deserve less consideration than others because their improvement was expected? That question of surpassing expectation plays a big role here as it does with say Coach of the Year, which more often than not goes to the biggest surprise story of the year rather than who is perceived as the league's best coach.
Take Anthony Davis, who has exploded following his rookie year into a bona fide star, raising his PER from 21.7 to 26.4 as well as averaging 20.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game. He's undoubtedly improved a great deal, but at the same time, Davis was already considered a star in the making. He was the sure thing at the head of the 2012 draft and as a 20 year old who was already excellent from an efficiency standpoint as a rookie, further improvement was more or less a given. The sheer magnitude of his improvement does quiet that line of thought a bit and there's a very legitimate argument that crossing that proverbial boundary between a good player and a star is harder than going from bad to serviceable.
Davis would probably be the most direct competitor for MIP as far as Marshall is concerned, but in line with the variety of categories put forth above that an award winner can fall into, there are quite a few other candidates. If we are looking at situations similar to Marshall's, we have someone like Miles Plumlee, although Plumlee never had the opportunity to really show what level he was at last season because of how buried he was in Indiana's rotation. A list of other possible candidates might include Isaiah Thomas, who has raised both his efficiency and raw per game stats in Sacramento as their new lead guard following the Rudy Gay trade; Courtney Lee, who has become a much more efficient scorer in both his stops this year in Boston and Memphis; or even last year's winner in Paul George, who has taken another huge step forward in his game.
It is really difficult to say who is the most deserving because quantifying their respective improvement isn't exactly a clear cut case as pointed out above. Each has their own particular context to take into account and parsing through that isn't going to give you easy comparisons. We can safely say, however, that Marshall should at least be a candidate for the award based on his superlative growth from last season. Whether he deserves extra brownie points for coming basically out of nowhere to post this improvement is another question altogether, but in a season in which the Lakers have little else to look forward to beyond bettering their position in the draft lottery, having a player like Marshall who is under contract with the team through next season chase an award is certainly a comforting factor.
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