Essay: Ryan Anderson Murders The Most Improved Player Award
Due to an increase in playing time, which further led to an increase in opportunity, Ryan Anderson has been named the 2011-12 Most Improved Player. I won’t go into whether or not Anderson “deserved” to win the award, mostly because it’s conditions are unsystematic. But I will say this: Ryan Anderson is a quality scorer and has been his entire life (going back to his collegiate days when he led the Pac-10 in scoring as a sophomore—O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, and Russell Westbrook all played in the Pac-10 that year). Behind Dirk Nowitzki, Anderson might be the league’s most dangerous three-point shooting stretch four—he stands at 6’10″ and led the NBA in three-pointers made and three-pointers attempted—which is wonderful news to the Magic. Ever since Howard was made the organization’s strategic focal point, Orlando’s main plan of attack was inside out, with the three-pointer creating almost as many nightmares for opposing coaches as the Howard, himself. In this way, a player like Anderson, someone who’s tall enough to comfortably get almost all of his shots off clean, is a perfect fit.
But still, Anderson winning this award feels really wrong for one major reason: He didn’t really improve. Anderson’s success is directly connected to his ability to compliment Dwight Howard, and to me, this award should generally go to someone who’s surprised viewers by adding another dimension to their game from one season to the next. For Anderson to receive this award over players like Nikola Pekovic, Jeremy Lin, Avery Bradley, Andrew Bynum, James Harden, or Ersan Ilyasova is beyond questionable. Their numbers improved, yes, but it wasn’t solely because of an increase in playing time. These players all did things this season that they didn’t do last year. Here’s a minor example: On the same number of three-point attempts per game, Ilyasova went from a 29.8% to 45.5% from behind the arc. On fewer attempts per 36 minutes than he posted last year, Anderson’s percentage stayed exactly the same, 39.3%.
It isn’t disputable that Anderson’s impact on the Magic’s offense was overwhelmingly positive. He finished the season with the league’s fourth highest offensive rating and was sixth in offensive win shares, according to basketball-reference.com. He’s a good player, but the underlying reason for why Anderson didn’t deserve to win this award basically lies in the fact that a majority of his production is due to Dwight Howard being his teammate.
Ryan Anderson logged 1964 minutes this season, with 756 of them coming when Howard was on the bench. With Howard beside him on the court, 57.2% of Anderson’s points came on three-pointers. When Howard was on the sideline, that number dropped to 41.7%. From the three-point line, Anderson shot 41.6% with Howard on the court and 35.5% when he was off it. With Howard on the bench, Anderson’s offensive rating was 104.1 as opposed to 109.5 with him on the court. In the regular season, the Magic faced the Pacers four times, all of them with Dwight Howard. In those four games, Anderson averaged 14.8 points on 55% from deep in 32 minutes per game. In one of them, he scored 24 points on five three-pointers. In this first round series, Anderson is playing the same number of minutes but only averaging 7.7 points while shooting 33.3% on threes.
Now, Dwight Howard is a superstar in part because of the very fact that he makes life easier for teammates on both ends of the court. It’s the real life equivalent of avoiding a speeding ticket by advantageously name dropping to the cop who pulled you over. It happens with all the other superstars, like LeBron, Kobe, Durant, and Rose. The players on these teams will almost always play better, with greater efficiency and purpose, when they’re alongside the best players in the world. By draping a XXXL jersey over his mountain-rugged shoulders, Howard gives Anderson multiple free passes every game. It’s a natural benefit. Anderson should be congratulated for his ability to compliment the game’s best center and make his team’s offense better, but let’s not aggrandize the man.