- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

Many strong candidates for most improved award

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are duking it out for MVP honors, and Dwyane Wade has an edge on both for the scoring title, but another race that's shaping up as a photo finish is for the most improved player award.

That honor isn't nearly as glamorous as others, but don't think it doesn't matter to the players vying for it. The leading candidates: Indiana's Danny Granger, New Jersey's Devin Harris, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and San Antonio's Roger Mason Jr.

“I should be in the running, but I'm sure I'll get looked over,” Granger told the Indianapolis Star on Monday. “They'll probably give it to somebody else.”

Don't be so certain, Danny.

Granger has posted some of the most impressive numbers among the league's young players, ranking sixth in scoring with 25.3 points a game while averaging 5.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists.

More impressive is the significant jump in production he has made each season. He averaged 7.5 points a game four years ago as a rookie. This season Granger is averaging career highs in assists, blocked shots, free throw percentage and 3-point shooting.

But is it enough?

Durant ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 25.6 points a game a year after posting a 20.3 average as a rookie. Like Granger, Durant has improved across the board, Last season he owned a lowly .288 3-point shooting clip; this season he's shooting 42.7 percent from the arc.

Harris, like Granger, is in his fourth season and also has made significant strides. A year after averaging 14.9 points and 5.9 assists, Harris is a more commanding floor general for the Nets, averaging 21.8 points and 7.0 assists.

The only edge both Harris and Granger have over Durant is that their teams have 32 and 33 wins, respectively, while Oklahoma City has just 21.

Unlike those three, Mason didn't enter the season as a go-to guy. He helped the Wizards reach the playoffs last season despite the absence of Gilbert Arenas, averaging 9.1 points off the bench.

Signed in the offseason by the Spurs to bolster their depth, Mason emerged as a key contributor, averaging a career-high 11.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists while starting 65 games. He also has knocked down four game-winning shots.

Four players making significant strides, four players deserving an honor. But who wins out? The answer comes at the end of the regular season a little more than a week from now.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

TEAM JORDAN

Four true NBA legends in Michael Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton and Jerry Sloan - along with Rutgers women's coach C. Vivian Stringer - were announced Monday as members of the class to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in September.

All five unquestionably deserve the honor, but Jordan, of course, stands above the rest.

Jordan won six NBA championships and five MVP honors, owns a league-best 30.12 career scoring average and, among other things, is one of only seven players to win NCAA and NBA championships and Olympic gold.

The Hall's new class was announced Monday, allowing Jordan to top off his celebration by watching North Carolina beat Michigan State for the NCAA title.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Lakers (61-16)

Back on top thanks to three straight wins, and the return of Bynum is approaching.

2. CAVALIERS (62-15)

Which is worse: another loss to Washington or a 2-6 mark vs. Lakers, Boston and Orlando?

3. CELTICS (58-19)

Four-game winning streak enables defending champs to reclaim No. 2 spot in the East.

4. MAGIC (57-19)

Orlando becomes first team this season to beat LeBron and Co. at Quicken Loans Arena.

5. NUGGETS (52-26)

Make that seven straight wins and No. 2 spot in West for the Nuggets. (Thanks, Detroit.)

6. ROCKETS (49-28)

Yao and Artest's team is a half-game behind San Antonio for Southwest Division lead.

7. TRAIL BLAZERS (48-28)

Home wins during March over the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz and Suns give Blazers a boost.

8. SPURS (49-27)

Not a good week. Three losses and now Ginobili's done for the playoffs.

9. JAZZ (47-30)

Jazz starting to cool with losses to Portland, Denver and Minnesota last week.

10. HORNETS (47-29)

The final stretch isn't favorable: Four of six games come on the road.

LOTTERY WATCH

MULTIPLE TRADES THIS DRAFT?

Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year's draft. Spain's Ricky Rubio is believed to be the No. 2 pick even though he has a large buyout. But then the talent drops off significantly. Teams are lukewarm on the crop of project players, and insiders believe there could be some draft-day trades as teams move down rather than risk selecting questionable talent so high. Teams like the Wizards believe if they don't get the first or second pick in the draft, they could better upgrade their roster by dealing their pick for a proven veteran.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Team Record L 10 Pct.*

Sacramento 16-60 2-8 25.0

Washington 18-60 2-8 19.9

L.A. Clippers 18-59 2-8 15.6

Oklahoma 21-55 3-7 11.9

Minnesota 22-55 2-8 8.8

* Chances of landing No. 1 pick

TROPHY TRACKER

MVP

1. LeBron James (28.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.2 apg) — If he played 43 minutes a night like Oscar instead of 38, he could average a triple-double… right?

2. Kobe Bryant (27.0 ppg, 5.30 rpg, 5.0 apg) — Lakers making a strong push to reclaim best record from Cleveland.

3. Dwyane Wade (29.8 ppg 7.5 apg, 2.3 spg) — The scoring title is yours, D-Wade. And your Heat are back in the playoffs.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

1. Derrick Rose — Averaging 16.6 ppg, 6.2 apg, 3.9 rpg, Rose seems to have a wire-to-wire victory.

2. Brook Lopez — Coming on strong down the stretch with 17.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 2.0 bpg in April.

3. O.J. Mayo — Would have the rookie scoring title - if there were such a thing - wrapped up with 18.2 ppg.


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