It is the time of the year when the hardware begins to be dished out, and for the Orlando Magic there is little hope they will be on the receiving end of any. Perhaps their best chance of seeing any is through Victor Oladipo, who could yet be named Rookie of the Year. This is far from a sure thing though, as most favor Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers at this point. Guard Arron Afflalo has had the best year of his career in Orlando this year, but would that be enough to warrant the Most Improved Player award when the time comes to announce the winner?
Having a career year is one thing, but having that kind of season when the franchise has been suddenly lobbed onto your shoulders is quite another. Yes, the Magic haven’t won many games at all, and that would go against any case Afflalo feels he may have to take home the award. But becoming the offensive focal point for a team, as well as its leader on and off the court, when neither was your job prior to this season, is a massive load to take on. That Afflalo has done this and done it well and with the right attitude speaks volumes to the kind of player he is. Some would consider his omission from the Eastern Conference All-Star squad this year a snub, and that in itself shows you how highly some thought he was playing. Playing the most minutes of his career (36.2) and recording his best year from beyond the arc (.435) are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how this guy has contributed to this team. It does need to be stressed again though, that this guy was never meant to be the first scoring option on any team. He is without doubt a two-way guard, so the aforementioned career highs in 3-point conversion speak of somebody who embraced the extra responsibility bestowed upon him. Career highs in points per game (18.9) also back this point up.
His 3.5 assists per contest are also a career high, although if we are being honest maybe that number should be a bit higher. However Afflalo is still a true shooting guard and spends all of his time being facilitated by both Jameer Nelson and later Victor Oladipo. Asking his to up the assists averages would possibly maybe asking a little too much, as it seems scoring is what he is being asked to do for this team most of the time anyway. He gets to the free throw line more frequently than ever before (4.8 trips a game) and is nearly always a sure thing to convert once at the line too (Afflalo makes .819% of his free throws). Yes these are his best ever numbers, but looking past them they speak of a guy not afraid to take it to the cup and to make plays for his team. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 16.1 could do with some improvement, but on a losing team where talent is hard to come by, it is a plus for Afflalo. It is also above the league average of 15 and is the best PER he has ever recorded.
Away from the court, Afflalo stands to make just more than $7.5 million both this season and next. This may seem irrelevant in terms of why he should be named the Most Improved Player in the league, but it is actually important. Afflalo represents arguably the best value for money in the entire NBA right now. He has proven he can do pretty much anything this team needs of him, going from solid two-way player to the leader of this team overnight and by virtue of this being a rebuilding team. Looking at this another way, his friendly contract and excellent play make him one of the more attractive trade pieces in the league too. A contender looking for that final piece could do far worse than look to Afflalo, and so it may come to be that even if he leaves this team, he may give the Magic a handsome booty in return. This may all seem a bit of a stretch when talking about winning the most improved player this year, but it is all relevant. The numbers are up right across the board, the guy is an emotional leader for this young team, and he’s easy on the balance books too. What’s not to like?
Strong though his case may be, ultimately there are stronger ones out there. The Phoenix Suns alone have two players in Goran Dragic and Gerald Green who have made strong cases themselves. Dragic in particular, who lost running mate Eric Bledsoe early on in the season and still managed to guide a team many felt bound for the lottery to the cusp of the playoffs. So not only is he having a career year, he is winning games too. Afflalo can be proud of all that he has done this year though, and at 28 he is only now entering his prime. He is a rank outsider to win this award, but don’t be too shocked if he manages to pull this one out of the bag. Watch him playing for the Magic on a regular basis and you’ll understand why.