This NBA season has been exceptional, especially as far as player and team improvements are concerned. Teams like the Golden State Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks have ignored the 'Big three' team structure and developed teams structured around strong benches, excellent shooters and good defence. Some players, like Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin, were a given. Everyone saw those breakouts coming because there have been warning signs for years. However, the Hawks running a 10-man rotation and winning 50 games was less expected. The beautiful team first basketball has allowed for the roster to develop and become better basketball players.
There are five clear MVP contenders: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Out of those five, everybody but LeBron James is new to the conversation this year. In fact, the debate is narrowing itself into one about Harden and Curry.
Just a couple of seasons deep in his NBA career, Davis is already well on his way to becoming a rival to James. Westbrook continues to be a force, carrying the Thunder without Kevin Durant. He's putting up triple-doubles like 49 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Numbers that put him in line with Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Curry is just invincible. He's had zero injury issues (Knock on wood!) and he's become a master of the sport. Curry is currently set to become one of the best, if not the best, shooters in NBA history.
The guys in the MVP talk are not the only ones who improved this year.
Here are 15 players having breakout seasons.
All stars are from ESPN.com and are correct as of March 16th, 2015.
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15 Michael Beasley
While maybe not a breakout season, Michael Beasley is finally developing into a solid and reliable basketball player. When Beasley entered the league from college, he was supposed to be a superstar. However, he had some issues and a lot of things never prospered for him.
With Chris Bosh out of the Miami Heat lineup due to blood clots on his lungs, Beasley has stepped up to fill his role. His first 10-day contract with the Heat earned him a second one.
Beasley hasn't played in the five spot since college but he isn't doing a half-bad job of it, especially since he's guarding players like Kings center DeMarcus Cousins who has a 30 pound weight advantage.
It's great to see everything is working out for him.
14 Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors point guard earned himself a spot on the All-Star team this year. However, he's had some issues with injuries and struggled with fatigue, especially deeper in the season coming off road trips.
He's having a career best season in the opinion of almost everybody but himself. After a mediocre game against the Golden State Warriors, Lowry told the Toronto Star “I’m trash,” he said. “I’m trying to figure it out right now . . . That’s why I’m working hard and trying to get myself back on track.”
Lowry's improvements are evident even when the team struggles. Overall, the Raptors are having a hugely successful season, largely thanks to Lowry's increased contributions. He's averaging an impressive 18.2 points per game to go with 6.9 assists per game.
13 Brandon Knight
Brandon Knight was giving the Milwaukee Bucks 17.8 points per game and 5.4 assists per game while making 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc when the Phoenix Suns made the trade for him. The Suns seem to be a great place for him, even though his number have taken a small dip in his ten games with the team (14.4 ppg and 4.5 apg). He's been able to continue his breakout as a huge piece of their offensive strategy. We should expect even more improvement out of Knight in a Suns uniform.
12 Darren Collison
Darren Collison played with the Los Angeles Clippers a little bit last season when Chris Paul was out with a shoulder injury. He played well and ended up earning a spot on the Kings for the 2014 season as a starter. It has ended up being a breakout season with Collison becoming one of the top guys on the team. He drives offence and pace.
The Kings have experienced a significant decline in wins since Collison was diagnosed as a strained hip flexor on February 5th and they are 4-12 without him. Collison will sadly be out for the rest of the season, but that doesn't mean he didn't take a huge step forward this season.
11 Draymond Green
Draymond Green is without a doubt a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Unlike DeAndre Jordan who had a mid-season breakout, Green has showed improved all season. He's a good rebounder and shown himself to be immensely important to his team's success.
Green's dealt with a lot of criticism throughout the season, from Charles Barkley to Doc Rivers. Regardless, Green's been a leader for the Warriors and an important contributor, averaging 8.2 rebound per game.
10 James Harden
Sure, James Harden had already cemented himself as one of the league's best long before this year. However, he moved into top five talk. Then, into top three.
Harden is doing everything for the Houston Rockets in the absence of Dwight Howard. He does the most with the least.
Harden has had three triple-doubles this season. Two in the last two weeks. And, they are big triple-doubles. In early March, Harden put up 38 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 12 assists in a 103-93 win against the Detroit Pistons.
9 Paul Millsap
Whatever the Hawks are doing down in Atalana is working for Paul Millsap. He's always been extremely underrated, hidden away in Utah during his golden years.
The result of that being his current contract is a steal for the Hawks. Even coach Mike Budenholzer, a San Antonio assistant for all seven of Millsap’s Jazz seasons, said: “I really didn’t know Paul could do this much.”
However, Millsap's never really contributed on a winning playoff bound team before. Although, the Hawks are selfless, complex, egalitarian unit, Milsap has shown himself to be one of the more valuable elements.
Kyle Korver calls it “opportunity — the right situation, the right place." Korver continues to call his teammate "unbelievable. He just gets better and better.”
Jeff Teague wanted to play with Millsap even he was with the Jazz. Teague says: “He was getting out and running and making plays like a guard,” Teague remembered. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s nice.’”
8 Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver joined the Hawks two and a half years ago.
He recently told Sports Illustrated that he and Jeff Teague discussed how he liked to receive passes. It's just one of the small things that has made all of the difference.
Korver has experienced a slight shooting slump recently but turned it around. He's averaging 12.4 points per game this season and has a jaw-dropping 50.1% from beyond the arc.
7 The Rest Of The Guys On The Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks don't really have a superstar or a clear frontrunner. The entire team fills that role. They have won 50 games and filled the All-Star team.
The Hawks have put together the best record in the Eastern Conference and the entire roster has played a part in it. When Jeff Teague watched a clip with Sports Illustrated, the team made six passes to five players:
"Power forward Paul Millsap turns down a five-footer, and Teague turns down an open three so Korver can line up a more open three. “That’s what we do,” Teague says. “That’s who we are. Everybody touches the ball, nobody dances with it, and even if you’ve got a layup, you give it to Kyle Korver."
In Atlanta, nobody is allowed to hold the ball for more than two seconds and when somebody drives, others have to account for a few key spots: the low block, the top of the circle and the 45-degree marks on the wings.
6 Blake Griffin
First off, Blake Griffin was never as overrated as people claimed he was. This season, Griffin was up there with the likes of Stephen Curry as a clear MVP candidate. Unfortunately, a long absence due to a staph infection in his elbow has diluted Griffin's MVP chances.
Griffin's shooting has completely changed this season. As it turns out, it was really his only issue. The power forward is well-rounded and complete.
5 DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan is very likely to be the Defensive Player of the Year. Since the All-Star break and especially in teammate Blake Griffin's absence, Jordan has played some of the best defensive ball the basketball world has seen in a really long time.
Jordan's a very strong rebounder. Since Griffin went out, he's pulled down 18.6 boards per game with 13.2 of those coming on the defensive end. In fact, he's pretty much doing it all for the Los Angeles Clippers when it comes to defence.
4 Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson is on pace to break the league’s record for three-pointers made in a career. On January 23rd, he made nine three-pointers in a record-setting 37-point third quarter against the Sacramento Kings.
Thompson has transformed from a dominant spot-up shooter, to a diverse offensive threat. He's the best 'shooting' shooting guard on the court since Kobe Bryant was in his prime.
3 Jimmy Butler
With Derrick Rose suffering injuries, Jimmy Butler has stepped up for the Chicago Bulls. Butler made the All-Star game, along with veteran Pau Gasol.
Butler is helping hold everything together with Rose out. He's a factor on both offence and defence. The Bulls' playoff run is hugely dependent on Butler staying healthy and consistent. Although, the Bulls have other great players, Butler is the glue right now. He's averaging 20.2 points per game, which is much more than the 13.1 he averaged last year.
2 Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis just turned 22. It's been clear since he was a student at the University of Kentucky that he was going to be a monster. He's already the league's top power forward. Even Kevin Durant has told Davis that he's well on his way to becoming the MVP.
His biggest weakness is his team. The league MVP rarely comes from a losing team. The New Orleans Pelicans are a pinch better than awful.
Imagine this guy in five years? Imagine this guy with a little help?
1 Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry has been recognized as the best shooter in the NBA for a while now. Each year he gets better and better. Until this season, it wasn't evident that he was capable of putting the rest of the elements together. Previously, he's been a good player. He's been snubbed for All-Star spots in favor of Chris Paul. Now, he's a leader. He's a shooter. He's a leading MVP candidate. He creates shots for others. He's simply the entire package in a near perfect situation.
Sure, Curry has a lot of help. A lot. Thompson is extremely important and the bench is deep. However, Curry never plays selfish ball. Yet, he easily could. The Golden State Warriors are a successful team, not a team with successful players.
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