If you were picking for the most-improved player of the year in the NBA, who would you choose?
Would it be Boris Diaw, who virtually came from nowhere to become a nightly triple-double threat for the Phoenix Suns?
How about David West, the unheralded former Xavier draftee who's been a big reason for his Hornets surprising turnaround this year.
Tony Parker? Here's a POINT GUARD leading the league in points in the paint and a player who's carried the Spurs for big chunks of the season due to injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Or a case could even be made for players like Joe Johnson, Pau Gasol, Gerald Wallace, Andres Nocioni and Carmello Anthony; all of whom have had career years thanks to increased playing time and roles in their respective teams' offense.
Last Thursday night on TNT's double-header broadcast another name was thrown into the mix and it was none other than the Raptors' own Mike James.
Sure he was erroniously referred to by Charles Barkley as Mike Jones, the rapper, but the TNT crew's point was that James is indeed having a career year and his services will be demand this offseason by many clubs. I mean, think about it for a second. Were there any Raptor fans out there who would have thought that the Raptors were acquriring a scoring fiend in the Vinnie Johnson mold when he was acquired for Rafer Alston to start the season? This alone should put Mr. Space Mountain among the top three or four players in consideration in my books.
However the point of this article is not to state my case for Mike James - most improved player. No, this is more a cautionary tale.
On January 2, 2001 Tony Delk, then with the Phoenix Suns, torched the Sacramento Kings for 53 points. Delk was a solid player out of the University of Kentucky but no one believed him capable of scoring such an astronomical amount of points. In fact, most fans have heard little from Delk since then as he's wandered from team to team and until his recent signing with the Detroit Pistons, rotted on the Atlanta Hawks' bench behind "stars" such as Tyronn Lue and Salim Stoudemire. So was the 53 points back in 2001 just a fluke?
In 1998, February 10 to be exact, the Washington Wizards' Tracy Murray dropped 50 points on Golden State. Most Raptor fans of course know of Murray but probably don't recall seeing Murray drop such a huge total on any opposing team as a member of the Raptors. Murray was a great pure shooter...but 50 points? That puts him in select company does it not?
Sure, select company if you include Clifford Robinson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jamal Crawford, Dana Barros, Cedric Ceballos, Jim Jackson, Nick Anderson, John Williamson and Walt Wesley. In fact, what Murray accomplished was exceeded by players like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (51), Vernon Maxwell (51), Dale Ellis (53), Willie Burton (53), Allan Houston (53) and the aforementioned Delk. Recognize many All-Stars in that batch?
The fact of the matter is that given the proper amount of playing time, shot opportunity and role in a team's offence, most NBA players are capable of putting up gaudy numbers. Right now, Mike James is doing just that. No, he hasn't scored 50 points...but don't be surprised to see him continue to put up big numbers going into Toronto's final two games, especially given the team's injuries.
So the question is, will the real Mike James stand up? If the Raptors' re-sign James, will fans see Mike James the scoring machine capable of both helping the team with clutch scoring and hindering them at times with ill-advised shots? Or will they see the James who has floated around the league from team to team? And therefore, do you attempt to resign this player and at what price range?
In my opinion, the decision has already been made. Folks, this is the real Mike James. What we've seen this year is simply James finally being able to show what he can do. He's always been able to score and been a great competitor. This year, Toronto has simply had no other options offensively at times and therefore James has been able to show just what he can do. He would be a great option off the bench for a club...a sort of more experienced Ben Gordon whose offence in a reserve role could change the makeup of games.
Unfortunately based on his recent sound bites, it seems like James wants a starting role with a club. And that's fine. He's worked for it and deserves it. But I'm almost certain that this role won't be one given to him next season with Toronto. Raptors' GM Bryan Colangelo has seen what a difference a pass-first point guard makes, and if James is unwilling to take a reasonable salary and a lesser role for a club with bigger future needs, than the Space Mountain ride in Toronto will have come to a close.
Perhaps a sign-and-trade situation will be possible to allow the Raptors something in return. Or perhaps we'll simply see James ride off into the sunset with a new billion-dollar deal from the Knicks. In any event, James has certainly left his mark with this club. His competitiveness and desire to win have been infectious and as a result the Raptors have been in almost every game this year even though they've been out-talented and out-matched defensively. He single-handedly won Friday night's matchup against the Pistons for the Raptors has kept the club in countless others.
So let's raise a toast to James. His perserverance throughout his career is really an inspiration to all and sound bites aside he's been the type of fiery leaders that this club sorely lacked during Vince Carter's final years. I for one would not be upset to see him back in a Raps uniform next season if the price and role was right...but I'm not going to get my hopes up.
After all, it was Colangelo who shipped Tony Delk off to the Celtics with Rodney Rogers for Randy Brown, Joe Johnson, Milt Palacio, and a first-round draft pick only a year after Delk's 53 points and "coming-out season..." And of course history does have a way of repeating itself...