Reviving the NBA’s Comeback Player of the Year Award

Abe Beame evaluates the defunct NBA award and offers five potential 2019 candidates if it were still around.
By    April 26, 2019

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Abe Beame’s mid-range jumper is all water.

In the 1985-1986 season, The Clippers’ Marques Johnson was the final player to win the NBA’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. It was the first time the league had introduced the Most Improved Player of the Year Award, which it replaced going forward. The Comeback Player of the Year Award was short-lived, it debuted in 1980 and went to players like Paul Westphal, Bernard King and Michael Ray Richardson.

The league presumably did away with the award because of player egos, the same logic that initially caused the league to not air the NBA All Star player draft because they didn’t want the last player picked to be embarrassed. I’d imagine it was perceived that the very suggestion a player has had a dip in production that needed to be comeback from was an insult. But much like the player draft objection, this is stupid. The change in Comeback Player to Most Improved isn’t just a semantic renaming, it completely changed the nature of the type of player who could win the award.

The average age of the short lived Comeback Player of the Year award was 28.5, and that’s with a 24 year old Bernard King skewing the small sample size with a win in 1980. The average age of the Most Improved Player over the last 33 years has been 24. There have been outliers like the Magic’s 30 year old Darrell Armstrong in 98-99 and 28 year-old Hedo Turkoglu in 07-08, but generally the award goes to players in their early 20s who make the leap.

And while it’s fun to shine a spotlight on emerging young players, Comeback Player of the Year comes with a built in redemption narrative missing from Most Improved. As we saw with Tiger Woods, everyone loves the feel good story of a once great athlete returning to form. It could be rebounding from a horrific injury, or rediscovering themselves on a new team, in a new role or system with a new coach in a new context that unlocks a previously unrecognized skill set or reminds us what made a once great player great again. So I’ve decided to go over this year’s would be nominees and hand out the award myself.

Dishonorable Mention: Derrick Rose

The NBA internet community freaked out when Rose dropped a career high 50 points against the Jazz in November. Generally, he had a solid season as a second option for a shitty Wolves team and as a 30 year-old who once won an MVP he’d theoretically be a prime candidate for this award. But rather than pour over his stats or comment on his case I’m going to post a paragraph I wrote about him earlier this season in the midst of ranking 22 years of Knicks Point Guards because being a Knicks fan is a generally miserable, boring, Job like existence. I’m reposting it, not because it’s an incredibly well-written few sentences (it isn’t), but because very rarely in my life have I done a better job articulating exactly how I feel about anyone:

“And yet I hate Derrick Rose. There was his rape trial which didn’t get near the attention it deserved. Open a tab and do five minutes of Google research at your own risk, a revolting story that should’ve gotten him banned from basketball for life.

He has this dead-eyed, autistic quality that’s equal parts chilling and infuriating. He randomly disappeared from the team for several days in the middle of the season. He’s an unfriendly selfish weirdo. He brought out the worst instincts in Carmelo Anthony. Watching him and Melo trade gross inefficient Iso possessions while Porzingis languished under the basket or in a corner was like watching prostate cancer and colon cancer take turns on an innocent, promising young 7’4 Latvian manchild with his whole life ahead of him.”

Now as it turns out, my once beloved Kristaps might be a rapist monster as well because it’s 2019 and of course he is but the fact remains Derrick Rose is an asshole who told his doubters to “Kill themselves” earlier this season. So seeing as how it’s me handing out this imaginary award, not gonna happen jerk off!

5. DeMarcus Cousins, 28- Golden State Warriors

We start on a down note as in Game 2 of the Warriors first round series against the Clippers, Boogie tore the quad on the same leg he injured last season and will be out for the rest of the playoffs.

There was a bittersweet, poetic justice to this injury. As someone who loves New Orleans, loved going to games at The Blender and saw the potential for this Pelicans team as it was constructed, his decision to sign with the fucking Dubs of all teams in the last offseason for pennies on the dollar will go down as one of the great what ifs in NBA history. Buddy Hield is now thriving in Sacramento, it moved the Anthony Davis endgame into motion and it may eventually be the death knell of basketball in the great city.

Boogie never quite returned to his twitchy, rangy, inside and outside power game dominance on either end of the floor with the Warriors in the half season he played. He showed flashes, but at times he was a slog and that makes sense, he’s in his late 20s recovering from an injury that can be devastating for big men. But the real reason for consideration in my mind is what Boogie accomplished off the court. Long seen as a locker room cancer, he was by all accounts a great teammate and a positive force for a Warriors team that can be volatile and frustrating.

Best of luck with your recovery Boogie. Hope you find that paycheck you were looking for next season, but I also pray it isn’t the Knicks writing it.

4. Kenneth Faried, 29- Houston Rockets

As a guy who grew up loving gritty Knicks teams, and even when we sucked in the aughts appreciated hustlers like The Junkyard Dog and Renaldo Balkman, I’ve always been a sucker for high energy guys. So it makes sense that I’ve loved the Manimal going back to his Denver days.

After a few years languishing in Denver with a reduced role and a brief stint in Brooklyn, perceived as a tweener who couldn’t really shoot or protect the rim in an NBA that may have passed him by, Faried is back playing a key bench role on a Houston team as yet another successful Daryl Morey reclamation project. He’s rounded right back into his near double double, garbageman, glue guy form and gives the Rockets an added dimension of toughness.

A lot of people think it’s unfortunate the Rockets ended up in the four slot, but in a lot of ways it could work to their favor. Getting the Warriors early means there will be less playoff miles on Chris Paul and the looming specter of his annual hamstring injury when they match up and they just may end up having him through the entire series as a result. If the Rockets do end up finally taking down the Dubs, the reinvigorated Faried will have a crucial role to play in them pulling it off.

3. Eric Bledsoe, 29- Milwaukee Bucks

Ah, nothing like a contract year to bring out the best in a guy who we at one time suspected had his best days behind him. Though to Bledsoe’s credit, his sneaky good contract extension signed in March has done little to hurt his play.

My favorite Eric Bledsoe was the young, perimeter D monster on the Lob City Clippers backing up Chris Paul. He was all tantalizing skill set and untapped potential at the time. He eventually graduated to the 20 point 5+ assist guard we thought he could be, but he did it on awful Phoenix teams that were openly tanking basically throughout the entirety of his tenure.

His worst sin was often looking disinterested on defense, the area of his game where he was truly elite and what made him special, but it was always hard to tell if it was a function of Sarver-era Suns fuckery or if he was a quintessential good stats bad team guy. Last season, when he played the Bucks out of a winnable series with Boston, it appeared it was the latter and Milwaukee had missed on a bet they needed to hit to maximize the next few all important Giannis prime years.

But a great coach and a system that perfectly utilizes the talents of a roster can change a lot, and Bledsoe has been phenomenal all season on both sides of the ball. Malcolm Brogdon is still disturbingly important to the Bucks and much hinges on him getting back for potentially even the second round, but Bledsoe has rounded back into form in a big way.

2. Brook Lopez, 31- Milwaukee Bucks

Should you really be surprised that a 60 win team few saw coming has two candidates on the list? Brook Lopez is a prime reason why this award would be so awesome to bring back. His throwback, mid-range, surprisingly nimble old man post game was once the most entertaining thing to watch during the absolute nadir of the Ainge-ravaged Brooklyn Nets era. On a bad Lakers team last season he was a shadow of his former self, netting near career lows in every category. As a great fan of his brother, having had the pleasure of watching his all elbows and knees intensity play in New York, it appeared Brook had finally become the lesser Lopez.

But in the offseason the thin Lakers made the mind boggling decision to let him walk (making the D’ Angelo Russell trade a complete and total fail with all due respect to Kyle Kuzma), and Milwaukee scooped him up on an insane one-year, 3.3 million dollar bi-annual exception. Statistically, Lopez is no better than he was in LA, but anyone who spent anytime at all watching the Bucks this year knows that he may be the third-most important player on the team. He’s become an elite stretch five. His six three point-attempts per game he converted at 36% is what provided the floor spacing coach Bud needed to truly unlock Giannis.

For so many players, late career reinventions like this would be too much for their fragile egos, but Splash Mountain is a different breed. He’s done it all selflessly and made himself a vital cog in the Bucks suddenly unstoppable offense machine. I will also partially attribute his ranking to an essential Lowe Post podcast visit he made midseason that is one of the most likeable 40 minutes stretches you’ll spend with anyone all year. The Disney fanatic’s story about running into Bob Iger at the Tron roller coaster in Tomorrowland with Rolo at the opening of Shanghai Disney is fucking unbelievable.

1. Kawhi Leonard, 27- Toronto Raptors

It’s unfortunate that Brook Lopez had his reinvention year coincide with a season that saw evolutionary Scottie Pippen return from a season long 2017-18 injury because any other year this award would be his to lose. But with Kawhi leading a deep and terrifying Raptors squad that won 58 games this was never even a contest.

Masai Ujiri once again looks like a genius, this time it’s for doing something really simple that should’ve been obvious to any other team with the assets to pull a trade with the Spurs last summer. At the time, we wondered if Kawhi was secretly a head case, if he’d be the same player coming off a serious injury, if he’d resign wherever he was dealt.

The short answer is it doesn’t matter. Kawhi didn’t play back to backs this year which had some nitpicking if he was first or second team All NBA but he returned to complete and total dominance when on the floor. While moody windbags like Durant, Anthony Davis and Kyrie take up much of the bandwidth of the offseason chatter, Kawhi is the true jewel of the upcoming free agent class and very simply, the best two way player in the league, full stop. The Raptors might not win a championship this year, but they’ve put themselves in prime position to at least make an NBA Final and as we’ve seen, the future is unpredictable and the windows are small so you have to shoot your shot when the opportunity presents itself.

Coming off a stunning Game 1 Raptors playoff classic that saw an unreal amount of DJ Augustin Hero Ball down the stretch, Kawhi Leonard put on an absolute fucking clinic in Game 2 against a shockingly solid Orlando defense I will probably watch with my son on a continuous loop someday when he asks me what I love about basketball. There are few adjectives I could apply to what Kawhi did to Orlando that I couldn’t apply to a particularly graphic NSFW Pornhub clip. The guy is just a stunning player with no holes in his game who hasn’t missed a step this year.

It’s wild to me that anyone would want to leave the situation he has in Toronto. Great city, great front office, and one of the most balanced and complete teams in the league that perfectly complements Kawhi’s skill set. This is what happens when an already very good team replaces a perfectly serviceable to very good mid range but still fallible and tertiary volume scorer like Demar Derozan with a humanoid cyborg sent back from the future to destroy anything in its path. Kawhi’s return to peak form was not necessarily a surprise, but his seamless return to greatness is worthy of recognition. If only an award existed that recognized this sort of accomplishment.  

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