NAS End of Season Awards: Surprise of the Year

Expectations were not high for Kris Humphries when the Nets traded (of all people) Eduardo Najera for him and Shawne Williams midway through last year. He had a reputation as a selfish brute short on skill with even less of a mental grasp for the game of basketball. In unsurprising fashion, he lived up to those impossibly lofty standards for the rest of the Nets’ historically hilarious 2009-2010 campaign.

This season didn’t look to be all that great for him right off the bat, either. The Nets were fresh off a deal to acquire the at-one-point-talented Troy Murphy, who was supposed to start, and with Derrick Favors on the roster, too (though it’s unclear if he ever actually cared enough about the team to unpack his bags), it was looking like Humphries wouldn’t see much more than mop-up duty.

But there’s a lesson in this: make every effort to find a roster spot in the NBA behind Murphy. He showed up to camp sluggish and out of shape, and a back injury kept him out of games for awhile. Humphries was tabbed the man to start in his massive void.

I had my reservations about that decision for a couple reasons: (1) Look at how Brook Lopez developed his rookie season while starting almost the entire season for the incomparably incompetent Josh Boone. Wouldn’t that work for Favors, too? And (2) Humphries had yet to prove he could be good at basketball.

Certainly he didn’t get on anyone’s good side by completely emasculating Lopez on the glass, and his relentless penchant to shoot the woefully inefficient 17-foot jump shot didn’t endear him to the basketball public much either. But much like George Costanza or a catchy commercial jingle, all it took was some forced exposure to hop on the Humphries bandwagon.

If there was one thing that made Hump a really lovable player was that he actually cared. One couldn’t say that for many Nets players this season, but Humphries wanted to excel on the court every time he laced up his shoes. Sometimes that drive manifested itself well (e.g., his hunger for rebounding) and others it did not (e.g., his unwavering commitment to shoot after beginning a dribble), but at least he was invested in winning.

(How sad is it when you place players in high regard simply because they care?)

Soon enough, Humphries was the lifeblood of the team. If it didn’t come via rebounding, it came via an electrifying transition dunk or an even more ridiculous block, but he became the vagrant’s Blake Griffin for Nets fans. Of course, it’s fair to say that Humphries’ spontaneous improvement might simply have been an ancillary benefit to his developing relationship with a person who shouldn’t be famous, and of course there were plenty of jokes to that same effect.

It’s funny that Nets followers went from praying every night last summer that Humphries wouldn’t exercise his player option so that the team would have more cap space to pursue a player better than Travis Outlaw in free agency to wanting desperately to re-sign him a summer later.

While Humphries’ contributions have been most stellar and most surprising, negotiations with Humphries should be a proceed-with-caution affair on the part of the Nets’ front office. Here are two reasons why:

(1) The Fluke Rule: It’s entirely possible that Humphries’ improvement was just a one-year foray from his typical substandard production; or, more likely …

(2) The Contract-Year Phenomenon: It’s an all-too-common occurrence in the NBA for players to ratchet up their efforts in the final year of their deals to sucker a team to pay them a lot of money for a lot of years thereafter, and it’s very possible Humphries has followed in these players’ footsteps. All the Nets can hope is that he’ll follow the Zach Randolph model of signing a ridiculously lucrative contract and then going Super Saiyan on the rest of the NBA.

Personally, I don’t think Humphries can be more than a $6-million-per-year investment for the franchise going forward. I realize what Humphries did for the team this year, stepping in to partially carry a limping team, but who knows if he can or will duplicate this year’s production? It’s kind of disheartening, but I’m not so sure all the money in his pocket next season won’t siphon the passion that made him such an asset this year.

Nevertheless, kudos on a surprising season to Kris Humphries.