Awards NBA

It’s Getting Better All The Time: Making Sense Of The Crowded Field For Most Improved Player

Young players across the league are making The Leap. Which one will take home the hardware?

WE SPEND A LOT OF TIME AND ENERGY debating the meaning of the word “valuable” as it pertains to how we assess criteria for the Most Valuable Player award. How much of it is statistical dominance? How much is tied to team success? Other factors? I have my own rubric for making such determinations, but reasonable people can certainly disagree.

In any case, figuring out what qualifies as “most valuable” in a given season is fraught with complexity and uncertainty. Now, imagine trying to make a similar assessment of overall player value not just in one season, but over two consecutive seasons, and then attempting to quantify the delta between the two. Complicating matters further, each player under consideration starts from a different baseline of experience and role within his team, so unlike the MVP award — where every candidate falls under the umbrella of “top of the league superstar” — it is also difficult to formulate a consistent, apples-to-apples means of comparison.

This is why the Most Improved Player award is such a nebulous honor, and why the types of players who receive it vary so widely. How are we defining improvement? Is it tangible skill development? If so, how do we properly assess that for young players (especially ones of significant pedigree), who are supposed to advance along a particular trajectory as their careers blossom? How much do we ascribe to a larger opportunity or role on a team, not to mention the chicken-or-the-egg question of whether the opportunity was a direct result of the player improving or an unrelated personnel decision, or even random circumstance? An increased volume of production is obviously important, but it can’t be the sole variable because then we would essentially be rewarding players for getting to play more minutes and putting up the commensurate additional stats.

No, there have to be more factors at play. Volume, role, efficiency, and narrative are all part of the calculus, which again, is why we see so many different types of winners. After breaking down past recipients of the award, I’ve narrowed it down to six main archetypes who tend to get the nod. Let’s define them, cite past examples, and then use them as the framework for this year’s wide field of candidates. Here we go:

THE SIX TYPES OF MOST IMPROVED PLAYER AWARD WINNERS

The “good to great” player. This is usually a young player who has already shown significant promise and improvement, and then makes THE LEAP into “Oh shit, this is one of the best guys we have” territory. In other words, when we get a newly minted superstar, he tends to win.

Examples: Tracy McGrady (2000-01), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2016-17)

The “old dog, new trick” player. This is the veteran role player whose skill set we think we know and understand, but suddenly uncorks a career year out of nowhere. Sometimes it presages a new level of play going forward; other times it’s an outlier.

Examples: Jalen Rose (1999-00), Hedo Turkoglu (2007-08), Goran Dragic (2013-14)

The young arrival. Typically a lottery pick in his first four years in the league, this is basically the poor man’s version of the “good to great” player. It’s a guy who is expected to be good and begins to pay off that expectation, though not necessarily to the same degree.

Examples: Alvin Robertson (1985-86), Kevin Johnson (1988-89), Kevin Love (2010-11), Paul George (2012-13)

The “started at the bottom now we here” surprise. Unheralded players, typically drafted in the late first or second round, who experience a meteoric rise to prominence, whether through an increased opportunity or a change in circumstances.

Examples: Gilbert Arenas (2002-03), Monta Ellis (2006-07), Jimmy Butler (2014-15), Pascal Siakam (2018-19)

The Situation Lottery player. These winners showed tangible improvement to their games, but the major change was the situation in which they found themselves and the expanded opportunity they were provided. Trades, better/different teammates, more minutes, injuries, and other factors beyond their control afforded a chance to shine.

Examples: Dana Barros (1994-95), Jermaine O’Neal (2001-02), Boris Diaw (2005-06), Aaron Brooks (2009-10), CJ McCollum (2015-16)

The post-hype breakout. A less frequent archetype, but an important one because of this year’s candidates. This is a highly drafted player who, for whatever reason, disappointed over the first few years of his career. Then, as hope of the player’s promise began to fade among fans and media, something changed and the player prospered.

Example: Victor Oladipo (2017-18)

On to this year’s candidates:

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Archetype: Good to Great

2018-19 Stats: 31.9 MPG, 16.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.1 APG, 55/37/79 shooting, 18.7 PER, 20.8% Usage Rate, .175 Win Shares/48 minutes

2019-20 Stats: 36.9 MPG, 25.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 4.1 APG, 47/36/82 shooting, 19.6 PER, 29.7% Usage Rate, .146 WS/48

There has never been a two-time MIP winner, a good indicator of how rapid and how steep the reigning winner’s ascent has been. Siakam went from relatively anonymous role player in 2017-18 (7.5/ 4.5/ 2.0 in 20.7 MPG) to second-best player on a championship team in 2018-19 to a borderline MVP candidate this season. His efficiency has suffered a bit this year under a heavier offensive burden in the absence of Kawhi Leonard, but even so, I can’t remember any player who has shown this much improvement this quickly. Besides the continued uptick in volume, the biggest change in his game this year has been the addition of above-the-break and off-the-dribble threes. Last season, 97.5% of Siakam’s made threes were assisted, and 68.2% of his 3-point attempts came from the corners. This year, those figures are down to 66.7% and 26.5%, respectively. His per-game three-point attempts have more than doubled, the attempts are largely of a much more difficult variety, and yet his percentage is nearly identical.

Spicy P is more involved on both ends of the pick-and-roll, and despite no longer employing arguably the best player on the planet, the Raptors are on pace for almost the exact same regular season record as they posted en route to a championship last year. If he and the team continue to produce at this level, while voters probably won’t be ready to reward Siakam with the MVP, back-to-back Most Improved awards could serve as a nice consolation.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Archetype: Good to Great

2018-19 Stats: 32.2 MPG, 21.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 6.0 APG, 43/33/71 shooting, 19.6 PER, 30.5% Usage Rate, .101 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 34.3 MPG, 29.9 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 9.4 APG, 49/34/82 shooting, 32.4 PER (!!), 35.2% Usage Rate, .300 WS/48 (!!!)

Well then. If the second-year wunderkind keeps up this current level of production, and the Mavs continue along their 50-win pace, then winning Most Improved Player may turn out to be just the appetizer preceding a possible MVP entree. While averaging a triple-double (or something close to it) has lost a bit of its luster as a result of Russell Westbrook’s semi-empty statistical binges over the last three years, witnessing a 20-year-old this far ahead of the curve is something truly special. There has simply never been a player this young and this good, and yes, that includes LeBron James. It’s difficult to be hyperbolic about Luka’s ascent, even intentionally. We’re watching a kid become not just a man, but a legend right in front of our eyes.

There are only two arguments against Luka winning MIP. First, if voters are considering Doncic for MVP (and again, they should be), that may take him out of the running for Most Improved in their minds. Second, the weight of expectations drags him down a bit. Yes, he’s young and scary-good perhaps earlier than expected, but everyone knew he was good. [OK, maybe except Sacramento.] Fair or not, a guy who is supposed to be great doesn’t get as much credit for becoming great. I suspect most voters will be able to see past these factors, but it’s tough to make an argument for anyone else without them.

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers

Archetype: Old dog, new trick

2018-19 Stats: 27.9 MPG, 10.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 53/0/64 shooting, 18.4 PER, 17.7% Usage Rate, .105 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 31.6 MPG, 14.5 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 53/43/63 shooting, 20.9 PER, 19.7% Usage Rate, .149 WS/48

I don’t think Thompson will win the award, but he’s had a nice bounce-back year after playing only 96 games over the past two seasons. He’s the same terror he’s always been on the offensive glass, but Tristan has also recaptured the magic he had during the LeBron years as an interior defender. He’s averaging a career high in blocks, and his individual Defensive Rating is down 8 points from last season. On offense, Thompson is having a career year in almost every category, and he has expanded his game beyond just rolling to the rim and catching lobs. He’s developed more touch on in-between shots and floaters, and is even experimenting with midrange jumpers and the occasional corner three. The scrappy Cavs have started running 4/5 pick-and-rolls with Thompson and Kevin Love, a fun wrinkle.

Again, Thompson is a bit of a dark horse in the context of this award, but I wanted to give him some shine because it’s been enjoyable to watch a talented-but-limited player blossom into something more.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

Archetypes: Young Arrival, Situation Lottery

2018-19 Stats: 26.5 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 48/37/80 shooting, 13.4 PER, 18.3% Usage Rate, .074 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 34.9 MPG, 19.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.9 APG, 45/38/78 shooting, 16.2 PER, 25.5% Usage Rate, .083 WS/48

As the nominal starting point guard for the overachieving Clippers last season, we saw flashes of the multifaceted two-way player SGA could become. Fast forward a year, and his circumstances have changed drastically, but his talent and polish for a young guy remain evident. Shai was the centerpiece of the Paul George trade, and he now finds himself as the starting off-guard next to fellow erstwhile Clipper Chris Paul in Oklahoma City’s deep rebuild. His minutes, touches, and shots have all skyrocketed, and the production has followed suit, even as he adjusts to life off the ball.

SGA plays with a control and silky smoothness that belie his tender age. Most young players get sped up, slowed down, or redirected away from their spots by the defense, but Gilgeous-Alexander appears immune to all of those pitfalls. Possessing a budding star who has shown the versatility to be either a creator or a finisher depending on the lineup construction gives OKC oodles of team building options going forward as they pivot away from the Westbrook era. There are more levels for him still to reach, but make no mistake: SGA has arrived.

Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic

Archetype: Young Arrival

2018-19 Stats: 26.6 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.1 APG, 43/32/82 shooting, 13.0 PER, 16.3% Usage Rate, .096 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 30.8 MPG, 12.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 48/33/86 shooting, 18.8 PER, 17.0% Usage Rate, .160 WS/48

The offensive numbers don’t jump off the screen, primarily because Isaac remains a low-usage, complementary player on that end, for better or worse. [Mostly worse, since Orlando is dead last in the league in scoring average. They’ve shown some signs of life over the last week or so, but their offense has largely been an abomination.] He has become a more willing and efficient attacker, with a better feel for basic playmaking reads. These improvements bode well if he ever assumes a more primary role in the offense.

But his inclusion here is mainly about his defense. At only 22 years old, Isaac has already developed into one of the most versatile, intimidating defensive presences on the planet. An All-Defense nod is a near-certainty this season, with the third-year big man averaging an Olajuwon-esque 1.3 steals and 2.8 blocks per game and sporting a tidy 99 Defensive Rating and 5.5 Defensive BPM. On a more subjective note, taking the ball into his area just seems like an abjectly bad idea for an offensive player. He’s become the NBA equivalent of a shutdown cornerback, and his length, quickness, and anticipation give him the versatility to guard up and down the entire positional spectrum.

Isaac’s defensive dominance is real, and if he begins to get more involved in the offense as his comfort level increases, his MIP candidacy could gain momentum throughout the season.

Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers

Archetypes: Started at the bottom now we here, Situation Lottery

2018-19 Stats: 28.6 MPG, 15.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 51/43/93 (!!) shooting, 17.8 PER, 20.7% Usage Rate, .171 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 31.0 MPG, 19.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 8.2 APG, 46/31/98 shooting, 22.6 PER, 27.2% Usage Rate, .198 WS/48

It is perhaps disingenuous to say The President started at the bottom. Despite being drafted no. 36 overall in 2016, he did win Rookie of the Year honors in ’16-’17, so it’s not as though his ascent came out of the blue. [On a semi-related note, doesn’t it feel like a lot longer than three years ago when we were debating if Joel Embiid should win ROY despite playing only 31 games? Also, let’s not forget how much shit Brogdon took for winning that year. He was considered by many “experts” to be the worst ROY winner ever, despite the fact two of the previous three years, the winners were Andrew Wiggins and freaking Michael Carter-Williams. The moral of the story, as always: no one knows anything.]

Brogdon improved steadily during his three years with Milwaukee, increasing his scoring, rebounding, and shooting percentage each year. He quickly became known as one of the league’s elite role players, and at times looked to be Milwaukee’s second-best player during their 60-win campaign and subsequent run to the East Finals last year. He is respected around the league for his high basketball IQ and his efficient, well-rounded game. From a pure performance standpoint, he has a pretty high bar to clear in the context of Most Improved.

What propels him forward in this conversation is the perception around the league that his success was achieved as a complementary player, not as a primary option. Pundits chided the Bucks for not ponying up to keep Brogdon this past summer, and most felt he would be a snug fit in Indiana, but mainly as a sidekick to All-Star Victor Oladipo, an MIP alum himself. When news broke that Dipo would remain sidelined indefinitely as he recovers from surgery for a torn quad, the consensus became that Brogdon would be overburdened as a primary ball handler and creator.

As he usually does, Brogdon has exceeded expectations. Tasked with more playmaking duties, his shooting efficiency has slipped a bit from the otherworldly numbers he posted last year alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, but otherwise, he’s been nothing short of a star. He’s scuffled a bit from deep — much like Siakam, he’s shooting a lot more off the dribble and from above-the-break — but he is among the league leaders in drives per game, and is currently 4th in the NBA in assists per game. The Pacers started out 0-3 but are now comfortably back in the East playoff picture at 8-6, and Brogdon is the biggest reason they have been able to stay afloat in Oladipo’s absence.

There is still no firm timetable for Oladipo’s return, but just as his loss created the necessary conditions for Brogdon to jump into the MIP race, his reintegration to the team could be what eventually puts the kibosh on The President’s candidacy. Head coach Nate McMillan may decide he still wants the ball in Brodgon’s hands even once Dipo comes back, but no matter how the creation duties are divvied up, it seems fair to forecast a dip in Brogdon’s numbers with another lead guard in the fold. If he can counteract the projected loss in volume with a return to last year’s supernatural efficiency, he might stay in the mix. He does have a habit of proving everyone wrong, after all.

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat, and OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

Archetype: Situation Lottery

Lumping these two together because they are both third-year guys on surprising top-tier Eastern teams who have taken advantage of larger roles afforded to them by the departure of the guys ahead of them on the depth chart.

The banishment of Hassan Whiteside to Portland (who not-so-coincidentally suck all of a sudden) left a void in the middle Bam was clearly prepared to fill. Adebayo is averaging 13.8/ 10.2/ 4.5 on 60.7% shooting in 32.2 minutes a night. He’s been outstanding defensively (96 Defensive Rating, 6.1 Defensive BPM) and the team is +7.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. He remains a high-end lob threat, he’s become an excellent playmaker from the elbows, and he’s even experimenting with corner threes. [If he can hone that shot into a consistent weapon, his ceiling goes up considerably.]

Anunoby inherited his minutes load from a slightly better teammate when Kawhi Leonard relocated his fun guy party to Hollywood. After a couple “one step forward, two steps back”-type seasons, Anunoby has finally gotten the chance to play consistent minutes and become the rangy, 3-and-D wing he was projected as out of college, and he is running with the opportunity. As with Isaac, his stats aren’t eye-popping: 12.2/ 5.4/ 1.5 in 29.4 MPG, but he also fills up the defensive box score with 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, and he’s shooting 57.4% overall and 52.0% from three, good for a cool 69.4% Effective Field Goal Percentage (3rd in the league).

Finally healthy, OG has morphed into a true wing stopper. He uses his freakish length and mobility to check the opposition’s best perimeter threat on a nightly basis, which has the added bonus of saving Pascal Siakam from having to do the heavy lifting at both ends. Anunoby still has several areas in which he could continue to improve — attacking off the bounce and free throw shooting, most notably — but it’s heartening to see him start to tap into the vast potential scouts saw in him coming out of Indiana.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

Archetypes: Post-hype Breakout, Young Arrival, Situation Lottery

2018-19 Stats: 33.8 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 50/33/68 shooting, 13.4 PER, 23.2% Usage Rate, .055 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 32.4 MPG, 25.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 52/45/75 shooting, 23.9 PER, 30.0% Usage Rate, .152 WS/48

Coming into this season, there was a palpable sense among basketball people that Ingram’s career to this point had been something of a disappointment, but it’s more an indictment of our impatience with young players and the expectations placed on him (as a no. 2 overall pick and a Laker) than his actual game. Ingram has had his share of injuries already (including the scary blood clot issue which ended his season last year), but he has shown steady improvement when he’s been on the floor. The former Dukie is in his fourth year, but he’s still barely twenty-two. With the move to New Orleans (and out from under the long shadow of LeBron), it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see his breakout in 2019 coming, especially after the injury to Zion Williamson opened up a new world of opportunity within the Pelicans’ offense.

The absence of Zion, along with the slow start to the season by Jrue Holiday, has afforded Ingram the green light to act as one of the main creators in New Orleans, a role which always seemed to suit him best when he got the chance in L.A. as well. With the Pels sitting at 6-9, Ingram’s hot start hasn’t exactly translated to the win column just yet (his on/off splits do not paint him in a flattering light, either), but the difference in his overall confidence is palpable. He still shoots about one-quarter of his shots from midrange, but it’s down from around 34% last season, and those long twos have, by and large, become threes this year. His volume and efficiency from deep are by far career highs. Ingram is still wiry, but his frame belies a surprising strength, which he is leveraging to attack the basket more and draw a career high number of free throws (which he’s also hitting at a career high rate, a good indicator the uptick from three is also real).

Ingram’s statistical production may regress upon Zion’s return to the lineup, but even so, everything about his game is trending in the right direction. The Pelicans may have made a rare ‘oopsie’ under David Griffin by not offering Ingram a team-friendly contract extension when they had the opportunity. He will hit restricted free agency next summer, and based on his play and the dearth of big-time free agents in the upcoming class, his financial situation is about to be most improved as well.

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Archetype: Post-hype Breakout

2018-19 Stats: 34.8 MPG, 18.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 41/34/70 shooting, 12.4 PER, 24.4% Usage Rate, .012 WS/48

2019-20 Stats: 34.7 MPG, 25.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.6 APG, 47/33/71 shooting, 21.4 PER, 29.0% Usage Rate, .132 WS/48

Saving the, shall we say, most controversial candidate for last. Wiggins is obviously a polarizing figure, and he takes A TON of flak — including in this space — for his bouts of inconsistency and sometimes apathetic play. In addition, we have seen him go through these small sample size scoring outbursts before, only to be unable to sustain it long-term. So it’s fair to to question whether his scorching start to the season represents more fool’s gold or real maturation and progress in his game.

The public-facing narrative states now-full-time head coach Ryan Saunders has fostered a genuine connection with Wiggins, and that relationship is translating to Andrew’s play on the court. There is certainly something to the idea of being more comfortable in one’s workplace and the positive effect it can have on performance. Again, we don’t know if it will stick, but Wiggins seems to have bought into the Wolves’ vision of him as a player, and his game does indeed look different. He is attacking the basket with greater urgency, his shot diet is much more analytics-friendly (WAAAY fewer long twos early in the shot clock this year), and his playmaking has improved. His passing remains mostly paint-by-number, but he is at least making the proper reads and passes now, even if they are simple ones.

Progress is progress, but there are still several areas of the game where Wiggins is lacking. Even though he’s been hitting them at a high rate, he shoots too many floaters for a player with such elite athleticism. His free throw and 3-point percentages remain mediocre at best. If he can’t become at least above-average from both levels, his ceiling will forever be capped. He looks a tad less spacey on defense, but the eye test and the analytics both still portray him as a net-negative on that end.

I often pound the table about how we rush to judgment on players who come into the league super-young. Sure, some dudes just don’t have it, but it’s still unfair to write the book on these guys before they’ve had the chance to become the fully realized versions of themselves. Wiggins is already in Year Six, but he’s only 24 years old, the very beginning of his prime. Fool me twice and all that jazz, but if a highly touted prospect shows signs of blossoming into a star at the exact age where that sort of thing is supposed to happen, it’s probably a good idea not to dismiss it as a fluke. It’s fine to reserve judgment for a bit longer in Wiggins’ case, but if he does this all season, his narrative — much-maligned no. 1 overall pick who finally puts it together — could garner him a lot of votes.

Even with all of these worthy candidates, it feels as though Luka-mania is going to be too hard for voters to ignore. Sure, we expect improvement in Year Two from a star, but the leap he has taken would make Scott Bakula jealous. A lot can (and will) change by April, but as of now, Doncic is the pick.

Top Photo Credit: NBA.com

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