NBA Improvement Is in the Eye of the Beholder, but Just Make Sure You Score Enough
There will be fresh new storylines of players on the rise for NBA Most Improve Player Award voters to consider this season. So we’re breaking down the profile type of a typical winner before suggesting who the real candidates might be in 2021-22.
When Julius Randle became the first New York Knick in franchise history to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in May, he talked about how he wanted to win it again next year.
“To be able to be the first of anything is obviously pretty cool,” Randle said. “For me, it’s a milestone. But I just wanna keep going, keep improving, see how far I can push myself as an individual, see how far as a leader I can push this team.”
Repeating as MIP is a lofty goal, but it’s just as likely as winning Rookie of the Year in your second season. No one’s ever improved enough after being voted as the Most Improved Player by a global panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters to merit the same award for improvement in any subsequent season.
Or so the narrative goes.
There’s no doubt that a statistical leap isn’t the only factor when it comes to MIP, but many players who make an MIP-caliber jump climb another rung on the same ladder a year or two later. Gilbert Arenas won the award after averaging 18.3 points in his second season – 2002-03 – then upped his average in each of the next three seasons, topping out at 29.3 in 2005-06. Kevin Love was named MIP after averaging 20.2 points in 2010-11, then jumped to 26.0 points per game the following year. Paul George won it with 17.4 points per game in 2012-13 for a third-seeded Pacers team, then averaged 21.7 points in fewer minutes for an Indiana team that topped the Eastern Conference a year later.
We’ve had 12 back-to-back MVPs, with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird even doing it three years in a row. There have been nine Defensive Players of the Year in consecutive seasons, with Dwight Howard doing the three-peat there. Tack on three repeat Sixth Man winners and countless others to win those awards with at least one season removed from their first trophy, and it’s clear the league’s voters don’t mind giving a player the same hardware again.
But the storyline of a player improving seems to evaporate immediately, perhaps because some of the more recent MIP winners often find themselves in future contention for MVP (hi, Giannis!) or All-NBA honors. Perhaps the award would be best labeled as the Breakout Player of the Year.
Whatever the case, we’re likely not getting a two-time MIP anytime soon unless Randle drops 35 a night, turns Madison Square Garden into North America’s largest fully vaccinated party zone and helps the Knicks go 74-8.
Even then, New York’s ascension – and Randle’s role in making it happen – is soooooo 2020-21. There will be fresh new storylines of players on the rise for those 100 voters to consider.
We’ll take a look at some of the realistic candidates, but first it helps to understand the profile type of a typical winner.
1. Go From a Spark Plug Off the Bench to a Full-Time Starter (Sort of)
Over the past 22 seasons, starting with 1999-00 when Jalen Rose walked away with the award, MIP winners made an average of 32.9 more starts than they did the previous season.
But if we limit that range to only more recent seasons, you can see that’s less of a prerequisite than it used to be. Over the past nine years, only 2018-19 winner Pascal Siakam (74 more starts) and 2015-16 winner C.J. McCollum (77 more starts) found themselves in the starting lineup at least 14 times more than they did the year before they won.
Not coincidentally, those were the only two in that stretch to average fewer than 10.0 points the season before they were named MIP. Those two, along with 2006-07 winner Monta Ellis and 2003-04 winner Zach Randolph, made giant strides as second- or third-year stars, going from single-digit role players to averaging at least 16.5 points in the season they were crowned MIP.
Ellis’ sophomore season win is a rarity – no one has won it that early since – but Siakam, McCollum and Randolph were hitting the sweet spot for this award by taking it home in Season 3.
2. Be in Your Third or Fourth Season in the League
Of those last 22 winners, seven have been in their third season and seven in their fourth. On average, the 22 winners since Rose had played 4.14 seasons in the league when they were named MIP.
Third- or Fourth-Year Most Improved Player Winners, Since 1999-2000
|Player||Season Winning MIP||Year in NBA|
|Brandon Ingram, NOP||2019-20||4th|
|Pascal Siakam, TOR||2018-19||3rd|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL||2016-17||4th|
|C.J. McCollum, POR||2015-16||3rd|
|Jimmy Butler, CHI||2014-15||4th|
|Paul George, IND||2012-13||3rd|
|Ryan Anderson, ORL||2011-12||4th|
|Kevin Love, MIN||2010-11||3rd|
|Aaron Brooks, HOU||2009-10||3rd|
|Danny Granger, IND||2008-09||4th|
|Boris Diaw, PHX||2005-06||3rd|
|Bobby Simmons, LAC||2004-05||4th|
|Zach Randolph, POR||2003-04||3rd|
|Tracy McGrady, ORL||2000-01||4th|
3. Put Up Around 20 Points Per Game
Improvement comes in many forms, but this is a scoring award. Those winners from the past 22 seasons averaged 12.33 points in the season prior to being named MIP, then 19.97 in the year they won – an average increase of 7.64 points.
The trend toward needing to be a 20-point scorer to have a chance at this award actually skews more recent. Only Randolph and McGrady eclipsed 20 points per game in their winning season between 1999-2000 and 2007-08, but eight of the past nine winners have done it – Siakam (16.9) being the lone exception.
4. Play for the Indiana Pacers or Orlando Magic
Rose became the first Pacer to win Most Improved Player, but he hasn’t been the last. Jermaine O’Neal, Danny Granger, Paul George and Victor Oladipo have done it since, giving Indiana a league-high tying five wins since the award’s inception in 1985-86.
They’re tied with the Magic, who started their run with Scott Skiles in 1990-91, then saw Darrell Armstrong (1998-99) and McGrady (2000-01) win it two seasons apart before sharpshooting bigs Hedo Turkoglu (2007-08) and Ryan Anderson (2011-12) made it four and five.
Could either team make it six in 2021-22? The Pacers don’t really have anyone who fits our criteria, though Myles Turner (12.6 points per game last season) staying healthy for once, making strides offensively and continuing his stellar play on the other end would be an interesting seventh-year storyline – much like Randle’s last season.
The Magic’s entire roster seems like it’s in the sweet spot of having a few years under their belt with no leap yet – though it’s hard to see anyone in this crew being capable of such a jump. Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Jonathan Isaac or Markelle Fultz – it’s on you, though the latter two have injury questions.
So who does that leave? A bevy of candidates for this wide-open award, but let’s look at some players who fit the criteria we’ve established along with a few whose odds (courtesy of DraftKings) may be too juicy to pass up.
It’s a good time to be a Porter Jr. (except for you, Otto, sorry). But Michael (+900) and Kevin (+1000) are the betting favorites at DraftKings for Most Improved Player.
Michael finished third last season, when he bumped his scoring average from 9.3 points as a rookie to 19.0, made 46 more starts and became one of the league’s best shooters for a Denver Nuggets team that was the third seed in the Western Conference. He’ll have the chance to score even more with Jamal Murray slated to miss a good chunk of the season, but he’d have to make a significant leap toward superstardom to have a chance at the award after already making such strides from Year 1 to Year 2.
Kevin’s problem is his team. The Houston Rockets have a win total over/under in the low 20s and, recently, playing for a noncontender doesn’t really fly with the voters. Nine of the last 10 winners have either been on a playoff team or won at least 48 games and missed (tough break, 2013-14 Goran Dragic). Brandon Ingram, whose Pelicans went 30-42 when he won in 2019-20, is the lone exception.
A handful of others with low-ish odds don’t fit the bill. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander (+1500) and Domantas Sabonis (+2500)? They were too good last season, averaging 23.7 points and 20.3 points, respectively. Same goes for Zion Williamson (+2000), who averaged 27.0 points and is far more likely to emerge as an MVP than MIP candidate if he’s healthy. Collin Sexton (+1500)? De’Aaron Fox (+2200)? Zach LaVine (+2500)? All averaged at least 24.0 points a year ago and, as we’ve covered, this is an award that requires a surge in scoring.
Let’s find value elsewhere, with a heavy lean toward players from the 2018 or 2019 drafts – meaning they’ll be entering their third or fourth season.
The value has been sucked out of Jordan Poole (+1500), who was as high as +5000 to win MIP last month. Poole gave the Golden State Warriors a much-needed third option down the stretch last season, averaging 14.7 points in his last 36 games and finishing at 12.0 – the perfect range for him to make that next leap in his third NBA season.
The opportunity should be there early, as Golden State will need him to come up big until Klay Thompson’s return from his ACL and Achilles injuries. He looked plenty capable early in the preseason, putting up 91 points in just 92 minutes while going 14 for 36 (38.9%) from 3-point range.
Can Poole average 18-20 points over a whole season while shooting 38%-40% from 3-point range? Probably not given Thompson’s inevitable return, but if there are setbacks, Poole could certainly get there.
Jaren Jackson Jr. (+1500) played only 11 games last season, finally returning in April after missing most of 2020-21 due to a torn meniscus suffered in the bubble the previous August. He’s missed 45% of the Memphis Grizzlies’ games in his first three NBA seasons.
But the former No. 4 overall pick is capable of being an inside-outside force. He shot 39.4% from 3-point range two seasons ago on 6.5 attempts per game. Jackson probably needs to shoot a little bit less from outside and get involved on the interior a bit more, but his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim as a secondary creator makes him a prime candidate to be in the MIP running – if he can stay healthy.
Siakam is recovering from shoulder surgery, Kyle Lowry is in Miami and OG Anunoby (+2500) is poised to carry the Raptors’ offense. So says Fred VanVleet, who remains the most likely candidate to lead Toronto in scoring – even if he thinks the fifth-year product from Indiana is their No. 1 option offensively while Siakam is out.
Anunoby has a reputation as an outstanding perimeter defender, but he averaged 15.9 points and shot 39.8% from 3-point range last season on more than 6.1 attempts per game. If he can continue to bump up that scoring average and show he’s one of the league’s better on-ball defenders for what should be an entertaining and switchable-beyond-belief Raptors team, Anunoby could be an MIP contender.
At least one member of the San Antonio Spurs’ former 29th pick trio of Derrick White (+2500), Dejounte Murray (+3500) and Keldon Johnson (+3500) could have an interesting case. DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills are gone, and these three will be the primary scorers and playmakers on a team that’s very much in transition.
None of the three averaged 16 points last season – Johnson was the low man at 12.8 points – but they all figure to be more active scorers with DeRozan and Mills now off to greener pastures. Johnson (33.1% from 3-point range) improved his shooting in the offseason and had the experience of playing for Team USA in the Olympics, while Murray will have a chance to show he can be a legit lead guard. White only played 36 games last season, but if he can stay healthy, he might be the team’s most impactful player. San Antonio was a team-high plus-5.1 when he was on the floor last season.
Ben Simmons showed up outside Wells Fargo Arena with a boombox playing “In Your Eyes” for Daryl Morey on Monday night, but with the season upon us, it’s still hard to say anything too optimistic about the situation between the Philadelphia 76ers and their embattled star.
Who might benefit if Simmons doesn’t suit up in Philadelphia or winds up elsewhere in the coming days, weeks or months? Tyrese Maxey (+4500) hasn’t had a great preseason, has struggled with a groin injury and he’s only heading into his second season – remember, no one since Ellis has won it that early – but the odds of him improving statistically due to opportunity are significant. He averaged 8.0 points as a rookie but put up 18.6 per game and shot 50% from the field in eight starts. If he winds up with the first unit ahead of Shake Milton, Maxey could put up some big numbers.
Miles Bridges (+10,000) of the Charlotte Hornets checks every statistical predecessor box – he’s heading into his fourth season, he averaged 12.7 points last year, and he only made 19 starts and could have a bigger role in 2021-22. Even if he winds up as the Hornets’ first guy off the bench at the beginning of the season, this is a team with injury concerns in Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, and James Borrego could eventually opt to start Bridges and P.J. Washington in the frontcourt rather than Washington and Mason Plumlee.
Bridges’ scoring average took a slight dip last season, but he was rejuvenated playing next to LaMelo Ball. He shot 50.3% overall and 40.0% from 3-point range, so if a potential increase in minutes leads to a six-to-eight points per game jump, he could be in the MIP conversation.
When it comes down to it, though, the Most Improved Player discussion at the beginning of the season is often an incomplete picture that only becomes clear once we see some real, live basketball.
After all, what were Randle’s chances before his breakout campaign in New York? PointsBet listed odds for 82 players to win MIP heading into last season.
Randle wasn’t one of them.
Design by Matt Sisneros.