The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award lives in a gray area. Improvement can come in some many different areas, and look so many different ways, that there is rarely a clear cut winner. The default has often been to reward players who maintained an impressive level of production in a larger role or playing more minutes. Usually this is a role player becoming a starter and, to be fair, it does represent improvement of a certain sort.
However, there are plenty of fans who believe that the award should recognize someone who added a new piece to their game, who developed a skill that wasn’t previously part of their repertoire. There is a clear-cut favorite in the Most Improved race this season and, interestingly, it’s someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into either category.
But before we get there, let’s run through the arguments for some of the other high-profile candidates.
Gobert is unlikely to win MIP, if only because he’s also a strong candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year Award and in the past, voters have seemed to favor keeping postseason awards compartmentalized. Gobert has been one of the league’s best defensive players for the past two seasons but he’s held that level of impact while playing more minutes than he ever has before.
The case for Gobert as MIP though, is really about his offense. As of this writing, Gobert is leading the league in block percentage, and true shooting percentage. He has always been an adept scorer on the pick-and-roll, using his size to rise above defenders to receive the ball and finish. In addition to pushing his field goal percentage to new heights, Gobert is also taking and making free throws at career high-rates, and he’s cut his turnover percentage to a career-low.
His points per game average hasn’t skyrocketed, which is often an indicator of an MIP candidate, but Gobert has become a legit offensive threat along with his elite defensive ability.
After a rocky start, the Wizards have broken through this season and Beal’s strong play has been one of the keys. Beal is averaging nearly six more points per game than he did last season, but his improvement has mostly shown up in the areas of shot selection and shooting efficiency.
Beal’s usage rate is currently a career-high 26.5 percent and his true shooting percentage has ballooned to 60.3. He always had a reputation as a great shooter but this is the first season his true shooting percentage has been above 55.0 and it’s largely because of his shot selection. Beal has cut back on his long 2-pointers, a shot which plagued his efficiency the past few years. He’s taking more free throws and more 3-pointers than he ever has, and that clean shooting stroke is paying big dividends.
Beal still has room to grow as a defender and a secondary shot-creator, but this season he’s finally been living up to his potential as an efficient outside shooting threat.
The Denver Nuggets have been one of the best offenses in the league this season and Jokic’s versatile game is one of the primary reasons. He can score in a variety of ways and his exquisite passing helps fuel Denver’s attack.
The second-year center has improved in several key categories — his true shooting percentage, assist percentage, and defensive rebound rate are all significant improvement on his already impressive rookie numbers. But the case for Jokic is really about him playing 27.6 minutes per game this year, instead of the 21.7 he played last season.
Jokic’s numbers as a rookie were so good — well ahead of Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns (who won Rookie of the Year) — that it was easy to write them off as a fluke of small sample size. He played a lot of minutes off the bench against second-units as and surged in the second half of the season as teams were resting key players. This season he has proved there was nothing shaky about those numbers. He’s playing more minutes, against better players, and putting up much better numbers.
In his first three seasons with the Wizards, Porter made 34.9 percent of his 392 3-point attempts. This season, he’s hit 44.0 percent of his 332 3-point attempts. As important as Beal’s improvement has been for Washington, they’re not in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff standings without Porter’s explosion this year.
Porter’s game is a terrific complement to John Wall and Beal — he can work as a secondary creator, he’s an above average defender who can guard multiple positions, he’s a smart off-ball cutter. This season he’s taken that “perfect complement” thing to a new level. In addition to becoming one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA, he’s leading the league in turnover percentage at an infinitesimal 4.9 percent, with career-bests in rebound percentage, block percentage, and steal percentage.
Porter can do anything the Wizards need, and he’s doing it better than he ever has before.
All the other candidates have had nice seasons, but this award probably belongs to Giannis Antetokounmpo. He really has the inherent gray area of this award circled from every angle.
Increased his per game production? Yup, he’s +6.3 points, +1.0 rebounds, and +1.1 assists per game. Demonstrated skill development? Yup, career-best usage (28.3 percent), true shooting (60.4 percent), rebound percentage (22.4), assist percentage (26.1), steal percentage (2.4), block percentage (4.7), and turnover percentage (13.0). A few notable achievements to hang his hat on? Yup, All-Star starter and he’s on track to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game.
Antetokounmpo went from good young player to a borderline MVP candidate. He’s in the process of realizing his immense potential, pushing up against a lofty ceiling. There is no question about his improvement. We’ll leave it up to the voters to decide if there’s enough “most” in his Most Improved Player case for him to win.