Although a fairly broad consensus has formed regarding who should win the 2017 Most Improved Player Award, the field is actually quite crowded with players deserving of consideration. Herein we count down the candidates using a mix of stats to show their year-over-year improvement.
This table includes per 36 minute stats, true shooting and usage percentage, Player Efficiency Rating and SportVU’s defensive differential percentage for the last two seasons for the players listed below. SportVU has optical tracking cameras in all 29 NBA arenas and utilizes algorithms that determine defensive assignments 25 times per second. Defensive differential is the difference between shooting percentage when guarded by the player and the season average for opposing shooters.
15. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City’s last remaining superstar has increased his per 36 minute scoring from 24.6 to 32.6 this season. He’s in the midst of a historic campaign that could see a player average a triple-double for a season for the first time since Oscar Robertson did it in 1970-71. How can Westbrook not be higher on this list? The answer lies in the massive 10.3 percent jump in usage since last season. Westbrook is also averaging nearly three more rebounds per 36 minutes, but opponents are shooting four percent above their season average when he guards them, more than a two percent increase over last season.
14. Tim Hardaway Jr., Atlanta Hawks
As the Atlanta Hawks bumble their way toward another middling playoff seed, lost in the uninspiring story of their season is the breakout of Tim Hardaway Jr. Atlanta’s sixth man increased his per 36 scoring by nearly six points, although his true shooting percentage remained flat around 56 percent. The increased scoring output correlates to a better than six percent increase in usage, although he did jump from 42nd to 17th in PER among shooting guards. Once labeled a defensive liability by Knicks team president Phil Jackson, Hardaway has posted consecutive impressive defensive seasons in Atlanta.
13. Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks
Curry went from appearing in 44 games (nine starts) and playing 692 minutes last season to 65 appearances, 37 starts and nearly 1900 minutes so far this season. He did see a two percent uptick in usage while his PER increased from 13.8 to 15.4. But looking at his per 36 minute stats, they’re nearly identical year-over-year. That’s not to say Curry didn’t improve. To maintain a similar rate of production in nearly triple the minutes and four times as many starts has significance. Incredibly, Curry is holding opposing shooters nearly eight percent lower compared to last season. However, the level of improvement doesn’t push Curry higher on this list.
12. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Capela’s assists stayed roughly the same while he is committing nearly half a turnover more per 36. Impressively, his true shooting percentage jumped by nearly eight points. Ultimately, his three-point bump in PER is largely explained by an increase of over four percent in usage. The NBA is an opportunity league and Dwight Howard’s defection to Atlanta has opened up plenty of opportunities for Capela in Houston.
11. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Most of Thomas’ per 36 stats have remained flat, but he has jumped from 24.8 to 30.7 points per 36. He’s also seen a five-point increase in PER, but it’s accompanied by a usage increase of nearly five percent. He should absolutely be lauded for posting a career-best in true shooting (62 percent), which is a six percent improvement from last season. However, opponents are shooting two percent higher when guarded by Thomas compared to last year.
10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis has stepped up in scoring with a career-high 27.7 points per 36 minutes, a full three points better than last season’s previous high. He also stepped up in rebounding, pulling down a career-best 16 per 36, a 1.5 rebound improvement over last year. As with Westbrook — though to a lesser degree — much of Davis’ improvement can be attributed to a three percent uptick in usage. He does deserve a ton of credit for holding opposing shooters nearly six percent below their average, a differential that is almost twice as good as what he posted last season. Prior to the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis was called upon to fill the stat sheet due to the overall talent-deficit on the Pelicans’ roster.
9. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
Barnes’ per 36 scoring exploded from his previous career-high of 13.6 points in his final season with Golden State to 20 per 36 this season. However, his true shooting percentage and per-minute rebounding decreased slightly while assists decreased and turnovers increased. The latter is doubtlessly explained by having much more proficient scorers to pass to last season in Oakland. As with Westbrook, the huge increase in production is linked to a massive 10 percent increase in usage. With the Dallas Mavericks three games out of the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference, it’s fair to wonder how much of this is an improvement and how much is simply increased opportunity on a team desperate for scoring.
8. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
As the Pacers creep toward overtaking the Hawks for the fifth seed, Myles Turner is a major reason why Indiana is making some noise in the East. Although his per 36 stats are fairly consistent with his rookie season, Turner upped his PER by three points while his usage actually decreased by one percent. Turner compiled 25 steals as a rookie but already has 63 this season. He’s also taken a step up defensively, holding opponents four percent below their average. It seems like selling Turner short to rank him eighth, but despite a stellar sophomore campaign, the list is simply too crowded.
7. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
It’s tough to gauge improvement when a player is already so good. Leonard’s scoring has jumped by five points per 36 but his usage is up by more than five percent as well. Interestingly, Leonard is having an off season defensively (for his standards), allowing opponents to shoot nearly five percent higher than last season. Leonard won’t have a strong enough case for Most Improved Player, so he may just have to settle for MVP.
6. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Hayward has upped his scoring by more than three points per 36, improved his rebounding and cut down on turnovers. He’s also improved his true shooting slightly while impressively holding opposing shooters four percent lower than last season. Here again, despite a four-point leap in PER, it’s not a strong enough case to crack the top five.
5. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Basketball Insiders senior writer Ben Dowsett made a convincing argument for Beal to be among the top contenders for this award. Most of his jump from a 15.5 PER to 20.2 resulted from an increase of just under four points per 36 on true shooting that increased from 55 to nearly 61 percent. The bulk of his per 36 stats stayed flat while rebounding decreased. However, his bump in offensive production can’t be explained away by a jump in usage, which only increased by just over one percent.
4. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
Thanks to spending much of the season with the league lead in three point percentage, Porter’s true shooting percentage skyrocketed from 56 percent to nearly 64 percent this season. The Wizards’ wing has also shown improvement in assist-to-turnover ratio. While his assists per 36 minutes decreased slightly from 1.9 to 1.7, he nearly cut his turnovers in half from 1.1 to a career-low .6 per 36. He managed a three point jump in PER while seeing his usage actually decrease by one percent, a testament to his supreme efficiency.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Of particular note for Gobert is a quantum leap from 58 percent true shooting last season to nearly 68 percent this season. His PER took a major jump from 17.5 to 22.4, and he accomplished all of this while seeing his usage increase by a mere two percent. In any other season, it would be shocking if such accomplishments didn’t put Gobert at the head of the class in this discussion. But this is no ordinary season as the two stars below have gone supernova at an early stage in their respective careers.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic is part of a big man renaissance that is sweeping the NBA, joining a herd of unicorns that includes Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. His steals per 36 fell off from 1.6 as a rookie to just one this year while his assists per 36 jumped from 3.9 to an unimaginable 6.2. This was accompanied by only a slight increase in turnovers. Meanwhile, his true shooting percentage jumped from 58 percent to over 64 percent while his PER increased by nearly five points. All this was accomplished with a modest three percent increase in usage.
All of this equates to an offensive, creative force that will have NBA coaches losing sleep for the next decade-plus. How do you guard a player near seven-feet tall that can pass like a point guard and stretch the floor like a shooting guard? The only downfall for Jokic is that opponents are shooting five percent above their season average when he guards them, an increase of six percent compared to last season.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
If you look at ESPN.com’s stats page for the Milwaukee Bucks, you see a whole lot of the Greek Freak’s smiling face under the team leaders header. He might have become the first player to lead an NBA team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals and field goal percentage for a full season, but he currently trails Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley in the latter category.
Antetokounmpo’s PER jumped by more than seven points, which is astounding even with an accompanying increase of nearly six percent in usage. He distinguishes himself from Jokic by holding opponents 3.4 percent below their season average. And his true shooting has jumped from 57 percent to nearly 61 percent while he’s added a rebound, half a steal, half a block and a full assist per 36. To be an NBA fan right now is like watching the night sky come alive with new stars forming new constellations. Giannis is the latest iteration of something the NBA seems to continuously gift us with … something we’ve never seen before. Needless to say, Antetokounmpo has a very strong case for this year’s Most Improved Player award.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.