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NBA PM: The Case for Each Most Improved Player Candidate

Will Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green win Most Improved Player over Jimmy Butler?

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This is a strange season when it comes to the NBA’s award races, as there’s no clear-cut Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year or Most Improved Player. By now, usually one or two players have separated themselves from the pack as the top candidates for these awards, but not this year.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Houston’s James Harden, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Cleveland’s LeBron James are all in the mix for the MVP award and a strong case can be made for each player, as our Steve Kyler pointed out earlier this week. The DPOY race is a close call as well, as our Ben Dowsett recently broke down in great detail.

There are several players who have emerged as legitimate candidates for the Most Improved Player award this season. The last five Most Improved winners –Goran Dragic, Paul George, Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love and Aaron Brooks – received the award in lopsided fashion. Players are awarded five points for each first-place vote, three points for each second-place vote and one point for each third-place vote, and each of those five players finished over 100 voting points ahead of the runner-up when they won the award. The last close MIP race was during the 2008-09 season, when Danny Granger beat Devin Harris by just 25 points.

Before getting into the top candidates, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Most Improved Player, like every NBA award, is voted on by hand-picked members of the media. Some voters only cover one team rather than the NBA as a whole, which can lead to some strange votes or voters simply going with the popular choice on their ballot. Unfortunately, voters are sometimes influenced by a player’s story and exposure. While that shouldn’t be the case, it does happen and is something to keep in mind when discussing which player has the best shot at winning one of these awards. The NBA now releases every ballot, which is great for transparency and holding voters accountable, but there are still head-scratching votes sometimes. You can view last year’s Most Improved Player ballots here.

Next, I want to explain why New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis didn’t make my top five, even though he improved a great deal this year to become one of the NBA’s best players. The reason is that first overall picks just don’t win this award (especially ones who have already made an All-Star team in a previous season). That’s because they’re expected to drastically improve each year. Only one top pick has a Most Improved Player award in their trophy case and that is Pervis Ellison from the 1991-92 season. He won it after struggling in his first two seasons due to injuries and a trade. When he finally broke out and posted great numbers in his third year, he won the award. But a first overall pick who has made gradual improvements year after year has never been voted Most Improved Player.

This is the same reason LeBron James never won the award, even though he drastically improved from one season to the next for many years. Sure, he received some votes here and there (he even got one MIP vote last year, for some reason), but the only year he showed up on more than two ballots was his sophomore season when he finished in sixth place. Still, he received significantly fewer votes than the players in front of him, especially the winner Bobby Simmons. James’ improvement was expected each year, especially once he proved to be a superstar so early in his career.

Like James, Davis’ best shot at this award was likely his sophomore season. Last year, his statistical jump was bigger and he made his first All-Star team, but he finished third in voting behind Dragic and Lance Stephenson. It’s hard to imagine Davis winning the award now or any year going forward since he’s already one of the top players in the NBA and he’ll likely join the MVP race (just as James did).

Finally, my honorable mentions are Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors), Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks), Donatas Motiejūnas (Houston Rockets) and Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz). They didn’t crack the top five, but each of these players has made big strides this year.

With all of that out of the way, here’s a look at the top candidates for this year’s Most Improved Player award:

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks – The 23-year-old was the 39th overall pick by the Detroit Pistons in the 2012 NBA Draft. After suiting up in just 27 games for Detroit as a rookie, he was sent to the Bucks along with Brandon Knight in a sign-and-trade for Brandon Jennings.

KhrisMiddleton_InHe played pretty well for the Bucks last season, but has taken a huge step forward this year. He has become a very important part of Milwaukee’s offense and defense, and he is averaging 12.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from three-point range – all of which are career-highs. His three-point percentage ranks fifth in the NBA and, not to mention, he’s putting up these numbers while playing fewer minutes than last season (30 minutes per game in 2013-14 compared to 28.4 minutes this year).

In February and early March, he has played some of the best basketball of his career, scoring in double figures in the last 16 games and averaging 19.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals.

Those numbers are solid, but his advanced analytics are even more impressive, as they show that he has been one of the best two-way players in the NBA this year. He has the seventh-best Real Plus-Minus rating in the league (5.93), behind only Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis. This is a stat that shows a player’s impact on their team by measuring the net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions (along with some additional factors), and only the game’s biggest stars are ahead of him. Also, when Middleton is on the floor, Milwaukee’s offensive rating is 103 and defensive rating is 95 versus a 97.5 offensive rating and 103.1 defensive rating when he’s off the court. In other words, good things happen when Middleton is on the court.

Not only is Middleton in the mix for this award, he’s also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, as our Ben Dowsett broke down here. This would’ve sounded crazy last season, when he wasn’t very good on that end of the floor, but he has made huge strides. Last year, he was ranked 419th in the NBA in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (-3.50), but this season he’s ranked eighth in the NBA in DRPM (+4.09) and first among shooting guards. He has been a big reason for Milwaukee’s success this season, helping the team go from having the 28th per-possession defense last year to the second-best per-possession defense this season (even without big man Larry Sanders protecting the paint).

Middleton recently received a ton of praise at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey described him as “the new Shane [Battier].” Middleton likely won’t win this award since his traditional stats don’t jump off of the page (which, unfortunately, is all some voters look at) and his production hasn’t received the attention it should, but he deserves to be mentioned for the outstanding season he is having. Fortunately for him, he’s a restricted free agent after this year so his breakout campaign came at the perfect time.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors – Entering this season, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr decided to tinker with the team’s starting lineup. David Lee missing the first month and a half of the campaign forced him to make a change, but he also decided to bring Andre Iguodala off of the bench. This meant that Green and Harrison Barnes would be starting.

DraymondGreen_InFor Green, this was his first time as an every-night starter, as he only started 13 games over his first two seasons in the NBA. Now, 62 games later, this decision looks brilliant because Green has been sensational.

The 25-year-old is averaging career-highs in points (11.6), rebounds (8.3), assists (3.6), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.4) in 32.2 minutes per game. He has been outstanding on both ends of the floor and has been a key reason for Golden State’s league-best 50-12 record.

The team has a 111.6 offense rating and 95.4 defensive rating when he’s on the floor versus a 104.5 offensive rating and 102.2 defensive rating when he’s off the court. That’s a remarkable drop off when he leaves the game, which proves just how valuable Green has been this season.

He’s a solid threat on offense, but it’s his defense that has been most impressive. He has emerged as one of the best defenders in the entire league (he currently leads the NBA in defensive rating at 96.3 and defensive win shares at 4.3), and some people believe he should be this season’s Defensive Player of the Year. Green is also ninth in the NBA in value over replacement player (3.6) and is the only non-All-Star ranked in the top 10.

His versatility has been important for Golden State, as he can defend multiple positions and cause a lot of problems on offense when the Warriors go super small by playing him at center. It’s pretty amazing that he’s able to play the position at 6’7, but he has the strength, length and basketball IQ to thrive just about anywhere on the court.

Green’s breakout campaign sort of came out of nowhere, as he has been overlooked and under-appreciated for years. Like Middleton, he slipped to the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft, going 35th overall, and he spent his first two NBA seasons as a role player. Now, he’s one of the best players on the best team in the league, and he’s hitting restricted free agency this offseason.

This has been quite the season for Green, and he has received a lot of attention for his excellent play since the Warriors are the NBA’s top team. He’s certainly a top candidate for this award, but he has a lot of competition for the trophy.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz – When the Jazz selected Gobert with the 27th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, they knew he had a ton of upside. However, he was believed to be very raw and a multi-year project, so nobody expected him to make an impact right away.

RudyGobert_InHowever, in just his second NBA season, he has become Utah’s starting center. Gobert’s strong play led to Enes Kanter’s minutes decreasing, so the big man became disgruntled. Gobert made him expendable, and the Jazz traded Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder last month.

In 15 games as a starting center this season, Gobert is averaging 9.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 1.1 steals in 33.5 minutes. These are by far his career-highs, as he averaged just 2.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, .9 blocks and .2 steals in 9.6 minutes last year. He went from barely being a rotation player last season to being a monster for Utah this year.

Gobert is way ahead of schedule in his development at 22 years old, and today the Jazz look very smart for drafting the 7’1 big man with a 7’8.5 wingspan. Not only has Gobert emerged as Utah’s best center, he has arguably been the best defensive big man in the NBA. If this seems like an exaggeration, consider these numbers:

  • Through December 31, Utah was 27th in the league in per-possession defense (when Gobert averaged just 16.5 minutes in October, 15.8 minutes in November and 21.7 minutes in December). But since February 1 (when Gobert’s minutes significantly increased), the Jazz are the league’s top defensive unit, as Dowsett pointed out in his DPOY article. It’s no coincidence that Utah’s improvement on that end has coincided with Gobert’s increase in minutes. When he’s on the floor, the Jazz’s defensive rating is 99.9 versus 106.9 when he’s off the floor.
  • Gobert leads the NBA in defensive box plus-minus (5.0), points saved per 36 minutes (4.16), block percentage (7.7 percent) and opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim (39 percent). He’s ninth in the NBA in box plus-minus trailing only All-Stars Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.
  • Gobert is third in the NBA in blocks per game (2.3), behind only Anthony Davis (2.8) and Serge Ibaka (2.5). Gobert would likely be first had he started playing more minutes earlier in the season. On the year, he is averaging just 23.5 minutes per game compared to 35.7 minutes for Davis and 33.2 minutes for Ibaka. With 19 games left in the season and Gobert playing 35.8 minutes per night this month, it’s still possible that he’ll pass Davis and Ibaka to lead the NBA in blocks per game.

While Gobert has been a beast on the defensive end, he has also been better than expected on offense. He still has a lot of room for improvement obviously, but he’s not the raw liability that many thought he’d be when he was going through the pre-draft process.

As a starting center, he has averaged 9.6 points on 60.9 percent shooting from the field. He has also been very good on the offensive glass, with the fourth-best offensive rebound percentage in the NBA (14.1 percent). His high field goal percentage, efficiency and ability to give Utah extra opportunities has increased his offensive rating to ninth-best in the NBA (121.8). For similar reasons, big men Tyson Chandler (134.9) and DeAndre Jordan (127.6) are ranked one and two in the category, which is an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions.

In most years, Gobert would be a lock for this award because his improvement from last season to this season is night and day; he seemingly came out of nowhere to become a dominant interior force. However, this isn’t most years and there are a number of excellent choices for the award this season in addition to “The Stifle Tower” (a great nickname, by the way).

Hassan Whiteside, Miami HEAT – Did someone say “seemingly came out of nowhere to become a dominant interior force” just now? The same description applies to Whiteside. At least Gobert was in the NBA last season; Whiteside spent last year playing in Lebanon, China and the D-League.

HassanWhiteside_InsideWhiteside is one of the biggest NBA surprises in recent years. He has been compared to Jeremy Lin back when he had his Linsanity run, but Whiteside’s story has arguably been even stranger. Lin bounced around the NBA before getting his big opportunity with the New York Knicks. Whiteside, on the other hand, had been declared a bust, was out of the NBA for two full seasons and, just to reiterate, was playing in Lebanon. That’s insane – there’s no precedent or comparison that fits because that just doesn’t happen. Whiteside’s impressive stretch has also lasted much longer than Lin’s did, as he has now been posting jaw-dropping stats for two and a half months.

Over the offseason, Whiteside had trouble getting workouts and a training camp invite. Eventually, he landed with the Memphis Grizzlies, but they waived him after five preseason games. He went back to the D-League, playing with the Iowa Energy. In three D-League games, he led Iowa to a 3-0 record while averaging 22 points (on 85.7 percent shooting from the field), 15.7 rebounds and 5.33 blocks. That’s all Miami needed to see and called him up.

Still, he didn’t play for the HEAT at first. He failed to appear in nine of his first 12 games (and only totaled eight minutes in the three contests he did play in). The only reason he eventually earned significant minutes is because Chris Andersen, Josh McRoberts and Udonis Haslem suffered injuries.

By late December, he was in the rotation. Then, he started turning heads in January, averaging 13 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks. On January 25, he recorded a triple-double (14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks) in 25 minutes off the bench in a win over the Chicago Bulls. He started the next game and hasn’t looked back. In February, he averaged 14.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. He has remained Miami’s starter and played very well.

On the season, Whiteside is averaging 10.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 22 minutes. In 20 games as a starter, he’s averaging 13.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 26.9 minutes. He’s fifth in the NBA in player efficiency rating (27.15) behind only Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant – the only non-All-Star ranked in the top 11 in PER. With Whiteside on the court, Miami’s offensive rating is 102.9 and their defensive rating is 101.9 (versus 99.6 and 104.6 when he’s off the court).

While he has had some issues with ejections and was recently suspended for a blow delivered to Boston Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk, there’s no question that he’s been impressive when he’s on the floor.

Some have questioned if Whiteside is eligible for the award since he wasn’t in the NBA last season. The answer is yes, as the criteria on the ballot states, “This award is designed to honor an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons.”

Whiteside spent two seasons with the Sacramento Kings, in which he played in 19 games and averaged 1.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and .8 blocks. Saying Whiteside has made “dramatic improvement” from then to now is an understatement.

The knock against Whiteside is that he has only played in 35 games this season, which is a relatively small sample size and almost half as many games as some other candidates. Still, his improvement has been unbelievable. It’s also worth noting that he has an excellent story and has received a ton of exposure this season (which will certainly help him get votes, as mentioned in the introduction). He or Gobert seem to be the top threats to the man who has been labeled the MIP frontrunner for much of the season.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls – For quite a while, Most Improved Player seemed like a one-man race. Butler made the leap from role player to All-Star, suddenly becoming Chicago’s best player. He had the team playing great basketball and Butler was a two-way star, making his presence felt all over the floor.

InsideJimmyButlerLooking at the season as a whole, Butler seems to have the best case for the award. He was putting up terrific numbers back when Gobert was still on the pine in Utah and Whiteside was in the D-League. However, the emergence of the two big men coupled with Butler’s recent elbow injury (which will sideline him for three-to-six weeks) means the MIP race could be much closer than initially expected. Will voters reward Butler’s season-long dominance or what players like Gobert and Whiteside have done lately?

It’s hard to look past the campaign that Butler is having. After averaging 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 steals in 38.7 minutes last year, he has averaged 20.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals this season. He has also increased his shooting percentages from the field (39.7 percent to 46.2 percent), from three-point range (28.3 percent to 35.1 percent) and from the free throw line (76.9 percent to 84.1 percent). Butler ranks sixth in the NBA in win shares (9.3), eighth in offensive rating (122.2), 10th in value over replacement player (3.6) and 11th in box plus-minus (4.7).

Even though he is now Chicago’s leading scorer, he has continued to make plays all over the court and be a pest on the defensive end. In addition to leading the NBA in minutes per game, he’s also ranked first in distance traveled per game (2.8 miles).

His emergence is reminiscent of Paul George’s breakout 2012-13 campaign, when he went from being a role player to a two-way All-Star with the Indiana Pacers and won the Most Improved Player award.

Butler has helped the Bulls remain a contender in the Eastern Conference despite a number of injuries to key players. Whiteside’s HEAT and Gobert’s Jazz are currently out of the playoff picture, whereas the Bulls are in the three seed, which could help Butler separate himself in the eyes of some voters (although Butler’s Bulls have 11 fewer wins than Green’s Warriors).

The fact that Butler has been described as the frontrunner for this award for much of the season could also help him since voters sometimes go with the popular pick (as mentioned in the introduction). He has also received a ton of exposure for his breakout campaign and excellent story. Not to mention, voters who simply glance at each player’s jump in traditional stats will likely go with Butler.

If Whiteside, Gobert and Green continue to put up impressive numbers for the remainder of the season and Butler remains sidelined, voting for this award could be extremely close. It seems Butler is still the slight frontrunner as of now, but it’ll be interesting to see if that changes over the next month.

Who do you think should win the Most Improved Player award? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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