The Most Improved Player award tends to go to a player who came out of nowhere, a player whose production and profile among the league took the largest leap. It often is a player that was a lower draft pick, or someone who isn’t known to casual fans, who put in the hard work in the offseason and makes a huge impact on his team, reaching the group of players just out of the all-star conversation. Typically All-stars don’t win this award, and usually aren’t even considered. One marker of a MIP winner is someone who got a huge bump in minutes per game and made the most of it.
Last season, the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler ran away with the award and, as an exception to the general rule, also become a first-time All-Star. Other recent winners include Goran Dragic (2013-14) when he was with the Phoenix Suns, Paul George (2012-13) with the Indiana Pacers, Ryan Anderson (2011-12) with the Orlando Magic and Kevin Love (2010-11) with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
As All-Stars are not typically considered for MIP, a reigning MVP probably should not in consideration for the award, but the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry certainly has a case. Even though it’s tough to improve upon a season as the NBA’s best player, Curry has done just that. To start with, Curry is averaging 30.4 points a game this year in only one minute per game more than his 23.8 points per game last season. Then there are his shooting percentages. From inside the arc, he upped his percentage from 52.8 to 57.6 percent, while outside the arc it when up from 44.3 to 46.1 percent, both of which are just mind-boggling when you consider the volume of his shooting and how much defenses gear up to slow him down specifically. Additionally, his effective field goal percentage (which weighs threes and free throws) went from 59.4 to 63.9 percent. He also is averaging an extra rebound a game, all of which is helping propel his reigning champion Warriors to be on pace to break the all-time number of wins in a regular season. But in a sense, he is disqualified for being too good for the Most Improved Player race.
Let’s look at those players who are probably going to be in the hunt for the award come the end of the season.
C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers)
Like Butler was last year, C.J. McCollum is far and away the leader for this year’s Most Improved Player race, and barring some improbable sequence of events, will likely win the award. The Trail Blazers lost 80 percent of their starting lineup and some bench depth and were predicted to be one of the worst teams out in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard, the lone remaining starter from the previous year and McCollum are the main reasons that Portland is currently a playoff team, as opposed to a cellar-dweller like predicted.
For McCollum, the opportunity was huge with the large void left behind with so many players gone. The 6’4 guard out of Lehigh went from averaging 15.7 minutes and only starting in three games last season to starting all 56 games thus far and averaging 35.1 minutes per game. The reason he’ll probably get the award for MIP is because he made the most out of that opportunity. To accompany his increase in role, he went from 6.8 points a game to 21.1 this season, which puts him 15th overall in the league. It’s not just the increase in minutes either. His field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage are all significantly improved. Along with his backcourt partner, who is fifth in scoring averaging 25.1, McCollum and Lillard make a fearsome combo. McCollum was great against the Memphis Grizzlies in last year’s playoffs, but I don’t think anyone thought he would be this good, this fast.
Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)
Draymond Green is probably one of the biggest overall impact players in the league. His versatility on both ends of the court allows Golden State to do a lot more than they would be able to without him. Green is having a great year, even compared to last year where he almost won the Defensive Player of the Year award and was instrumental in helping the Warriors win the NBA title.
Green is playing a few more minutes a game and upped his points per game from 11.7 to 14.0. His field goal percentage went from 44.3 to 48.7 percent and he increased his three-point percentage from 33.7 to 40.2 percent. This is huge for the Warriors since he he spaces the floor more effectively and keeps defenses from hounding Curry in the pick-and-roll as they might if Green couldn’t hit his perimeter shots consistently.
Green also boosted his rebounding average from 6.7 to 7.9 and really upped his assists from 3.7 to an amazing 7.3, which is pretty incredible for a power forward who often plays center. Green has 11 triple-doubles this season, leading the league (three more than second-place Russell Westbrook). He only had one the other three years of his career combined. That’s major improvement and Green was rewarded with his first All-Star selection.
Isaiah Thomas (Boston Celtics)
Another player that could be in the mix for the MIP award is Celtics’ point guard Isaiah Thomas. While it would be a little atypical due to the fact that he already was a starter back in 2013-14 with Sacramento (averaging 20.3 points per game), he had a significantly down year during his short stint in Phoenix and has bounced back to earn his first All-Star selection.
During his Suns’ tenure, Thomas only started once and was played 25.7 minutes a game, averaging 15.2 points per game. However this year, Thomas has started 56 of Boston’s 59 games, averaging 32.5 minutes and scoring 21.6 points per game (tying him with Klay Thompson for 12th in the league in scoring). His assists have also gone up from 3.7 in Phoenix to 6.8 in 2015-16. He has been the focal point of Boston’s offense and has been a steady leader under Brad Stevens’ guidance. Nevertheless, there’s still a large gap between McCollum and everyone else, but Thomas is certainly in the discussion.
Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
Despite now being a two-time all-star, Kyle Lowry has really improved his game this year. In only a few more minutes per game, he upped his scoring average from 17.8 to 21.4 points per game. That puts him as the 14th highest scoring player in the league. He’s averaging more rebounds, and assists, but most impressive are his percentages. His field goal percentage went from 41.2 to 43.6 percent, which is fine, but his three-point percentage went from 33.8 percent (not that great) to 39.0 percent (lethal). He even got invited to participate in the three-point contest at All-Star weekend “at his house” in Toronto.
Jae Crowder (Boston Celtics)
The Boston Celtics must really be surging if they have two candidates for MIP. Jae Crowder is the second player that is in the conversation along with Thomas. Crowder is in a lot of ways similar to DeMarre Carroll, but may be even better.
The former second-round pick has really picked up his game, going from starting 17 games last season after getting traded from Dallas to starting all 59 games for Boston thus far this season. With a big role increase (24.2 to 32.1 minutes) Crowder has made the most of it, going from 9.5 to 14.4 points per game – and he’s not even the focal point of that offense. Even better he’s increased his field goal percentage from 41.8 to 45.7 and his three-point percentage increase is even more dramatic (28.2 to 36.0 percent). That’s an amazing improvement, and it’s on more attempts per game. He’s also rebounding and assisting a bit better and plays terrific defense. He has been a nice addition for Boston and is locked up at a very team-friendly contract.
Unfortunately, for all these players, the Most Improved Player award is C.J. McCollum’s to lose and there is no indication he’ll be slowing down any time soon.
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