The NBA Most Improved Player award is an annual honor bestowed upon an individual in the league who showcases the largest leap in ability. It's a fun concept, and it showcases one of the league's many unwritten rules: it's primarily a young man's award, typically not given to anyone who has received recognition in All-NBA, All-Defense, or All Star teams; and certainly never to an MVP.
And this year seems to be holding true. Although there are a plethora of All Star performers who have vastly improved their all-around games, Portland Trailblazer and young gunner CJ McCollum appears to be the presumptive frontrunner for this second-tier league honor. He fits the prototypic mold: young, high-scoring, previously unrecognized in NBA award circles. NBA MIP voting can almost be thought of as a welcoming into relevancy of sorts -- recent winners include Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George and current Cleveland Cavalier forward Kevin Love, two players who had not made All Star appearances until their Most Improved honors marked the occasion.
But this adopted convention does not perfectly mirror the reality. CJ McCollum has not been the most improved player in the league, yet he will be the Most Improved Player. Let's dive into the numbers, and see who ranks out ahead of McCollum.
6. Will Barton
There are some superficial similarities between Denver Nugget guard Will Barton and McCollum. Both helped their respective teams deliver the Golden State Warriors exactly 20% of their total losses this season. Both are slightly diminutive at the two guard slot, though Barton is simply stringy thin while McCollum's size deficiencies are more vertical than horizontal. Both were drafted by Portland at age 22, and both received massive workload increases this season.
Barton went from below average TS% to hovering above average, a larger leap than McCollum's slight blip upwards. Granted, McCollum also raised his USG% up higher than Barton did, so the fact McCollum held steady in TS% at all is a commendable positive.
While Barton rebounds well for a player of his frame, it may be a bit of a David Lee effect in play. The Nuggets rebound better on both sides of the ball, and their opposition rebounds a bit worse on each side of the ball, when the 175 lb guard is on the bench, despite his rather gaudy numbers on the boards.
The Nuggets' offense plays a bit better when Barton sits, but their defense collapses from bad to horrible when he goes to the bench, too, resulting in a net +3.5 on the season with Barton on the floor. It's slightly auspicious that he appears to negatively affect his team's ball movement when he's on the court, but his end-over-end personal improvements are enough to warrant amnesty from such investigations for now.
In fact, Barton and McCollum have had very similar raw improvements -- either one can make a decent case for ranking above each other. As it is, though, McCollum gets the slight edge currently, because of a larger leap in pts/36 while also steadily increasing his TS%. McCollum has also doubled his asts/36, as seen below, showing more involvement in the team offense. Barton's asts/36 have largely held steady at below average for a guard; and while his rbs/36 look pretty in a vacuum, within the context of the Nuggets rebounding better without him on the court they have to be regarded as stats hunting.
In all, Barton has increased his scoring efficiency and usage -- impressive enough to place on this list, but not quite enough to rank higher.
5. CJ McCollum
McCollum has obviously improved his game from last year. Damien Lillard's running mate has already seen more minutes in the 2015 - 2016 season than he had in the previous two seasons combined, resulting in him setting career highs in pretty much everything. But he hasn't been inflating his counting stats without showing any improvement: his rate stats are just flat-out better, probably because the mass exodus in Portland has allowed him the court time to get into a rhythm on the court.
His year-to-year improvement is obvious:
The Trail Blazer's are a round +7.0 when McCollum is on the court, one of the best marks on his team, up from the +1.0 split from last year. At 24 years of age, he's certainly in the stage of his career where these types of all-around improvements are not unexpected. And in any year the LeHigh University product would be a very solid threat to take home Most Improved honors rightfully.
But this isn't just any year.
4. Draymond Green
Draymond Green has seemingly broken out every single year. In his sophomore season, it was proving to Mark Jackson he was playable offensively. Last year, it was showcasing he was worthy of a featured role within the Golden State defense. This year, he's now flashing that he is more than worthy of a featured role within the Golden State offense.
Green now functions as a facilitator for the Warriors through much of the game, allowing Stephen Curry to operate off-ball the same way the Triangle took the ball out of Jordan's hands through three quarters to save him energy. His numbers are seemingly catching up to his impact, or else he is finding new ways to impact the game that are picked up by rudimentary statistics. The league-leader in arbitrary-but-fun triple doubles, Green has improved largely in non-scoring faculties -- although his efficiency is up a notch, too.
Also a fun factoid: Green, with help from Stephen Curry, is +26.7 when he's on the floor for the Warriors. Last year, he was a much more reasonable +15.5. There is some bench regression to keep in mind, and, again, playing the bulk of his minutes with Curry has undoubtedly inflated that on/off split a bit.
But a lot of the Warriors' success can be attributed to Green just be the eye-test alone, so that hugely positive net rating isn't completely lying, either.
And since we are past the stage of the McCollums and Bartons of the world, this is a good point to mention: the improvement curve grows exponentially steeper. The greatest flaw in the unwritten system that strictly votes young and previously unproven players for Most Improved is that it ignores that the difficultly from improving from bad to decent is not the same as improving from good to great, or contemporarily great to all-time great.
It's easy to pick up a basketball for the first time in your life and learn how to shoot a jump shot in a few hours. In absolute terms, that's the most improvement you will ever make over that time span: you literally went from not being able to shoot, to being able to shoot.
Green has improved from "good" (by some metrics, top five in the league) to even better than "good" (current season RAPMs have not matriculated to this author, yet, to be sure exactly where he stands). This alone is a more impressive leap from the "unknown entities" McCollum and Barton were, to "NBA players" as they now are.
From here on out, though, the rest of these players were already jumping off from the same approximate starting basis of Draymond Green -- (at least) very effective players who have shown the most improvement overall.
3. Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry is playing as well as anyone ever has in a Toronto Raptors jersey. In fact, at age 29, he and Stephen Curry are combining to punt everything scouts and GMs thought they knew about the natural progression of player development. He is surging in the supposed twilight of his athletic prime, reaching new heights at what we thought would be the hypotenuse of his career.
This is a player who once shot 89% then 69% on free throws... in consecutive seasons. The same guy who has at one point shot 39.7% from the floor in over 1600 minutes in a season... and is now shooting 39% from three point range. Don't pretend like you know what Lowry is going to do next.
Lowry is the best guard at either backcourt position in the Eastern Conference. At one point I anointed him the best under-Curry sized guard, but Los Angeles Clipper Chris Paul has retaken that mantle, for now. Let's see how Lowry has improved his game since last season:
Kyle Lowry, even starting out eons ahead of McCollum and Barton, flat-out showed more raw improvement. A nearly six-point jump in TS% at age 29, while shooting less and playing more minutes this go-around. Lowry took one of the hardest steps forward in the league this year: from fledgling star to point-blank superstar.
When he's on the court, the Raptors have what equates to being the second-best offense in the league, with an offensive rating north of 111. The Raptors are over nine points worse on offense when he sits, but that's counterbalanced by a three-point better defense with Lowry on the bench -- no doubt aided by defensive stopper Corey Joseph subbing in for Lowry. Nonetheless, the Raptors are a net +6.6 with Lowry on the floor.
2. Kawhi Leonard
Yes, one of the three or four best players in the world has also improved the second most this season. Because even in a game of orange orbs being passed around by giant humans in sweatbands, the rich get richer. Kawhi Leonard simultaneously fits and doesn't fit the typical Most Improved award recipient mold. He's only 24, making him a full year younger than Will Barton (and the same age as CJ McCollum). This is also the first year he's crossed the 20 points/game threshold, which usually puts a player on the radar for the award.
But we tend to think of Leonard as a seasoned vet, while Barton and McCollum are "young guns", because he's seen everything the league has to offer as a San Antonio Spur. He's been a Finals MVP, an All Star, a Defensive Player of the Year, a First-Team All-Defense... he's about as decorated a 24-year old the league has ever seen. In that regard, he's earned far too much recognition for the voters to consider him in this second-tier award. Remember, part of the raison d'être for the Most Improved Player award is to shed some light on previously anonymous players -- the Will Bartons of the world, not so much the Kawhi Leonards.
But Leonard has improved his game massively. I couldn't resist listing all the different efficiencies he's posting, because... wow.
It's important to note also that last year was a bit of a down year for Leonard in terms of efficiency. That was the proverbial passing-of-the-torch year, in which the Spurs' Big Three really offloaded a bulk of the usage onto Leonard for the first time in his career. This year, though, he's readjusted to his workload and has pushed his game into a new stratosphere.
He's not simply a spot-up three-and-"d" wing, either. Although he's obviously lethal within the confines of that role, he's developed a decent Dirk Nowitzki-lite fading midrange shot in the key that he can go to anytime he wants. He's bigger and stronger than most other swingmen who guard him. Although he never has operated as a primary distributor the same way Draymond Green does for the Warriors, within Gregg Popavich's system he is far from a blackhole offensively.
And defensively, everyone knows the story. Perhaps no defender has built quite the mythos that Leonard has in so short of time. When he's on the floor, the Spurs have a defensive rating of just over 96.
On/off splits don't do his contributions quite enough justice, as he is backed by perhaps the deepest bench in the NBA, resulting in some depressed numbers because his team can build and hold leads with or without him. Even so, a +5.5 net rating hints at his overall impact.
1. Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry isn't going to win the Most Improved Player award. They don't give Most Improved Player awards to players like Steph. They give Most Valuable Player awards to players like Steph. But that doesn't mean he hasn't improved the most, pound-for-pound, against anyone else in the league.
If Stephen Curry were a five man unit, he'd have an offensive rating of 126. Literally.
The Warriors' offensive rating goes up +15.4 when Steph is playing. He's not amazing because the machine around him creates easy shots for him; he is the machine that transmogrifies a slightly-above-league-average offensive team into an all-time great one. He is threatening to break his own record for three-point makes in a season by tomorrow, with over twenty games still on the docket.
He is breaking his own records with 20%+ of the season to spare.
Stephen Curry is so obviously the most improved player in the league, the only thing stopping him from being voted the Most Improved Player is precedence. But this harkens back to the improvement curve theory. We're awarding players such as McCollum and Barton for discovering fire while players such as Curry and Leonard are discovering nuclear fusion.
Not that anyone would be too bothered by such a snub -- Most Improved Player is hardly the most high-profile award handed out, and it's commonly understood the prerogative of the award is targeted towards the younger, less-established players. But in this court of egalitarian, empirical data, one truth shines forth:
The most improved player in the league is Stephen Curry.