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If the NBA Season Is Over, Who Deserves Most Improved Player?

The league’s most abstract award also features its toughest decision this season. While you can make a compelling case for a number of rising stars, there’s one that took too substantial of a leap to ignore.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

We don’t know yet whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is it, I thought it might be nice to take a minute to acknowledge the best of what we watched. I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards. If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out. We’ll run through all of the awards this week, one post at a time, because we all must do our part right now, and the least I can do is give all of you the opportunity to roast me for my choices.

So, without further ado, let’s hand out some hypothetical hardware. So far, I’ve laid out my ballots for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year. Next up: the dudes who are getting better all the time (even when it can’t get no worse).

Ask 10 different NBA fans how to define “Most Improved Player,” and you might get 10 different answers. Improvement can take on lots of different forms; that’s what makes this award my favorite one to think about, but also maybe the toughest to pick.

Some would argue that MIP should go to someone who rose from obscurity to a prominent rotation role. If that’s where you land, you’re likely opting for someone like Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham, who went from fringe piece to centerpiece seemingly overnight after transforming into an accurate high-volume 3-point shooter (37.3 percent on 9.3 attempts per game, fifth in the league in both pull-up makes and total triples) and a viable pick-and-roll facilitator who produced more points per possession on those plays than the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Ja Morant, and Jimmy Butler.

You might lean toward Duncan Robinson, who went undrafted in 2018 and spent last season on a two-way deal before becoming a sharpshooting linchpin in the Heat’s starting lineup. The 6-foot-7 forward set a new franchise record for most 3-pointers in a season (despite playing in only 65 games) and drilled a scintillating 44.8 percent of his long balls, fourth best in the league. His off-ball motion and catch-and-shoot sniping helped make the Heat hum, with Miami scoring 116 points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the court, and just 108.5 when he sat, according to Cleaning the Glass—roughly the difference between the NBA’s second-ranked offense and its 24th. Maybe you’d favor Christian Wood, who became the best player on the Pistons—his fifth team in four seasons—by seizing an opportunity created by injuries and trades, and putting up per-minute numbers that evoke All-Stars and Hall of Famers.

Or maybe you think advancing from “already in the mix” to “potential future star” is an even more impressive form of improvement. That might lead you to look at someone like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the jewel of last summer’s Paul George trade, who at age 21 emerged as the leading scorer and most versatile perimeter defender on a surprisingly spicy Thunder team. Or Jaylen Brown, whose steady development across the board—as a complementary playmaker, as a secondary scoring threat, and as an excellent multipositional defender—helped the Celtics thrive after losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Or Lonzo Ball, who remained an ace backcourt defender and fast-break-fueling passer while remaking his shot from “haunted” to “nearly league average,” and who fit damn-near perfectly next to Zion Williamson (New Orleans crushed opponents by 15.7 points per 100 when the two shared the floor) on a Pelicans team that played a thrilling brand of ball the last couple of months.

Me? I tend to go for the players who take an even bigger leap—from pretty good to really good, from starter to All-Star, or close to it. The vote has generally trended that way in recent years, too. Which is why my ballot looks like this:

Most Improved Player

1. Luka Doncic, Mavericks
2. Bam Adebayo, Heat
3. (tie) Brandon Ingram, Pelicans, and Jayson Tatum, Celtics

Yeah, that’s right: a tie for third. No, this wouldn’t fly if this were an official ballot. Good thing, then, that this is not, but instead a theoretical exercise in a blog post two weeks after the league suspended operations due to a crippling pandemic!

Zion understandably sucked up all the oxygen surrounding the Pelicans after his debut, but we can’t give short shrift to what Ingram achieved in his first year in New Orleans. While Williamson was injured, Ingram used his tightened handle and improved jumper to slide comfortably into a new role as a no. 1 option. He averaged 25.6 points per game before Zion’s arrival, commanding a star’s share of offensive possessions (a usage rate of 29.2), dropping dimes on more than 20 percent of his teammates’ baskets, and still scoring at an elite level of efficiency (a .601 true shooting percentage). Only 11 players ever have put up numbers like that for a full season—all MVPs and All-Stars.

Ingram’s individual scoring production dipped some as he made space for Williamson, but he still averaged a shade under 23-7-6 per 36 minutes alongside Zion, and the two began developing a playmaking rapport before the shutdown. After three up-and-down seasons in Los Angeles and a blood clot scare that prompted questions about his career outlook, Ingram established himself as a legitimate All-Star and building block—one all but certain to get a maximum extension of his rookie contract in restricted free agency, whether from the Pelicans or another suitor.

Tatum will get one, too. It will come from the Celtics. After what he did this season—especially in its final two months—there’s no way they’re letting him out of TD Garden.

After a frustrating sophomore season in which he often settled for bad shots, Tatum exchanged a bunch of long midrangers (down from 22 percent of his shot diet last season to 13 percent this season) for more 3-pointers (up from 28 percent of his attempts last season to 34 percent this season), which he canned at a 39.8 percent clip. He also started attacking the basket more often and more effectively, averaging nearly three more drives per game in the final two months of the season, improving his finishing inside the restricted area by more than eight percentage points, and getting to the free throw line two more times per game.

Those advancements combined to make Tatum one of the second half’s most dangerous three-level scorers. It also made him one of the most balanced players in the league: Tatum routinely guards multiple positions at a high level, and played the most minutes on the Celtics’ fourth-ranked defense (which allowed 5.2 fewer points per 100 when he played than when he was off the court). He also finished eighth in defensive win shares and 15th in defensive real plus-minus. The version of Tatum we saw in the first half of the season was good enough to be an All-Star; the one we saw in the second half was arguably a top-10 player.

Speaking of players with insane upside, let’s move on to an athletic marvel whose marriage of blunt-force brutality and playmaking sophistication was one of the season’s most eye-opening revelations.

Adebayo was impressive in his first two seasons in Miami, contributing in a reserve role behind Hassan Whiteside and showing signs as a spring-heeled dive man, rim-protecting rebounder, and quick-footed defender capable of switching out on to guards. When the Heat traded Whiteside in the four-team mega-deal that brought Jimmy Butler to South Beach, I expected Adebayo to take a step forward as he assumed the starting job. I did not expect him to start slinging passes all over the court like a carved-out-of-granite Nikola Jokic. Bam notched an assist on 23.6 percent of his teammates’ baskets—only 15 other big men have ever posted an assist rate that high.

The Heat’s defense slipped as the season wore on, but Bam’s individual effort and impact as a backline captain didn’t wane; Miami allowed 2.2 fewer points per 100 with him on the court. With his combination of size, strength, length, speed, and will, Adebayo can defend anybody—quicksilver point guards, crafty wing scorers, bruising big men, and even the MVP of the league:

Adebayo cemented himself this season as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a playmaking hub on a top-eight offense. He’s already grown into a special player—one who, by age 22, has blown away pre-draft expectations of what he could become.

Speaking of which …

Ultimately, I came back to what I felt after the first quarter of the season: As impressive and valid as all the other brands of improvement are, and as difficult as all of those leaps are to make, there’s nothing more impressive or difficult than becoming a top-five player in the league. While I wound up leaving Doncic just outside my top five in MVP balloting, it was by the slimmest of margins; he’s fucking unreal, in a way that even the heady early days of “Halleluka” hype didn’t quite project.

This season, Doncic became just the fifth player ever to average 28 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists per game, joining Oscar Robertson, James Harden, Michael Jordan, and Russell Westbrook. He led not only this season’s no. 1 offense, but statistically the no. 1 NBA offense ever, and did it while combining usage and scoring efficiency to a degree matched only by Harden and Giannis. The Mavericks torched defenses to the tune of 118.5 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the court, and did so based largely on his ability to stretch opponents with the threat of his stepback jumper, manipulate help defenders with his eyes, fire pinpoint passes to open shooters with either hand, or blow past the first line of defense to get into the paint for a layup, floater, or dump-off to a lurking big man. He was an unsolvable equation—but that wasn’t just the natural progression from his first year.

Doncic clearly got in better shape, allowing him to more capably shoulder his giant workload without wearing down. He got stronger, which helped him finish in traffic; after shooting 62 percent at the rim as a rookie, he converted 73 percent of his tries within 4 feet of the basket this season, placing him in the 94th percentile of all wings in the league. He worked harder on the glass, pulling in nearly a quarter of available defensive rebounds, an elite number for a wing, and this helped Dallas get out on the break and put defenses on their heels, with the Mavs averaging 11.7 more points per 100 transition plays with Doncic on the court than when he was off the court.

He tightened his handle and sharpened his decision-making; while he committed more turnovers per game this season, his turnover percentage actually decreased from his rookie campaign, and he posted the league’s third-best assist percentage. And as John Hollinger noted at The Athletic, Doncic has also worked diligently to improve his left hand, opening up angles that defenses used to be able to close off to attack, probe, pass, and shoot. Now, the whole floor is unlocked, and opponents have to fear Doncic picking them apart from all over the court.

No player in the league made a bigger or more significant leap this season than Doncic. He returned Dallas to playoff contention, teaming with Kristaps Porzingis, sideline genius Rick Carlisle, and a deep roster of complementary role players to create an offensive juggernaut—one that promises to get even scarier as Doncic continues to work on his jumper. If Luka and the Mavericks offense are already this good while he shoots 31.8 percent from 3, what fresh hell can they unleash if he follows in Harden’s footsteps and gets up to 35 or 36, or even higher?

I’m guessing opponents aren’t too eager to find out. I’m also guessing, based on the pace and scope of Doncic’s improvements thus far, that we might not have to wait that long before they do.