NBA Players Who Have Upgraded Their Games This Season
When looking at NBA players who have improved, it’s easy to mix up players who just got more playing time with players who have truly upgraded their games.
Hypothetically, say two players increase their scoring from 15 to 20 points per game. One is playing the same number of minutes as he did the previous year. The other is playing twice as many minutes. Which one has actually improved?
In order to determine which players have truly upgraded their games, the best tool to measure with isn’t traditional box-score stats like points, rebounds and assists because they don’t account for minutes. Player efficiency rating (PER)—John Hollinger’s per-minute, single-number metric—does a much better job of evaluating improvement.
While some may argue that it has certain flaws or positional biases, those “flaws” remain consistent for each player from year to year. So, since we’re evaluating improvement, positional biases are moot. We’re only looking at the same player’s PER from one year to the next.
To determine the most improved players, I looked at players who were qualified for the PER title and in the top 100 in PER who had improved the most. They are ranked here by how much they improved in the metric from last year.
All stats are current as of February 20 and obtained from Basketball-Reference.com.
Honorable Mentions and Notable Exceptions
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves, 9.9
Love has improved his PER by 9.9 points, boasting a 27.8 this season. The problem is that last year he played just 18 games, and his 17.9 PER is deceptive. His last full season, the 2011-12 season, he boasted a 25.4. So, while this year he’s boasting a career high, it’s more realistically a 2.4 improvement than 9.9.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks, 4.8
Dirk Nowitzki is certainly enjoying a resurgence to his career, with a PER of 24.6 compared to last season’s 19.8. However, it’s still a long way off from his career high of 28.1, back in 2005. Now 35 years old, he’s enjoying his best PER since he was 29, but that’s an argument for Comeback Player of the Year.
D.J. Augustin, Chicago Bulls, 5.1
If we look at only his time with the Chicago Bulls this season, where he’s played 1,014 of his 1,096 total minutes, Augustin has a PER of 16.1, a 5.1 improvement from last year’s 11.0, which would qualify him for the list.
However, he did have 82 horrible, awful, terrible minutes with the Toronto Raptors before he was waived. That was bad enough to drag his overall PER for the season down to 15.0, which is just enough to keep Augustin out of the qualifying 100 top PERs.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2.6
Kevin Durant is only 29th in improvement, but he still bears a shoutout here. That kind of improvement, from a man who was already deemed to be the second-best player in the world, is a remarkable achievement.
Here are the rest of the top 25 who did not make the list:
8. Marcus Morris, Phoenix Suns, 4.3
2013-14 PER: 15.6
2012-13 PER: 11.3
Marcus Morris was having a tough time in Houston in his rookie year. He didn't just struggle to stay in the rotation; he struggled to actually stay with the team. He spent time bouncing back and forth between the Rockets and their D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Last year, he was traded midseason to the Phoenix Suns to join his twin brother, Markieff. This year, that move is starting to pay off big for both brothers. Marcus is averaging 2.2 more points and 0.5 more rebounds in just 2.1 more minutes.
His shooting is significantly improved, as his field-goal percentage has jumped from .422 to .438 and his free-throw percentage has gone from .564 to .791.
Furthermore, moving from power forward to small forward has helped him to extend his range. He’s averaging 1.2 three-point makes on .374 three-point shooting.
All those things combine for a massive leap in true shooting percentage, which is up from .453 to .553. That’s not just playing more; it’s playing better.
7. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, 4.7
2013-14 PER: 26.4
2012-13 PER: 21.7
Anthony Davis might not be as famous as James Harden yet, but he’s catching up quickly. At least based on PER, he’s already passed him. Davis is having a tremendous season, justifying last year’s No. 1 overall selection in the NBA draft.
The question of whether he would be a sufficient offensive player has been answered. One NBA scout is quoted by Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling as saying:
I think Davis very well could be the next big thing because of his amazing skill set. He’s a phenomenal defensive player, but his offensive skills and growth in such a short period have been really impressive. I think he can be top five in the league in 2-3 years max.
I’m not sure how many NBA execs, coaches and scouts expected him to be this good this fast. He was clearly talented coming out of college, but I don’t think we saw the quick rise. Offensively, he can shoot, handle the ball, pass and take his man off the dribble. On the other end, he’s a fantastic rebounder, blocks and changes shots, and defends pick-and-rolls pretty well. He also has great feet, so that helps a lot.
He’s averaging 20.1 points on .523 shooting. He’s also contributing 10.1 rebounds. And yes, the defense is there too, as he’s leading the league in blocks, with 3.1 per game.
That makes him tied for the youngest player in NBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Only three players have accomplished this at just 20: Davis, Shaquille O’Neal and Elton Brand. Brand and Davis actually share the same birth date, March 11, so they would be tied for the youngest to the day.
O’Neal, born on March 6, was a full five days older when he accomplished it, though.
T5. Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns, 5.0
2013-14 PER: 17.6
2012-13 PER: 12.6
Markieff Morris has improved so much, he’s even improved more than his brother, Marcus.
The pair know one another, and as a result, their chemistry helps Markieff when the twins are on the court together. And that helps the Phoenix Suns.
His field-goal percentage has ballooned from .407 last season to .463 this year, and that seems to stem from the familiarity the two share. Markieff averages 18.5 points per 36 minutes on .480 shooting while with Marcus compared to 16.7 on .435 shooting when his sibling sits.
It’s little wonder the two spend more time playing with one another than with any other Sun.
Markieff is the more improved of the two, and he has his first accolade to show for it. He was named the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week for the week of November 4-10. I wonder if he trash-talked his twin at Thanksgiving dinner?
More recently, as Adam Green of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM reports, Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby told the station’s Dan Bickley Show:
He’s setting a high standard for himself. It’s getting to the point now where if he doesn’t play well, we’re all disappointed. That’s a great sign of his development.
Both of the “Mori” appear to have bright futures with the Suns.
T5. Marco Belinelli, San Antonio Spurs, 5.0
2013-14 PER: 15.4
2012-13 PER: 10.4
Marco Belinelli seemed like the perfect fit for the San Antonio Spurs when he inked a deal last summer. Those sentiments have been thoroughly verified. Belinelli is enjoying a career-high PER of 15.4, highlighted by his .456 shooting from deep and .505 shooting overall.
The Spurs run a system designed to use drives to the basket and multiple screens to set up spot-up shooters for easy catch-and-shoot baskets, as detailed here by Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon.
Belinelli is one of the best in the league on the catch-and-shoot. In fact, per the NBA’s tracking data, only Kyle Korver has both a higher effective field-goal percentage and more points than Belinelli’s amazing .671 and 318 on such shots.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised “Rocky” won the Three-Point Contest. (Was I the only one wanting him to shout “Yo! Adrian!” when he got his trophy?)
As a result of his fit and shooting, Belinelli has lifted his overall scoring average by 2.0 points per game and 3.0 points per 36 minutes while raising his PER from 10.4 to 15.4. He’s a shooter flourishing in an offense that emphasizes shooting.
What do you expect in Texas?
4. Patrick "Patty" Mills, San Antonio Spurs, 5.3
2013-14 PER: 19.4
2012-13 PER: 14.1
Patrick “Patty” Mills is already one of the league’s most improved players, but he just seems to keep getting better as the season progresses.
In November, he averaged 7.2 points and 1.5 assists. In December, it was 8.4 and 1.6. In January, it was 9.4 and 1.6. Now, in February, he’s exploding for 18.6 and 2.3. He’s done that mostly because of a boost in his true shooting percentage, which has been a remarkable .637 since January 1.
Those incremental month-by-month improvements add up. He’s averaging nearly twice as many points this year as last, knocking down 9.9 now compared to just 5.1. He’s doing more, and he’s doing it better.
SB Nation’s Angus Crawford reminds us just how far Mills has come in the last few years:
To Spurs fans, it may seem like a given that the team’s bench spark plug has been able to consistently drill his outside opportunities, however, it wasn’t so long ago that the league’s lockout and falling out of favor in Portland left Mills to be plying his trade with the Melbourne Tigers in the Australian domestic competition. Thanks in part to the then-Brett Brown connection, the Spurs were able to pluck Mills from the Asian basketball scene (following a pit stop in the Chinese Basketball Association), making the 6’0” shooter the second Australian player to make the transition from Melbourne to San Antonio (with Andrew Gaze being the first in 1999).
That he’s come so far and is still getting better is a testament to Mills and to the Spurs, who seem to have a habit of turning lumps of coal into polished diamonds.
3. Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns, 5.3
2013-14 PER: 22.8
2012-13 PER: 17.5
Goran Dragic is enjoying the best year of his career. His scoring is up from 14.7 points to 20.3, yet he’s playing only about one more minute. The only negative is that his assists are down slightly, from 7.4 to 6.3.
Most tellingly, he’s scoring far more efficiently than he was last year. His true shooting percentage has gone from .540 to .606.
Fox Sports Arizona’s Randy Hill noted this on January 30, after Dragic was “snubbed” from the All-Star Game:
But even more compelling is Dragic’s case for inclusion in the Most Improved Player discussion. And while it’s true that a few of his Phoenix teammates also qualify, The Dragon should be way up there.
It really depends on how MIP candidacy is defined. Most players showing drastic improvements are doing so thanks to the variable of increased playing time.
Dragic, who’s working only one more minute per game than last season, has had a 5-point increase (to 19.7) in scoring, a 6 percent hike (to 50) in field-goal percentage and a 7 percent spike (to 39) in 3-point percentage. Throw in his ability to adapt while playing with (then without) Eric Bledsoe and it’s hard to dismiss what he’s accomplished.
That last point is particularly noteworthy. Not only has he dramatically improved his box-score numbers, but he’s also done it with a second player stepping into share the role he’s accustomed to.
Weirdly, while Dragic was universally hailed as an All-Star snub, he’s been absent in most Most Improved Player discussions and is probably more deserving of the latter.
2. Gerald Green, Phoenix Suns, 5.7
2013-14 PER: 15.6
2012-13 PER: 9.9
Gerald Green is the fourth (and final) Phoenix Sun on the list. That the Suns have four of the NBA’s eight most improved players is indicative of just what an amazing job Jeff Hornacek is doing as their rookie head coach.
If none of the Suns win Most Improved Player, their ubiquitous presence in the conversation is a powerful argument for Hornacek’s chances at Coach of the Year.
Of all the Suns who have risen, Green has had the most improvement, especially since Eric Bledsoe went down with injury.
The 2007 dunk champion was once known as little more than that, and he’s had a long and winding road to get to where he is at now, a far more complete player.
He started his career when he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, but his “flashy” skills weren’t enough to get him minutes, as Jessica Camerato of WEEI.com wrote in 2010.
Green told her then:
I would have to say those years, I was taking everything for granted. I was just thinking, ‘It’s just going to happen’ instead of making it happen and applying myself to make it happen. I would’ve been more of a student of the game instead of just trying to use my scoring ability. I had a great coach in Doc (Rivers) that I should have listened to him more. I was listening, but it just wasn’t clicking. I regret those things and I think that comes with being immature, not applying myself.
I think I want to be a better all-around player, fundamentally, ball-handling, skills, passing. I think those are the things I want to improve on because, for instance, if things went well and I do stay with LA or anybody, I want to be able to be a good passer because I think sometimes my scoring ability may be to get other people open. But I have to be able to make other players better. I think I do have the ability to do that, I think I just have to work on it.
That was the summer between the first of two years he played in Russia.
Since then, he’s stayed committed and now is a valuable contributor.
He enjoyed a career-high 36-point game this season against the Denver Nuggets and a game-winning three January 8 against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Green is certainly a feel-good story and an easy player to want to give the award to. In fact, he seems to be the kind of guy it was designed for.
1. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, 5.9
2013-14 PER: 26.1
2012-13 PER: 20.2
It will be interesting to see how the vote for Most Improved Player pans out. It’s hard to argue that any player has actually improved his game more than DeMarcus Cousins, but that may not be enough to win him the award.
Not only has he improved his PER the most of anyone in the league, but of the 25 players in the top 100 who have improved by at least 3.0, Anthony Davis is the only one who had a higher PER last season. So his improvement has been the hardest to come by also.
Cousins has seen big boosts to his box-score stats, too, averaging 5.4 more points and 1.8 more rebounds a contest than last season. He’s raised his field-goal percentage from .465 to .483.
On the other hand, he’s far from an ingratiating personality. Sam Amick writes of one of his antics for USA Today:
At some point midway through the second half, Cousins heard something from a fan whose seat was behind the Kings bench in the lower concourse that he clearly didn’t appreciate. It’s unclear exactly what was said by the fan, although one account at the time on Twitter indicated that the fan yelled at him to pass the ball. According to eyewitness accounts of two people on hand that night, the 23-year-old franchise centerpiece who was given a four-year, $62 million deal in late September reacted by allegedly grabbing his crotch and shouting a gratuitous expletive that was, to put it mildly, an inappropriate sexual suggestion.
The dozens of patrons who heard it had a raw and unforgettable reaction – in synchronized shock, they swayed back in their seats as if a strong gust of wind had torn through the building. It was, in hindsight, a manifestation of the unwelcome surprise that was palpable from half a football-field away.
And that’s the dichotomy of Cousins. If the award were for most improved personality, he’d be at the bottom of the list. His constant lack of decency and sportsmanship wears on the writers, and ultimately it is the media who decide who wins.
How much of that will factor into their voting? Cousins’ offense is earning him Most Improved Player, but his offensiveness may well be costing him it.