Building the All-Improved NBA First Team for the 2015-16 Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 10, 2016

Building the All-Improved NBA First Team for the 2015-16 Season

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    How does the NBA define improvement? 

    Historical votes for Most Improved Player don't give a clear answer. Sometimes, the award goes to a player who didn't get much better but instead maintained his performance in a substantially larger role. Other times, visible growth and development leads to more valuable play.

    Here, we're taking both methods into account while remaining entirely objective. 

    My total points added metric (TPA, which is explained in full throughout this article) shows how many more points a player added than an average contributor would have in the same number of minutes, and it will serve as our baseline. Improvement is quite simply defined as TPA during the 2015-16 season minus TPA during the 2014-15 campaign. 

    In order to qualify, players must have suited up in at least 60 games during the previous go-round, or else we'd be looking at Paul George, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony as improved players simply because they've stayed healthy. However, it makes no difference if the improvement takes someone from terrible to mediocre, mediocre to good or good to great. You will see some stars show up on this squad. 

    Do note we're also including an "improvement equation" to help put the positive strides into proper perspective. Each player can be represented as the previous version of himself plus whichever current contributor has produced the TPA closest to the amount by which he's improved.

Notable Exclusion: CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The numbers increase looks great for C.J. McCollum, who seems to be gaining serious steam in the MIP race by virtue of his increased scoring output. Nonetheless, TPA reveals that the improvement isn't as substantial as it may appear, largely because of the 2-guard's defensive shortcomings. 

    In 2014-15, McCollum's offensive and defensive portions of TPA were minus-7.64 and minus-5.73, respectively, giving him a total score of minus-13.37. This season, he's on pace to add 132.81 points on offense, which does indeed represent a substantial improvement. But the problem is his regression on the point-preventing end, since he's tracking toward a score of minus-105.14.

    Together, that's a TPA of 27.67, or, 41.04 higher than his mark as a sophomore. Another way to conceptualize that is: 2015-16 C.J. McCollum (27.67) = 2014-15 C.J. McCollum (-13.37) + 2015-16 Evan Fournier (39.85).

    Improving by approximately Fournier is undeniably impressive, but just wait until you see some of the names who show up for the actual picks.

Guard: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 168.01 TPA

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, 446.77 TPA

    TPA Improvement: 278.76

    Though Kyle Lowry was an All-Star in 2014-15, he certainly wasn't an MVP candidate. The point guard cooled down after a torrid opening to the campaign, and that regression kept him from reaching the level he currently enjoys. 

    It's not just that Lowry is scoring an additional 3.9 points per game in 2015-16. He's doing so while improving his field-goal percentage from 41.2 to 44.3, his three-point percentage from 33.8 to 39.7 (despite an additional 1.4 attempts per contest) and his free-throw percentage from 80.8 to 83.6. 

    Last year, Lowry was one of 26 qualified players to average at least 17 points with a true shooting percentage north of 52. Now, he's one of four to post at least 21 points during his typical outing with a true shooting percentage of at least 59; the other members of the exclusive club are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden.  

    Plus, the floor general has used his svelte frame and offseason conditioning to assert himself as a plus on the defensive end. He's always had the mentality of a stopper, often sacrificing his body to take charges, but few ball-handlers have been able to blow by him in 2015-16. 

    Objectively, he's the most improved player in the league, and it's not even close. His TPA stood at an impressive level last season, but it's jumped by a ridiculous 278.76 points—more than all but eight other players are on pace to earn during the current campaign.

    To put that in even better perspective, the second-biggest TPA improvement belongs to this squad's other starting guard, and he "only" leaped by 188.77. 

    Improvement Equation: 2015-16 Kyle Lowry = 2014-15 Kyle Lowry + 2015-16 Paul Millsap

    Second-Team Guard: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

    Third-Team Guard: Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons

Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 529.75 TPA

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 30.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 718.52 TPA

    TPA Improvement: 188.77

    Yes, it's possible to be the reigning MVP, the prohibitive favorite to repeat and a serious contender for Most Improved Player. Stephen Curry has just gotten that much better while shattering three-point records and leading his Golden State Warriors on a quest for the best record in NBA history. 

    Remember how Lowry's scoring improved? Well, Curry's has as well. 

    He's averaging an additional 6.9 points per game, and that extra output is coming while his true shooting percentage goes up from 63.8 to a league-best 68. Throughout all of NBA history, 11 different players have averaged at least 23 points with a true shooting percentage on the right side of 63, as Curry did last year.  

    Now, he's on track to be the first to top 30 and 68 during the same season. 

    However, it's not just his scoring that has trended in the proper direction. Curry has continued to excel as a distributor who limits his turnovers. He's also established himself as even more of an elite rebounding guard, and his defense has continued to be just barely better than average. The total package has pushed him from a legitimate MVP-caliber player into the conversation about best seasons of all time.  

    According to my TPA databases, Curry's 2014-15 campaign gave him the No. 41 score since the start of the 1973-74 campaign. That's impressive, but it barely even sniffs this year's pace. 

    If Curry continues on his current trajectory, he'll finish with the No. 5 score in the same time frame, behind only 1988-89 Michael Jordan, 1987-88 Jordan, 1975-76 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 2008-09 LeBron James. 

    Improvement Equation: 2015-16 Stephen Curry = 2014-15 Stephen Curry + 2015-16 DeAndre Jordan

    Second-Team Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

    Third-Team Guard: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

Forward: Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 16.4 TPA

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 168.1 TPA

    TPA Improvement: 151.7

    Jae Crowder recently moved into the No. 1 spot on Brian Robb's player power rankings for Boston.com, and for good reason. Though he might not score as much as Isaiah Thomas, his two-way ability has made him more valuable than anyone else on the Boston Celtics. 

    With Crowder on the floor, the C's outscore their opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions—far better than the 1.2 net rating when he's on the bench. That on/off split is larger than any other member of the rotation except for Avery Bradley, who helps the net rating jump by 4.8. 

    ESPN.com's real plus/minus (RPM) tells a similar story. Crowder checks in at No. 20 throughout the league, directly behind Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan. Not only is that Boston's highest finish, but no other rostered player checks in higher than Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk, who are at No. 34 and No. 42, respectively. 

    It wasn't particularly difficult to forecast improvement from this 25-year-old wing, but expecting a leap this monumental would've been nonsensical. Even after last year's midseason trade sent him from the Dallas Mavericks to his current home, he struggled with his shot and was a distinct negative on the offensive end. 

    "Jae's improved," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters in the middle of January, per NESN.com's Darren Hartwell. "You know, he's only been here a year, and I told you last year: I'm not sure I knew quite all that he could do, and he just keeps adding to it."

    When you're surprising your own coach with the quality of your play, that's typically a good sign. 

    Improvement Equation: 2015-16 Jae Crowder = 2014-15 Jae Crowder + 2015-16 Reggie Jackson

    Second-Team Forward: Wesley Johnson, Los Angeles Clippers

    Third-Team Forward: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks

Forward: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 242.36 TPA

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 389.5 TPA

    TPA Improvement: 147.14 

    Let's turn to TNT's Grant Hill, who recently had nothing but good things to say about Kawhi Leonard, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

    You know, he maybe is the best two-way player in the NBA. He's kind of doing what maybe a young Kobe [Bryant] would do. I hate to throw out comparisons. But remember how Kobe would defend the top players when Shaq [O'Neal] was here in L.A. in the early 2000s and Kobe was also like the closer and would do things on the offensive end?

    LeBron [James] has done that a little bit. But Kawhi is doing it on both ends. He's their stopper and he's their go-to guy. It's not many guys really in the history of the NBA that have both of those responsibilities.

    In order to analyze the two-way ability, we can look at Leonard's offensive and defensive box plus/minuses, which indicate how many points per 100 possessions better an average team would be with him instead of a league-average contributor. 

    Last year's 2.6 OBPM and 3.5 DBPM gave him a combination matched by only 16 other players since 1973, when the metrics can first be calculated. The 2015-16 season has seen his defense take a slight step backward (2.7 DBPM), but his offense has reached astronomical levels (5.3 OBPM) because of his ability to connect from beyond the arc. 

    During the same time frame, just seven other players have matched those two marks—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. 

    Last season, Leonard was an All-Star snub who used the second half of the schedule to blossom into San Antonio's go-to stud. Now, he's a bona fide MVP candidate brushing shoulders with Hall of Famers and boasting a legitimate claim as one of the NBA's five best players. 

    Improvement Equation: 2015-16 Kawhi Leonard = 2014-15 Kawhi Leonard + 2015-16 Rudy Gobert


    Second-Team Forward
    : Jordan Hill, Indiana Pacers

    Third-Team Forward: Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Center: Ian Mahinmi, Indiana Pacers

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 4.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, minus-26.7 TPA

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 8.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks, 99.49 TPA

    TPA Improvement: 126.19

    Ian Mahinmi was a liability last year. 

    Though he shot efficiently from the field, he was not involved in the offense and made just 30.4 percent of his free-throw attempts for the Indiana Pacers. That, coupled with recording almost twice as many turnovers as assists, made him such a glaring negative that not even his defensive prowess could help achieve a positive TPA. 

    That's all changing in 2015-16. 

    Mahinmi is making 57.6 percent of his freebies, knocking down 58.2 percent of his shots from the field and has 82 assists to 73 turnovers. He's still a below-average player on the offensive end, but only by a negligible amount, which allows his defense to shine far more brightly. 

    The Pacers are allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions when Mahinmi isn't in the lineup—a defensive rating that would be good for No. 12 throughout the league. But when he plays, they're giving up a stingy 100.2 points over the same stretch, and that would leave them trailing only the San Antonio Spurs.

    ESPN.com's DRPM confirms this is his positive impact, not just his playing next to other stoppers and benefiting from the lack of context in typical on/off splits. In the entire NBA, only Tim Duncan, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut and DeAndre Jordan have posted a higher DRPM. 

    "Nothing Mahinmi does is flashy," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote while picking the Indiana center as the Eastern Conference's Defensive Player of the Year in mid-February. "He averages a modest one block per game and barely plays starter minutes. He's nevertheless the most valuable defensive asset for one of the NBA's stingiest teams."

    Flashiness doesn't help win games. Mahinmi does. 

    Improvement Equation: 2015-16 Ian Mahinmi = 2014-15 Ian Mahinmi + 2015-16 Tim Duncan

    Second-Team Center: Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets

    Third-Team Center: Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on March 9. 

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