Metrics 101: Who's Really the NBA's Most Improved Player?
The criteria for the NBA's Most Improved Player award is always amorphous.
Some years, it's handed to a player who maintained his level of play (or even regressed slightly) while filling a much bigger role. Other times, the league rewards a contributor who made noticeable strides on both ends of the floor and did legitimately improve on a per-minute basis. Stars can win for reaching a new level, though the award often goes to a low- or mid-level rotation member who made the jump to legitimacy.
Here, we're accounting for everything by remaining entirely objective.
Looking at all players who logged at least 1,200 minutes in both 2015-16 and 2016-17 (essentially weeding out those who improved for no reason other than newfound opportunity), we're grading players by how much they improved in two different overarching statistics:
- ESPN.com's real plus-minus, which gives credit to those who are efficient in smaller roles and doesn't always reward volume.
- NBA Math's total points added (TPA), which requires volume to earn higher scores by approximating value added per possession and then weighing in possessions played.
This way, both types of improvement can be rewarded. Those who get better on a per-minute basis and those who stagnate while filling bigger roles both benefit, though the top finishers tend to fare rather well in both categories.
Improvement score determines players' ranks in this competition (the lower the better), and it's calculated in simple fashion. After looking at the improvements (or regressions) between 2015-16 and 2016-17 scores in each of the two aforementioned categories for the 178 players who met the minutes threshold both years, we're averaging their ranks in each one. That result serves as improvement score, which is all that matters in a countdown that intentionally eschews subjectivity.
Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol adds new wrinkles to his game every year, but this type of offensive breakthrough was impossible to see coming. The 32-year-old big man has carried a substantial scoring load for the Memphis Grizzlies, often taking it upon himself to function as a primary option and sacrificing nothing in the process.
Heading into 2015-16, Gasol had gone 12-of-66 (18.2 percent) from three-point territory throughout his eight-year NBA career. This season alone, he's hit 96 of his 252 tries (38.1 percent) while still finding plenty of time to attack out of the post and rip defenses apart with his passing chops. So much for progress being a slow climb rather than an all-in-one-year endeavor.
JaMychal Green, PF, Memphis Grizzlies
Aside from his penchant for racking up fouls, JaMychal Green has improved in every facet of the game for the Grizzlies, who now trust him to handle the ball on the perimeter and either create his own offense or find teammates without turning the rock over too frequently. The power forward can score from the low post, knock down mid-range jumpers and space out the floor alongside Gasol.
Green has grown the most on defense, though. He was overmatched by stronger opponents in 2015-16, but he's had no such trouble during the current campaign. Regardless of the situations he's thrust into, Green has been capable of slowing down the opposition. He's even looked like a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate at times, but he often shows his youth and gets into foul trouble.
Ty Lawson, PG, Sacramento Kings
Last year was a disaster for Ty Lawson, whose off-court troubles and declining role pushed him away from the Denver Nuggets. He couldn't stick with the Houston Rockets due to his miserable shooting, and he didn't find much more success once he landed with the Indiana Pacers.
But the Sacramento Kings have given him an opportunity to fill a major role as the primary backup at the point (and a spot starter when injuries strike), and he's taken advantage by remembering how to finish plays inside the three-point arc. Lawson is still far from the level he reached in his prime, but functioning as an average offensive player and atrocious defender is far better than looking like one of the Association's worst contributors on both ends.
Jabari Parker, SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari Parker was tracking toward legitimate Most Improved Player consideration early in the year. He looked far more confident on offense, supplementing his athletic bursts to the basket with an improved three-point stroke that allowed him to drain 36.5 percent of his deep looks. During the two seasons prior, he shot only 25.0 and 25.7 percent from beyond the arc, respectively.
But those hopes were dashed during a Feb. 8 game against the Miami Heat. Parker tore his ACL for the second time in his career, knocking him out for the season and throwing a new shadow on his future growth. Even though he seemed to add explosiveness following the return from the first ACL tear, that's no guarantee this time around.
D'Angelo Russell, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
The struggles that normally plague young guards continue to haunt D'Angelo Russell. He can go through poor shooting stretches in which he forces up an excessive number of attempts in the face of tight defense. More experienced players often expose his defensive limitations. Turnovers can occasionally run rampant.
But Russell has counteracted those problems by growing more confident as an offensive generator. While turning the ball over on a lower percentage of his possessions and improving his true shooting percentage, he's averaged an additional 2.9 points and 1.9 assists per 36 minutes.
T-8. Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans (16 Improvement Score)
Anthony Davis has been a star since he entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick fresh off a championship-winning season at Kentucky. He blossomed into a bona fide superstar during his sophomore campaign, making his first All-Star squad and proving the sky may well be the limit for him. But after his follow-up go-round featured him leading the league in player efficiency rating, the big man's growth began to stagnate as the injuries piled up.
Last year was a glaring disappointment, as Davis only suited up in 61 games and failed to make a monumental defensive impact. For all the blocks he recorded, he was unable to push the New Orleans Pelicans up the defensive standings, ceding easy baskets around the hoop as he chased after rejections and failed to body up against more physical bigs.
But that hasn't been the case in 2016-17. His defensive metrics have skyrocketed, allowing him to resume a career trajectory that points toward two-way stardom:
|Season||Defensive Real Plus-Minus||Defensive Box Plus/Minus||Defensive Points Saved||On/Off Defensive Rating Differential|
Davis has made substantial strides as a scorer, and he's grown—much more marginally—on the glass and as a facilitator. But his defensive leap has allowed him to regain that superstar impact he somehow lost in 2015-16.
T-8. Joe Ingles, SF, Utah Jazz (16 Improvement Score)
It's not just that Joe Ingles is getting more minutes with the Utah Jazz in 2016-17. The 29-year-old small forward's role with the organization has changed substantially, too.
In the past, he was merely a roster filler, tasked with playing when injuries struck or garbage time awaited. He held his own during his 15.3 minutes per game in 2015-16, but he was hardly an integral piece to the team's fortunes, instead accumulating a fair amount of stats while showing he could do positive things on the basketball court.
This season, he's vital to the Utah cause.
Ingles' primary skill remains his sharpshooting ability. Leaving him alone on the perimeter is a terrible idea, yet teams still elect to throw extra defenders at Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert while neglecting to cover his spot-up attempts. As a result, the Australian wing is taking 3.4 triples per game and converting them at a 44.8 percent clip—the highest qualified mark in the NBA.
But that's by no means all Ingles is doing.
His understated lateral quickness allows him to defend many of the league's better scoring wings. Ingles has always been a solid defender, but he's broken out on the less glamorous end as head coach Quin Snyder tasks him with more important responsibilities, like guarding DeMar DeRozan or Kyrie Irving at the end of close games against fellow contenders.
Plus, Ingles is a steady passer from the wings who rarely makes the wrong plays. That serves as yet another example of how he's become so much more than a seldom-used sniper.
T-8. Marco Belinelli, SG Charlotte Hornets (16 Improvement Score)
"He's pretty special," San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told NBA.com's Sam Perley about his former pupil, Marco Belinelli, in early December. "You worry like [crazy] about him when you're preparing your game because he's one of the most clever guys in the league in getting fouls, getting open, knowing how to get open, getting shots, making threes, and he is a [great] passer. He's a much better all-around, complete player than most people ever knew."
It had been a little while since Belinelli reminded the league of his offensive talent.
He left the Spurs for the Sacramento Kings in 2015-16, and struggles ensued. Though he averaged 10.2 points (only 0.4 fewer than he's posting in his average 2016-17 appearance), he shot just 38.6 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from downtown. That lack of shooting confidence seeped over into the other aspects of his game, forcing him into (rather easily) his worse year since his 2007-08 rookie season with the Golden State Warriors.
But the Charlotte Hornets, in dire need of bench scoring to offset any drop-offs when Kemba Walker rested, still took a chance by trading the No. 22 overall pick to Sacramento for him last summer. That gamble paid off, as Belinelli has regained his shooting stroke to connect on 42.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and 36.2 percent of his triples.
He's still a defensive negative for head coach Steve Clifford, and the overall product remains at a below-average level. But there's a big difference between serving as a slight detractor to the team's efforts while filling a big role off the bench and functioning as a glaring issue who jettisoned hopes of winning games upon entry.
7. Wayne Ellington, SG, Miami Heat (12 Improvement Score)
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is a magician.
He's turned a number of fringe contributors into quality pieces during his team's surprising run toward a playoff berth, but none stand out more than Wayne Ellington. Though James Johnson would also have qualified for these rankings if he'd met the minutes cutoff in 2015-16 (thanks, Dwane Casey), Ellington has come off arguably the worst season of his career to serve as an integral piece of Miami's second unit.
"It's a great luxury for us on several different levels," Spoelstra told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about having Ellington on the roster. "One, he's ignitable, so he can go on a run, where it's two, three, four in a row. That can change the momentum of a game just like that. Secondly, he's always in somebody's game plan now, so that does create space unto itself. But, also, thirdly, it adds to our menu. So we're not just pick-and-roll dominant. We're not just putting the ball the in our attackers' hands and telling them to create a play. We can run other actions with Wayne and he generates good looks for your basketball team."
Ellington has become one of the best at running through innumerable screens to free himself, and hardly a day goes by where he's not hitting at least one corner three in which he somehow manages to plant his feet and jump vertically to square his body in a way many couldn't. He's scoring 1.02 points per possession off screens (69th percentile) and 1.14 points per possession in spot-up situations (82nd percentile), but the versatility he adds goes beyond the numbers.
Though he won't be anything more than a strong presence in the second unit unless he can make late-career strides on the defensive end, his constant probing and energy have still helped spark the massive in-season turnaround.
6. Julius Randle, PF, Los Angeles Lakers (11 Improvement Score)
This isn't just about the three triple-doubles Julius Randle has recorded for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016-17. Every aspect of his game has improved, from his ability to body up on the defensive end to him showing more variety with his offensive contributions.
Previously, guarding the young power forward was an easy task for competent NBA defenders. They knew he wanted to drive to his left and use his strong hand, and they could bait him into doing so before contesting the doomed shooting attempt. Randle still loves to attack on his preferred side, but he's found an appropriate counter: passing.
After passing on 12.8 percent of his drives in 2015-16, Randle has fed the ball to his teammates on 17.3 percent of those plays this year. And though he hasn't experienced an uptick in assists on drives, he has invigorated a stagnant Los Angeles Lakers offense by getting the ball to the perimeter for a reset against a defense that's compressed around him on the interior.
Plus, that mentality has pervaded other sets. The Kentucky product has shown a willingness to distribute in any and all situations, and he has the skill necessary to do so without racking up too many turnovers. Though he's not quite on the level of a Draymond Green or Nikola Jokic, he's flashed the upside necessary to one day emerge as a leading triple-double threat whose performances are more than one-off shows, as evidenced by nearly doubling his assists per 36 minutes.
5. Jimmy Butler, SG/SF, Chicago Bulls (8.5 Improvement Score)
Just imagine what might happen if the Chicago Bulls put a competent roster around Jimmy Butler. The front office has surrounded its best player with a host of guards and wings who can't space the court for his drives to the basket, and the collection of players is almost entirely incompatible with the preferred schemes of head coach Fred Hoiberg.
And yet, Butler has still dominated.
He's making more contributions on the glass and getting his teammates involved even more frequently than he did in previous seasons, during which he emerged as one of the NBA's better distributing wings. He's creeping back toward his former status as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, even if most of his energy is still expended on the offensive end. And most importantly on a team bereft of top-tier scoring options, he's putting up points like never before.
Butler has one-upped last year's career-high scoring average (20.9) by dropping 23.9 points per game. Even more impressively, he's maintained his field-goal percentage while connecting from downtown at a higher clip and getting to the free-throw line even more regularly. As a result, his true shooting percentage has jumped from 56.2 to 58.5 percent, making him one of just 13 qualified players averaging at least 23 points with a true shooting percentage north of 58.
He's always been a versatile player. But he's never contributed this much to a single element of the game.
4. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards (7.5 Improvement Score)
It's not just that Bradley Beal has improved his game since last season. He has, and a substantial number of the strides have come within the current campaign. Just consider the fact that while he ranked No. 5 in B/R's midseason rankings of the league's best shooting guards—already a significant boost after sitting as the No. 27 guard in the offseason's NBA 200 rankings—he's now all the way up to No. 2, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo (who may not really be a 2-guard, though that's a discussion for another time).
What allowed him to move past C.J. McCollum, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan, even as all three positional rivals continue to play fantastic offensive basketball? In short, Beal has finally started approaching the scoring end the right way.
He's trading long twos for threes with increased frequency, which both allows him to drain more shots worth an extra point and pick the right mid-range shots. Whereas he hit 40.5 and 35.7 percent of his shots from 10-to-16 feet and 16-to-23 feet, respectively, in 2015-16, those numbers are now up to 47.7 and 49.2.
While continuing to function as one of the league's deadliest three-point marksmen, he's established himself as a premier mid-range gunner. And he's still working his way to the charity stripe rather frequently, which allows him to become one of only nine qualified players averaging at least 23 points with a true shooting percentage no worse than 60 percent.
Even if we ignore Beal's improvements as a distributor, the fact he's in a scoring tier occupied by only himself, Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas and Karl-Anthony Towns should mean something.
3. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz (7 Improvement Score)
Rudy Gobert is known as a point-preventing specialist, and he'll figure prominently into the race for the league's preeminent defensive award. But he's also become so much more than that.
"Gobert is scoring 1.38 PPP as a roll man, which trails only DeAndre Jordan for the league's No. 1 mark among players who have used at least 100 such possessions. Last season, he was at 1.08 PPP—a score that would move him behind 20 more players on this year's leaderboard," Frank Urbina recently wrote for NBA Math. "Improved touch, patience and deft footwork around the basket are the primary factors behind his transformation. In 2015-16, the center finished a rather ordinary 58.5 percent of his chances within five feet of the basket. (For reference, Rajon Rondo was more effective in the paint.) Now, Gobert is making an astounding 68 percent of looks from the same range."
Everything about Gobert's offensive game looks different.
He's more comfortable operating in the half-court set, where he can use his size and patience to overwhelm opponents. His touch around the hoop has improved drastically, allowing him to convert 65.9 percent of his shots while scoring a career-high 13.9 points per game. He's getting to the stripe more frequently and connecting at a higher clip on the ensuing freebies, too.
It's all clicked, and Gobert is now leading the league in true shooting percentage while filling a massive offensive role for the Utah Jazz. And he may still win Defensive Player of the Year, thereby cementing himself as a legitimate contender to be known as the NBA's most effective center.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, SG/SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks (5.5 Improvement Score)
Impressive as he was in 2015-16, Giannis Antetokounmpo has reached an entirely new level this season. He should be a legitimate factor on the back end of MVP ballots, and Basketball Reference's NBA MVP Award Tracker, which is based solely on the correlation between certain statistics and prior MVP results, projects him to finish within the top 10.
That wasn't the case last year. Just take a gander at the factors used in these rankings.
Antetokounmpo finished No. 98 in ESPN.com's RPM during his age-21 season—an impressive mark, but nowhere near his No. 19 standing as a 22-year-old. In NBA Math's TPA, Antetokounmpo has gone from sitting at No. 22 in 2015-16 to trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James with a few games left in 2016-17. He's even close enough to James that he could take over the bronze medal with a strong finish.
Now more comfortable running the show as a primary ball-handler, Antetokounmpo can do almost everything. He's leading the Milwaukee Bucks in every major box-score category and is still finding time to play impressive defense. Even without a consistent three-point stroke—his 28.0 percent mark this year is still better than last season's 25.7 percent—defenders can't keep him away from the basket. His lanky strides and fast-twitch actions are impervious to extra attention from the opposition.
Most Improved Player doesn't often go to a star player who morphed into a superstar. If it did, Stephen Curry may have won the award in 2015-16.
But Antetokounmpo could prove the exception.
1. Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers (3 Improvement Score)
Sophomores are typically expected to improve. But they can never be counted on to make strides quite like the ones Myles Turner has put together for the Indiana Pacers.
By NBA Math's TPA, he was a below-average player during his rookie season, finishing the year sandwiched directly between James Anderson and Zach LaVine for the No. 405 score among 476 players. Even though he was faring well on defense, his offense was severely detrimental while he was unable to space the floor, score efficiently or record more assists than turnovers.
This year, he's behind only 41 players across the league, and he's just barely trailing Paul George for Indiana's top mark. That's a level of improvement few players could dream about; only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and Mike Conley have provided bigger year-to-year TPA jumps.
But no one has improved his RPM by a greater amount.
Last year, Turner's distinctly negative score (again, stemming solely from his offensive woes) left him ahead of only Jahlil Okafor and Timofey Mozgov among the 62 men who qualified as centers. Now, he's a top-10 center by RPM, emerging as a slight positive on offense and a dominant defensive force.
Improvement should've been expected from the 21-year-old sophomore, but not to this extent.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.