Every year, the NBA awards the player whose game has ostensibly shown the most improvement from the previous year. As of the time of this writing, the 2020-21 season has yet to get underway, but this publication has already selected a shortlist of favorites to win the award.
Jaylen Brown tops that list for Upside Hoops and certainly, he fits the mold for what one would expect from the Most Improved Player; a young player, approaching his prime, and recently unleased in a system that fully exploits his basketball prowess.
Since the 2010-‘11 NBA season [going back 10 years], the Most Improved Player has been an average of 23.6 years old, been in the league for an average of 3.8 years, improved their scoring average of 7.2 points per game, and had an increase of playing time of 5.8 minutes per game from their previous campaign.
Last season’s winner, Brandon Ingram, is still only 23 years old, improved his scoring average by 5.5 points per game, and compared to the prior season, averaged just 0.1 more minutes per game. It is interesting to note that last season Jaylen Brown increased his scoring by 7.3 points per game.
This is an indication that Jaylen Brown may have been best positioned to win the award last year, diminishing his likelihood of capturing the award in this season.
Though the prototypical Most Improved Player is a young and upcoming player, it occasionally features an established, mediocre veteran that, “hit their prime”, so to speak and had an outlier of a good season (e.g, Hedo Türkoglu, Aaron Brooks).
In a very literal sense, it is difficult to disagree that mediocre players having an outlier season would qualify for the Most Improved Player, however it does go against the spirit of the award. Put a decent NBA scorer on a team surrounded by fringe NBA players, and in all likelihood his averages will skyrocket or at least markedly increase.
This is not improvement, but an ideal situation. Probably no example demonstrates this more clearly than Hedo Türkoglu and Danny Granger. Danny Granger was the first player in NBA history to improve his scoring average by at least 5 points per game for 3 consecutive seasons. Also noteworthy is that no NBA player has ever won the award twice.
Rather than rewarding the meteoric rise of Danny Granger in consecutive seasons, Hedo Türkoglu was given the award over Granger after having a somewhat more predictable season in his prime. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it seems unlikely that anyone truly believed that Türkoglu was truly improving as a player at the age of 29 in his 8th season.
The award should reward those players who have made the most significant strides in their game as a player, rather than those that benefit from circumstances that happen to lean in their favor.
Perhaps the most compelling argument to refute this is the fact that the 2000-2001 winner of the award, Tracy McGrady is thus far the only winner of the award that has been elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, though this is likely to change.
Of course, it may seem arbitrary to determine players that have improved versus players whose circumstances have improved, however this problem is not without a solution.
Improvement should not merely be determined by increases in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, or steals per game. Rather, effective field goal percentage, PER, win shares and plus/minus statistics give a clearer picture to the quality of a player’s development.
It should not be simply enough to win Most Improved Player due to increased scoring output that occur as a result of increased opportunities to shoot the basketball.
In fact, relying solely on statistics can be misleading as well. A player can either stagnate or even decline slightly and still have improved production on paper.
If a player shoots worse from the field and free throw line than they have previously but is given more shot opportunities, they can still increase their scoring average. This applies to any typical “counting stat” as well.
With this in mind, the most improved player can be more appropriately understood as the player “whose improvement across several tangible aspects of the game can be actively observed as well as explored through statistical analysis and exceeds that of their contemporaries in a meaningful manner”.