The Real Meaning of “Improved”: Looking at MIP Winners Since 2010

It seems like the defining word of every NBA regular season award has a definition that’s a moving target. MVP? What is “value”? DPOY? What do we prioritize as “defensive” prowess? Most Improved Player might seem like the most straightforward one. We reward the player who did the best job of “getting better”.

 

But how has the award really defined improvement in recent winners? And how does it affect the view of this year’s frontrunner, CJ McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers, and the dark horse pick, Stephen Curry, reigning MVP and leader of the defending champion Golden State Warriors?

 

For the purposes of this examination, I went back six winners (Aaron Brooks for Houston in 2009-10). Those winners are, starting with Brooks, as follows: Aaron Brooks (HOU), Kevin Love (MIN), Ryan Anderson (ORL), Paul George (IND), Goran Dragic (PHO), and Jimmy Butler (CHI). I figured it was nice and round to stop at the season ending at the start of our current decade. Since I’m not going to flood this post with tables for each winner, I compared each player’s winning season with the previous, recorded the change in key stats, and averaged them. Here are the results:

FGA FG% 3PA 3P% PPG
Av. Change +4.2 +2.7 +1.2 +4.7 +6.5
Winner with Biggest Change Brooks, 6.4 Butler, 6.5 Brooks, 2.5 Butler, 9.5 Brooks, 8.4

 

Most of this is unsurprising at first look. Winners generally take more shots, make more of them, and increase significantly in points. However, you might have noticed I left out a statistic that seems important: minutes per game. Interestingly, there was a distinct pattern to MIP winners prior to Dragic that followed a pattern; his win and Butler’s both deviate significantly.

 

The average MPG change BG (before Goran) was +8.9. A significant uptick in minutes pretty much explains the increases in everything else. More time, increased role, more attempts, more points, more visibility, thus MIP win. However, Dragic and Butler’s average change in MPG was -.2. Not only that, but they both saw the largest increase in FG%/3P% of any of the winners I looked at by a wide margin. +6.2/+8.9 and +6.5/9.5, respectively (outlier nod to Love, who increased his 3P% by 8.9).

 

Prior to the 13-14 season, the MIP award rewarded players who stepped into an increased role and really didn’t do much else to improve significantly (continuity in an increased role). It rewarded aggression. Starting with Dragic (granted, only two years), it has rewarded efficiency. Players who get better at everything while not changing their rotation position. Here are the numbers for McCollum (POR) and Curry (GSW):

 

MPG FGA FG% 3PA 3P% PPG
McCollum +19.0 +12.0 +1.2 +2.7 +2.1 +14.0
Curry +1.5 +3.4 +1.7 +3.1 +1.1 +6.3

 

Basically, there are two kinds of MIP winner. Those who move into a new “class” of player (bench to starter, prospect to 6M), and those who make drastic steps to shore up deficiencies or improve within their established rotation spot. This isn’t me saying I think Curry should win, or that McCollum doesn’t deserve it (I love CJ as a player). But they both fall into a distinct category. I am saying that if journalists decide they’re going to continue to reward efficiency over rotation moves, it may be time for the public to take Curry seriously as a MIP candidate, despite being an MVP repeat frontrunner on a 73-win team. For the record, I still think McCollum will win.

 

Side note: Something else I realized here is that PG is probably the weakest MIP winner in this period of time. Significant increases in minutes and attempts per game, yet he was the only one who saw decreases in both shooting percentages (-2.1/-2.3). Go figure. I’d say Butler is the strongest. Exactly the same minutes (38.7), and a huge uptick in attempts, points, and percentages.

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