Brooklyn Nets, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Who has the inside track for Most Improved Player?

D’Angelo Russell has always had a knack for flair, a player whose ability to hit game-winners or throw mind-bending passes seems to only grow as his own confidence does. That growth and confidence have been on full display this season as Russell has elevated his game, emerging as an All-Star and, in his own words to Anthony Puccio, more than simply a legitimate contender for Most Improved Player honors.

“I’m gonna win that s**t.

“I’m telling you, I’m winning it!”

After his fellow backcourt mate Spencer Dinwiddie was passed over for the award last year, Russell would like another shot to bring that little piece of hardware to Brooklyn. Fortunately for Russell, the field is far more wide open, unlike last year when Victor Oladipo ran away with it from the jump. Unfortunately for Russell, he’s jostling for his own place among that field, with a host of candidates from Toronto’s Pascal Siakam to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox.

Throughout the 21st century, the Most Improved Player award has gone to many different archetypes of players, as noted by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, however, as the NBA itself has evolved, no award perhaps serves as a zeitgeist for that evolution arguably quite as well as this one. This year’s winner will reveal quite a bit about the perception of positional value, the influence of advanced metrics, and the relative value of certain skills, so the history of the award certainly seems as good a place to start as any. And examining that history reveals some critical shifts in how the Most Improved Player trophy has been distributed.

Most apparent is how advanced metrics have gained in significance for the MIP award in recent years, just as the overall profile of the analytics movement in the NBA has risen. As the proliferation of advanced statistics has increased and terms like “true shooting” and “effective field goal percentage” have become more commonplace, the selection of Most Improved Player has gradually started to avoid conflating a jump in opportunity with a jump in true skill. From 2002-2009, a spike in per-game stats was the dominant factor in determining the award winner (with the exception of Danny Granger), even if a deeper inspection at the adjusted stats revealed that not much had, in actuality, changed from year to year.

Aaron Brooks’ 2009 MIP is the poster child for this phenomenon. His assist rate improved from 20.2 percent to 25.6 percent, but none of his other advanced metrics changed by greater than 6 percent year over year. Other than his usage that is — which saw a modest improvement from 22.9 to 25.7 percent as he played over 10 more minutes per game. Brooks’ candidacy was almost singularly defined by his rise in per-game scoring, from 11.2 to 19.6 points per game and bolstered by Houston overachieving in an injury-riddled season. Even Brooks was caught slightly off-guard by the selection:

“Kevin Durant was in there, he had a great year and his team is in the playoffs. There were a lot of guys up for this award and I’m honored that they chose me to be the guy who won.”

And unlike Brooks, Durant was an All-Star that year, making the playoffs for the first time in his own decorated career. Contrast that with Giannis’ MIP-winning season. He made massive strides as the fulcrum of the Bucks, reflected in his impressive jumps in assist rate, steal rate, block rate, offensive rebound rate, and free throw rate. Not only that but he actually improved his usage (22.3 to 28.3 percent) while lowering his turnover rate (14.8 to 13.3 percent), making the All-NBA and All-Defensive 2nd teams for good measure. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in most statistical categories, proving out his emergence as a bona fide star. The jump from solid to good is difficult. The jump from very good to perennial MVP candidate is even more difficult, but that’s exactly what Giannis accomplished. And despite having already been an “established” player in the league, voters recognized his rise thusly. Fans and his peers agreed, voting Giannis as an All-Star starter in 2017.

Speaking of which, the All-Star game has itself historically served as a decent barometer for the evolution of the Most Improved Player award. From 2002 to 2007, not a single recipient of the award made the All-Star team. In the last four years, three of the MIP winners also made the All-Star team, with the Trail Blazers’ CJ McCollum as the lone exception. The recent focus on resume extends to the players’ teams as well, as we’d have to go all the way back to Minnesota Kevin Love’s MIP award to find a recipient from a team with a losing record. Taken together, these trends offer a useful primer on handicapping this year’s own MIP race, one with lots of strong, but no single standout, candidate.

A frontcourt player hasn’t won Most Improved Player since the turn of the decade when Ryan Anderson did it. And you’d have to go even farther back to find a true center who took home the honors. The award is inherently set up to favor more ball-dominant guards, and we’re in a pace-and-space era that favors skilled, versatile playmakers and backcourt players. Add two and two together, and you’d be hard-pressed to make a strong case for a center winning it this year. Or, you could just trust me when I say that this year’s class of big man candidates is absolutely fascinating.

Leading the pack is eighth-year center Nikola Vucevic, of the Orlando Magic. Vucci Mane has long been a polished offensive big man with an advanced mix of passing and rebounding, but in that same span has toiled as more of a curiosity for the general NBA viewers than anything else. However, with the Magic currently slotted as the Eastern Conference No. 9 seed in striking distance of the playoffs, combined with his first All-Star game appearance, there’s a chance for Vucevic’s national profile to be boosted in a major way when things are said and done.

Owing to incremental statistical improvements across the board, from his efficiency (career-high 57.5 true shooting percentage) to his passing (career-high 22.7 percent assist rate), Vucevic has nearly tripled his Box Plus-Minus rating from 2.7 last season to 6.8 this year. Though not quite Brook Lopez, Vucevic has fashioned himself a legitimate deep threat, shooting 37 percent on 3.2 3s per 36 minutes. Even though his 3-point attempts are actually slightly down from last season, Vucevic has compensated by taking just over half of his field goal attempts from within 10 feet of the rim, up from 43.6 percent last season. He’s been rewarded thusly with more trips to the free throw line as well, getting to the stripe a career-high 3.2 times per 36 minutes. It’s hard to describe a player who has consistently been varying degrees of “good” as having emerged, but Vucevic’s statistical improvement from last year to this one is arguably even more unprecedented than the one we just witnessed Victor Oladipo make last year.

In this century, regardless of what position they play, no player has made a bigger leap in statistical impact from their seventh to eighth seasons. In fact, he’s the only center in that top-10! If Vucevic’s case is headlined by steady improvements across the board though, Jusuf Nurkic’s recovery from last season’s playoffs debacle has been defined by his newfound passing prowess. Nurkic is currently averaging a career-high 18.2 percent assist rate, a massive development compared to last season’s more anemic 11.7 percent, a better mark than players like Karl-Anthony Towns, who are more heralded for their passing. It’s turbocharged his game and added a completely new dimension to the Portland Trail Blazers’ offense.

Nurkic’s ability to not just properly recognize and read cutters from anywhere on the court, but also deliver the passes with precision timing and spacing has been a major part of why Portland has moved from 15th in offensive rating last year to fifth this year, despite an offseason full of questions and doubt. Nurkic has always flashed box-score stuffing prowess, but his passing this season has brought the whole package together, highlighted best by his historic 5×5 performance earlier in the year, as he brutalized the Kings to the tune of 24 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 5 blocks.

He’s emerged as a capable secondary playmaker for the Trail Blazers, allowing them to channel more early offense through him, a beneficial arrangement for all parties. To hear Nurkic himself tell it to SI’s Andrew Sharp:

“It was about the system and how much ball I have in my hands. I feel like this year my coach and my teammates, they’ve allowed me to do that make those passing decisions a little more.”

The evolution of the center position this decade typically focuses on spacing and shooting ability, but being able to put multiple ball-handlers on the court and secondary playmakers next to teams’ lead guards has been a crucial element of the pace-and-space era as well. And in this vein, centers’ passing improvement has been overlooked, as pointed out by Kostya Medvedovsky recently. Given how strongly passing ability pairs with rebounding in all-in-one statistics like Box Plus-Minus, it’s no surprise that Nurkic has rated as highly as he has this season.

But we’re 1500 words in and neither Vucci Mane or the Bosnian Beast are the betting favorites to take home Most Improved Player honors at the conclusion of the season. No, that distinction actually belongs to the frighteningly consistent climb of Pascal Siakam.

Siakam started 43 games for the Toronto Raptors in his first two seasons combined. He’s already started more than 65 games for them during this regular season campaign and has posted the second highest BPM figure of anyone on the team, behind only Kawhi Leonard. He’s gone from moderately useful role player to legitimate weapon for one of the best teams in the conference. Shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers and sporting a 32.8 percent free throw rate, Siakam has unfurled his wings and opened up his offensive game for the first time in his career. The Raptors have been more than happy to oblige, as his usage has jumped up to above 20 percent for the first time in his three seasons. Paired with his ability to move up and down the frontcourt defensively, Siakam gives the Raptors a new chess piece alongside perimeter ace Kawhi Leonard to play come the postseason, another two-way stud to obliterate matchups on both sides of the floor.

Pascal Siakam’s 40-point outbursts and dominant stretches where he outscores teams by himself have shown maturity in taking on the kind of offensive load that portends superstardom. His athleticism gives him a natural advantage over most opponents in transition, but his refined skillset this year has enabled him to split open even the best teams in the league by himself in half-court sets as well.

Despite a lower percentage of assisted 2-pointers than ever before in his career (49.3 percent), Siakam is still making 71 percent of his attempts from 0-3 feet and 47 percent of his attempts from 3-10 feet. And unlike Vucevic, whose team still has a losing record, Siakam plays for one of the best teams in the entire league. However, that same team context may be the one major factor that holds him back in voters’ minds. The last player to win the award with a sub-21 percent usage (and only player this century) was Boris Diaw at 17.9 percent, another matchup-destroying frontcourt tweener. Siakam currently sits at 20.1 usage, all his highlights notwithstanding, and did not make the All-Star team this year (though it would seem a formality in coming seasons). Three of the last four winners – Oladipo, Giannis, and Jimmy Butler – were the undisputed leaders of their respective teams, something Siakam can’t yet claim.

That limited role then leaves the door still a little bit open and brings us full circle to the point guards who’ve helmed their teams to breakout campaigns.

I suppose it’s a bit of serendipitous timing that just last night, D’Angelo Russell and De’Aaron Fox went head to head in an epic game (well, depending on which team you support). Fox paced the Kings to a 28-point lead with 27 points and 9 assists, but they ran out of steam in the 4th quarter as Russell took singular control of the game and scored an absurd 27 points in the last frame alone, the most any player has scored in a quarter this season. I’d call it a career night for the recently-minted All-Star, but he seems to be having a bunch of those lately.

The case for Fox is reasonably simple. He’s the leader of one of the surprise teams of the season, and a large part of that surprise has been his meteoric improvement from his rookie to sophomore campaign. Unfortunately for Fox, whose team has taken on his frenetic pace and energy as its identity, that run-and-gun style has left him, and the Kings, running on fumes at times, and now on the outside looking in of the Western Conference playoff bubble. Fox shot a scorching 57 percent true shooting mark in November and December but was only able to muster 51 percent from January through February. Consequently, his scoring, which was at 17.4 and then 19.4 points per game in November and December, respectively, dropped off to 15.4 points in a disastrous January before recovering somewhat to 16.6 points the next month.

To be fair, these are all reasonable pains for young players to go through! That Fox is even currently where he’s at speaks volumes to his offseason development. But for a team so reliant on out-running their opponents and playing through transition, their ability to next step will have to come from growth in the half-court. It’s exceedingly rare for a sophomore to win MIP — the last player to do it was Monta Ellis in the 2006-07 season. But Fox should take solace that he will have another crack at it in years to come, especially if his counterpart on Tuesday night was anything to go by.

To paraphrase the words of Reil on Twitter, very few players do unstoppable streaks of irrational confidence quite like D’Angelo Russell, who has absolutely exploded onto the scene in his fourth season. He’s averaging career highs virtually across the board, and he’s become a more secure playmaker, upping his assist rate (35.7 to 40.8 percent) while cutting the turnovers (16.8 to 13.2 percent), an impressive balance to maintain as a high-usage primary ball-handler. His shooting has improved, both from beyond the arc (32.4 to 26.6 percent) and from the free throw line (74 to 79.7 percent). And as he’s grown in confidence, the Nets have more and more become his team, with Russell’s usage increasing consistently as the season has worn on (26.1 percent in October to 34.7 percent in March).  Russell hasn’t disappointed, averaging over 20 points per game and over 7 assists per game every month since the turn of the new year.

Next: Can a defense influence ball movement?

He scored over 35 points once prior to the turn of the calendar. In 2019 though, Russell has poured in 35+ points four times already, including some incredible displays in clutch moments as well. According to John Schuhmann, Russell is only behind Kawhi Leonard in terms of clutch shots made, and that was before his incredible display against the Kings. That’s been crucial for Russell’s MIP candidacy. A highlight reel that’s only gotten better as the season has progressed. The incendiary displays that are etched in the viewers’ minds. Big shots in big moments, and the ultimate reward of a hopefully-soon-to-be-realized playoff berth. Or as Russell would put it, he’s just got ice in his veins. Always has.

It’s increasingly apparent that MIP is a two-horse race between Pascal Siakam and D’Angelo Russell. Based on historical precedent, Russell checks more boxes than Siakam, even. But will he walk away as this season’s Most Improved Player? He certainly seems to believe so.

All stats are from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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