Challenge: Who will win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award for the 2012-2013 season?
Measuring the improvement of a basketball player from season to season is a difficult job. Improvement can appear in so many areas and in so many ways, that defining it and comparing it to another player’s improvement can feel overwhelming. Luckily, this challenge doesn’t ask you to identify the player who will improve the most next season. It asks you to make an argument for who will win the NBA’s award for being the most improved player. This means that a shortcut is available if you choose to take it. If you are ambitious there is an opportunity for you to create your own system for predicting and comparing improvement. But if that job seems to big, you can look at some of the players who have won this award in the past and use them as a guide to see how improvement is measured and valued by the voters.
Historically, there have been three different types of players that have won the Most Improved Player Award.
The first is a group we will call the “Out-of-Nowheres.” This group is made up of players like Darrell Armstrong in 1998-1999. Jeremy Lin‘s experience with the Knicks last season would be another perfect example, although he didn’t win the award. These are players who have spent the beginning of their careers at the very end of an NBA rotation, barely maintaining a spot in the league. Due to unexpected circumstances, they are finally given an opportunity to play major minutes and they thrive. This type of player may be the hardest to predict because they don’t have overly impressive statistics beforehand and their big opportunity usually comes from an injured teammate or some other extreme event.
The second group we’ll call the “Watch-Me-Grows.” Examples from this group would be Jalen Rose in 1999-2000 or Boris Diaw in 2005-2006. These are firmly established players who are given a new role, often because they’ve switched teams, one that allows them to quickly become a much more efficient and productive player. These players have actually improved in several areas, whether scoring, passing, shooting, protecting the ball, etc.
The third group we’ll call the “More-Minutes.” This type of player is one who has previously been very good or productive, but in a small role. All of a sudden they are given starters’ minutes and their production becomes noticeable. They usually haven’t really improved at all, they just have a greater opportunity to show off their talents and grab attention by being on the floor more often. The last two winners of this award, Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love definitely fit into this category.
- Out-of-Nowheres – Starts the season at the end of an NBA bench, gets a sudden opportunity to play big minutes, is successful in a way that was not really hinted at by their previous statistics
- Watch-Me-Grows – An established player, sees more minutes or plays in a new role, actually improves in several statistical categories
- More-Minutes – An established player who has been successful playing in a small role, is given starter’s minutes and continues to be successful, doesn’t necessarily improve but looks improved because they are playing more minutes
Thinking about those three types of players may help you find some candidates for you answer. You may use them as a guide, or go off on your own path searching for a most improved player. However you proceed, once you find a player that you would like to build your answer around you will have to be ready to answer a few questions:
- Is this player going to improve by seeing more minutes, playing a different role, or by actually playing better?
- What about this player’s situation is likely to change this season that will give them a chance to show off their improvement?
- What statistics make me think this player will improve? What statistics will show this player’s improvement at the end of the season?