Challenge: Who will win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award for the 2012-2013 season?
In the Unpacking Challenge #3 hint we identified three different types of players who have won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award in the past, and pointed out that those three player types could be used as a guide to help you find an answer for this challenge. In the Getting Started With Challenge #3 hint, we looked at some ways to identify the third group, the players we labeled as 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.
In this hint, we will look at some ways to identify the other two groups of players, the “Out-Of-Nowheres” and the “Watch-Me-Grows.” Before we begin, let’s review how we defined these two groups -
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.
These two types of players are much harder to predict than the “More-Minutes” and finding them is more of an art than a science. The difference between the groups is where they begin the season. One is a player who is firmly established in an NBA rotation, the other begins the season on the very edges. What they have in common is that both groups are made up of players who have the opportunity to play a bigger or much different role than they have in the past. These new opportunities lead to improvement in several areas.
Because their growth has so much to do with circumstance, identifying players for these two categories is difficult. Unfortunately, I don’t have a proven or scientific method. To find them you’ll have to do some searching. Look for players who have changed teams. Look for teams who have changed a significant portion of their rosters. Look for teams who have traded away one of last season’s leading scorers. All of those changes are signs that there may be an opportunity for someone new to step up.
Once you have identified a few candidates, there are a few things to look for. Some statistics have a tendency to remain very consistent from season to season. For example, players rarely turn into terrific three-point shooters over a single off-season. You generally see the same thing with rebounds. If a player is a poor rebounder in limited minutes, or on one team, he is likely to be a poor rebounder on any team, playing any amount of minutes.
There are some other statistics however, which can improve rather quickly. The first is Turnover Percentage. Many young players tend to force things offensively when they first come in the league. For some, gaining just a little bit of experience can lead to much better decision making, fewer turnovers, and better offensive production. Another area where players can improve fairly significantly is Field Goal Percentage. Although players don’t often become much better shooters in terms of skill, a year or two of experience can lead to much better shot selection, which in turn leads to a player making more shots. Also moving to a team with a well-established and successful offensive structure, or a terrific individual offensive player to work off of can lead to dramatic improvement.
To illustrate some of these points, let’s take a look at the Timberwolves’ Nikola Pekovic, who many felt deserved the Most Improved Player Award last season. As a rookie Pekovic played fairly limited minutes, mostly coming off the bench. In that time he was a fairly solid rebounder and had a respectable field goal percentage. However, he also turned the ball over on 22.5% of his possessions and committed an almost unbelievable 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes.
During last season you can see his improvement in several areas. He went from mostly coming off the bench to mostly starting, nearly doubling his minutes per game. His field goal percentage went up dramatically, partially a product of better shot selection and playing a half-season with Ricky Rubio. He cut his turnover percentage by a nearly a third, from 22.5% to 14.0%. He also cut his personal fouls from 7.3 per 36 minutes to 2.8 per 36 minutes. Figuring out how to play under control and without fouling also allowed him to go from a solid rebounder to an elite one. His offensive rebound percentage of 15.8% lead the league last season.
Pekovic is a perfect example of the player types we are talking about here. Circumstance allowed him to step into a much bigger role. That circumstance also allowed him to be a much more efficient offensive player, while a year of experience helped him improve in several key areas. If you decide to use a player like Pekovic for your answer to Challenge #3, remember to think about these points:
- What circumstances will give this player a bigger opportunity?
- What factors allow this player to improve? experience? better teammates? better coaching? a new system?
- What statistical categories was this player strong in last season? Are they likely to repeat that success?
- What statistical categories was this player weak in last season? Are they likely to improve in those areas? Why?