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Examining the Top Candidates for the Most Improved Player Award

The Most Improved Player award is probably the weirdest one given out. If you thought valuable was hard to define, good luck settling on one meaning for improved. When it comes down to it, the MVP candidates are always some of the league’s most elite players. With the MIP award, however, we have some leeway to decide what we want to reward. Let’s look at a few of the top candidates, starting with the one who I believe has the best case.

Jimmy Butler

Butler has taken his game to the next level in 2014-15, causing most to assume he had locked this award up as early as December. Already a somewhat surprising success story coming into the season, Butler had the reputation of a lockdown perimeter defender who could get to the line on offense but not much else. He has blown that perception out of the water this season, regaining his shooting touch after a foot injury hampered him in 2013-14.

Playing the same ridiculous 39 minutes per game as last year, Jimmy has taken four extra shots a game and converted 46.1 percent of them after making under 40 percent last season. He has upped his three-point percentage to 35.2 from a paltry 28.3 last year.

Even more impressive, he has gotten better at drawing free throws. Only James Harden, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James get to the line more often. Even better, Butler is converting over 84 percent of those freebies, the highest clip of anyone in the top 10 in attempts except the untouchable Harden. His passing and rebounding have improved too; he’s grabbing an extra board per game and 3.2 assists. (0.6 more than last year)

With Derrick Rose hurt once again, Butler has taken on more ball-handling responsibilities. The results have been fantastic; the Bulls should probably be running pick-and-rolls with Jimmy even more. Past winners of the Most Improved Player like Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love were solid young players who finally got full opportunities to shine. Butler led the NBA in minutes per game last season, and he simply wasn’t this player at all. If a Paul George-esque leap is the platonic ideal of this award (as I think it largely should be), Butler is the easy pick.

Draymond Green

Draymond has a strong case for this award, but his momentum for Defensive Player of the Year may be even stronger. While Mark Jackson was reluctant to hand the keys to the power forward position to Green in the past, Steve Kerr has had no hesitation rolling with him. (An early injury to David Lee helped make this decision even easier.) In his first two seasons, Green played just under a third of his time at the 4. This season, nearly half his minutes have been spent there, and the results have been glorious.

With Green on the floor this season, the Warriors have outscored opponents by an impossible 17 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Golden State’s 12.0 net rating for the season is the best the NBA has seen since Michael Jordan left the Bulls. When Green is on the bench, the Dubs only outscore their opponents by three points per 100 possessions. Stephen Curry‘s impact is even bigger, and he does it mostly through masterful shooting and passing. Draymond puts his work in predominantly on the other end.

Green can truly guard almost anyone in the league, the rarest of luxuries that only the best defenses really have. Andrew Bogut is a monster in the paint, and Green can roam the floor destroying stretch 4’s or bullying anyone who wants to take him in the post. If Kerr wants to unleash hell on offense, he can move Draymond down to center, where he’s more than capable of banging with starting 5’s. This versatility is a jarring luxury for a team so much better than the rest of the league, and Green’s emergence as the key defensive cog has been one of the season’s best stories.

So why isn’t he a shoe-in for Most Improved Player? Mostly because Jackson never gave him the chance to show this versatility in the past. Green only played 21.9 minutes per game last year and started just 12 times. He started the first 72 games of 2014-15 and has chipped in 31.6 minutes a night; undoubtedly that number would be higher if the Warriors weren’t so damn good.

Looking at per 36 minutes averages, Green has only improved by one rebound, one assist and three points per game. Defensively, he was already tallying two steals and 1.4 blocks per game last season. Now, he’s at 1.8 swipes and 1.5 rejections. Most Improved Coach is probably a more accurate award for Draymond than Most Improved Player. Also, cool story Glenn.

Rudy Gobert

Gobert is a lay-up rejecting machine, spawning great nicknames like “The Stifle Tower” and “The French Rejection.” He’s pretty handy around the rim, too:

In the wake of Enes Kanter‘s departure to Oklahoma City, Gobert has been a catalyst in Utah’s surge to becoming the best defensive team (by far) since the All-Star break. While Rudy has blossomed faster and more than most probably expected, the 22-year-old was a first-round pick in 2013 and is playing just his second season. He notched under 500 minutes in total last year. Improvement is expected in young players oozing with potential like the athletic Gobert, but Jazz fans should be more than excited for his future.

Hassan Whiteside

No one really knows what to make Whiteside. After basically every team in the NBA passed on him, the 2010 second-rounder played for four teams in Lebanon and China before coming back to the D-League and washing up with Miami. This season, he has been a fantastic center, averaging 11.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in just 22.8 minutes per game. Before that, the 25-year-old had under 150 minutes in his career.

To the core, you could make a strong case that Whiteside truly is the most improved player in the NBA. Still, persistent rumblings about his work ethic and attitude remain, as people try to retroactively piece together how everyone could collectively miss on so much talent. There’s definitely an element of the rest of the league’s jealousy on letting Whiteside slip to Pat Riley. On the other hand, Whiteside has already been ejected and suspended from games for losing his cool:

Looking back at semi-recent winners of the MIP, there simply isn’t a precedent (or even an example) of a player with so few career minutes winning. Further, Whiteside has only appeared in 43 games thus far, giving other players with longer resumes some help. If Hassan takes the award home this year, he’ll have earned it, but it would be a departure from the type of players who have won in the past.

 

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