Awards are weird.
In general, NBA culture is obsessed with individual players and their storylines, so it's fitting that this league more than any other features a series of yearlong debates about this individual accolade and that. Whose star is rising at just the right time to capture an MVP? Which newcomer will have just enough opportunities to win Rookie of the Year? Which team will overperform just enough for its man on the sidelines to win Coach of the Year?
But these questions are never answered simply by the individual's merits. Even though every NBA award is bestowed upon a single guy, it's never a matter of what that guy did in a vacuum. Outside context always plays a big role. You can't win an MVP without a compelling narrative driving your candidacy. You can't get ROTY unless your coach trusts you enough to give you major minutes right away. COTY is often less about the coach himself and more about the results the players can churn out.
Perhaps the weirdest award of all, though, is Most Improved Player. The weirdness primarily stems from the fact that no one really has any freaking idea what the title means. What does being the NBA's "most improved player" really entail? Can you earn that distinction by transferring the same skills over from year to year, but just applying them in more minutes? Or do you have to be markedly better on a per-minute basis? What kind of improvement are we talking about here - if you go from a total bench scrub to being a solid rotation guy, is that more improved than going from a mere starter to an All-Star? What about MVP-caliber players - can they win Most Improved if they get even better?
All we have are questions. There are no answers. But we know for certain that like every award in the NBA, MIP is context-dependent and narrative-driven. You can't win it without an interesting story behind your rise, a solid group of teammates to accentuate your skills and a coach willing to give you a role and some minutes.
In short, there's a whole boatload of factors that go into these things, so it's hard to say with any degree of confidence that a player "deserves" this award or that one. Sometimes deserve's got nothing to do with it.
All of that being said, it's still pretty cool that one of the leading candidates for MIP honors in 2016 is none other than the Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum.
Is McCollum the frontrunner to win the award this year? It's hard to say for sure, for all the reasons stated above. You can never be sure which direction the voters will lean in any given year - toward a super-young bench guy who's quietly gotten better, an All-Star who's really broken out, or maybe someone like McCollum who's safely nestled in the middle. We do know, though, that CJ has taken big strides this season. He's gone from averaging 6.8 points, 1.0 assists and 1.5 rebounds a game last year to 20.9, 4.3 and 3.5 now. In 2014-15, he was a bench guy who snuck onto the floor for a few minutes each night; he's now the legit second-best player on a team that's very much alive in the West playoff race.
So should he win?
It's easy for us here in Portland to be biased. We've witnessed his rise firsthand, getting to see every little step forward from a front-row seat. We don't have the same perspective on the other candidates. So perhaps the fairest way to investigate this question would be to start with a rational, unbiased statistical analysis.
The following is a list of the 20 most improved players, numerically speaking, in the NBA this season. It's based off of Win Shares, a stat developed by Justin Kubatko and updated daily at basketball-reference.com. You can dig into the nitty-gritty details here if you want, but the short explanation is it's a stat that takes every team's win total and uses individual stats - both offensive and defensive - to decide how much credit each individual player deserves. Last year James Harden led the NBA with 16.4 WS; LaMarcus Aldridge was No. 21 in the league with 8.6. A 5-WS season denotes a solid NBA starter; a 10 is a legit superstar. The stat isn't perfect (one common criticism is it's too generous to mediocre players on good teams), but for our purposes, it'll do.
The 20 guys you see above have more Win Shares already this season, only some 50ish games in, than they did all of last year. Obviously though, most of those are because of injuries. Paul George missed almost a full season; Kevin Durant only played about half. To simplify matters, I've color-coded this list - the 13 names in red are guys who missed a significant chunk of last season with injuries, meaning they haven't necessarily "improved" much per se.
The other seven, in yellow, are more serious candidates. A couple of those names are to be expected; a couple might surprise you a little. Perhaps a couple, you've barely heard of. In any event, the numbers say that all seven are far better players now than they were a year ago, so they at least merit a little consideration.
His story: Yeah, that's right - Will Barton! That Will Barton. One and the same. It's crazy that a year ago, Barton was in Portland and couldn't even get off the end of the bench under Terry Stotts. He wasn't even the backup shooting guard - ironically, that would be McCollum. It's not even clear if he was the backup to the backup, as that would depend on what position you considered Allen Crabbe or Dorell Wright to play. In any event, Barton was still a fringe NBA player in his third season, and it was hard to say whether his time to shine would ever come.
Well, it's come now. Will the Thrill is doing work in Denver, and he's a legitimate candidate for both MIP and Sixth Man of the Year. He's not the first-string shooting guard for the Nuggets - that would be Gary Harris - but he comes off the bench and pours in 15.5 points per game in only 28.8 minutes. He's shooting an impressive 38.4 percent from 3-point land on a decent number of attempts, but he really gets attention when he attacks the basket and does stuff like this:
Boy. Talk about increased confidence. I can't imagine the Barton of 12 months ago throwing down a slam like that, but nowadays, it's commonplace. That thin Rocky Mountain air appears to have done him some good. Well, that and a boatload more minutes.
His chances: Not all that slim. Seriously - I think Barton's got a shot. He's not a better player than McCollum, to be sure, but he wasn't better last year, either... so does that mean he "improved" more? For what it's worth, the numbers say yes, slightly. We'll see how the voters assess it.
His story: I'm still not sure if anyone takes Matthew Dellavedova seriously as an NBA player. Even at his absolute peak last year, when he was the starting point guard for a team that was up 2-1 in the NBA Finals, it seemed as though people viewed Delly more like LeBron James' goofy little Australian sidekick than as a legitimate player in his own right.
This year, the only way not to take Dellavedova seriously is not to pay attention. He's good. The Cavs started the season 17-7 during the 24 games that Kyrie Irving missed, and a big reason for that is Delly's competence in a point guard platoon next to Mo Williams (speaking of former Blazers). Those two guys managed not to burn the house down, and against an Eastern Conference slate that's getting tougher every year, that's saying something.
Dellavedova is shooting a ridiculous 43.2 percent from 3-point range this season - that's up from 40.7 percent last year, and 36.8 percent as a rookie. His scoring numbers aren't exactly McCollum-like, but he's on a much more talented team and still holding his own. At 8.2 points per game, he's Cleveland's sixth-leading scorer - impressively ahead of Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. He's also averaging 4.8 assists to only 1.5 turnovers, a pretty solid ratio. No longer just a sidekick, Delly is a real cog in the Eastern Conference's best rotation.
His chances: Not great. Dellavedova's a much better player now than he's ever been, but his exploits tend to go overlooked because of the three superstars sharing the spotlight in Cleveland. Delly is having a solid year but without a ton of national media attention.
His story: A weird inclusion on this list, considering that the Knicks' young point guard is actually out of the starting lineup and playing less than he did last year for a team that's now deeper and healthier. Galloway has settled comfortably into a third-guard role behind Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo (I swear, I'll stop mentioning failed Blazers soon).
His improvements this year have been subtle ones. He's hitting the 3 at a slightly higher clip than last year, 37.0 percent to 35.2, and he's averaging just 0.9 turnovers per 36 minutes compared to 1.5. He's also a better defender. But for the most part, the Knicks' growth this season has been a team effort, and there's a new guy you might have heard of named Kristaps Porzingis who's played a pretty significant role too.
His chances: No shot. His appearance on the top 20 list is basically just a statistical oddity. Still, though, Galloway is having a nice sophomore season and deserves some credit.
His story: Here's an even weirder one. Usually, when you talk about the NBA's most improved player, you're talking about a 24-year-old kid who's been steadily developing his skills for a couple of years and has a breakout season when his coach gives him more minutes. Rondo is not that. He's a four-time NBA All-Star who turns 30 next month.
But technically, if you define "improved" as more productive this season than last, Rondo is a very solid candidate. Last year, the guy had a rough outing on and off the court in his first full season back from a torn ACL, and he couldn't hold down a job. The Celtics were pretty desperate to get rid of him toward the end, and they were a much improved team once they did. The Mavericks tried for months to make it work with Rondo, and eventually they ended up just telling him to go away in the middle of a playoff series.
Now in Sacramento, Rondo is actually having a respectable year. More than respectable, even. He's leading the NBA in assists per game at 11.6. Add to that 11.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, and you're looking at one of the closest guys in the league to averaging a triple-double (Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green and LeBron James also come to mind). He's even making more than half his free throws! A year ago, it wasn't even clear that Rondo could stick in the league, and now he's the stabilizing force of a team that's on the fringes of the West playoff race. Not a bad turn.
His chances: Doubtful. Rondo's season has been a very cool story (awful homophobic slurs not withstanding), but he's not the type of player the voters usually honor with an MIP award.
His story: Another fun fact about this list - not only did McCollum and Barton share backup duties together last season, but Rondo and Crowder were traded for each other. The December 2014 deal between Dallas and Boston might someday be known as the Jae Crowder trade, and the young wing's improvement this season is a big reason why.
The Celtics are currently fighting for third place in the Eastern Conference at 29-22, and while Crowder might not be the best player on their roster (that nod probably goes to first-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas for now), he's the one who most epitomizes their spirit. The C's are a mediocre offensive team that's succeeding with defense, transition play and boundless energy, and Crowder brings an overdose of all three. For a few weeks, he was leading the NBA in steals; he's still holding steady now with an impressive 92 takeaways in 51 games. He's a running, gunning player who's undyingly aggressive on both ends of the floor. The Celtics have won games on the strength of Crowder's steals and transition buckets. Crowder is also now a 35.4 percent 3-point shooter and a much-improved pick-and-roll player, and he also scores in sneaky-brilliant ways like this game-winner last month in Washington:
While Crowder's numbers (14.3 points, 5.1 rebounds) don't exactly leap off the page, he's nonetheless the type of player that voters love to reward with secondary awards like MIP. He's a hardworking, likable young player excelling for a hardworking, likable young team. Look out for him.
His chances: Pretty good, I'd reckon. There's a lot of season still to go, but at this point Crowder is looking like one of McCollum's main rivals.
His story: The Detroit Pistons are on pace to win 43 games and make the playoffs this season, which kinda makes them one of the NBA's best success stories. It's hard to isolate just one guy who deserves the credit, though. Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris are all having nice seasons. Statistically, though, it's KCP who's actually broken out the most this year.
You have to look hard to see it. Caldwell-Pope is barely scoring more points per game this year than last (up from 12.7 in 2014-15 to 14.6 now). But he's also playing by far the best wing defense of his career, rebounding more, and developing more of a crafty mid-range game. According to basketball-reference, he's shooting worse from 3 this season but markedly improved his shot from every other distance - 0 to 3 feet, 3 to 10, 10 to 16 and 16 to the 3-point line.
KCP's improvements this year have been small and nuanced. But they're there, and they're part of the reason why the Pistons are a changed team this season.
His chances: Not great. Like Dellavedova, Caldwell-Pope has been overshadowed by more prominent players on his own team. Nice young player, though.
His story: I don't need to go into much detail here, do I? You already know the broad strokes. In a matter of months, McCollum has gone from a bench guy playing 15 minutes a night to the second-best player on a playoff team. That narrative is pretty easy to spin favorably.
I'll add this, though. The thing that's impressed me most about McCollum this season is his growth from October to February. He's a much better player now than he was when the Blazers played their first game sans LaMarcus and company, back on Oct. 28 - you know it's true because he's still cranking out the same level of production despite other teams viewing him totally differently than they used to.
After the Blazers' season opener against New Orleans, I wrote about the play above, among other things. It's obvious how McCollum scored on that possession - he was going up against a Pelicans defense whose plans A, B, C, D and E were to shut down Damian Lillard, and they weren't concerned at all with the scrubs around him. They managed to leave McCollum's entire side of the floor open on this 3-point attempt from the first quarter of opening night. That's hard to do.
In the 3-4 months since, McCollum has worked to establish himself as much, much more than the scrub that plays next to Lillard. If Lillard is the Blazers' ace, McCollum is now an absolutely deserving 1A, and he's just as good as Dame at bringing a versatile brand of guard play. Put him on the ball and run a pick-and-roll, or move him off and tell him to spot up for jumpers. He's brilliant either way.
That was McCollum in January. Defenses aren't leaving him open anymore - they're pouncing on him, they're trapping him, they're doing everything in their power to keep him from getting his 20 points a night. Somehow, CJ keeps managing to get his 20 anyway. His combination of intelligence, craftiness and poise under pressure has him looking, right now at least, like one of the best young guards in the NBA.
His chances: Good. Very, very good. The time is right for McCollum to announce his presence as the league's most improved player. If you look at the list of the most recent winners, six of the last seven (Danny Granger, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson, Paul George and Jimmy Butler) took home the trophy in either the third or fourth years of their careers. There's a reason for that - it's because around year three or four is when coaches start to trust young players to assume a bigger role. Not just in terms of a starting spot and a healthy dose of minutes, but also a greater role in the offense, more playcalls and just generally a heightened level of trust. That goes a long way in helping youngsters develop into legit NBA stars.
McCollum right now is doing exactly that. He's blossoming into a legit star. When we look now at guys like Love, George and Butler, we see guys who were inevitably going to become All-Star talents. Looking now at McCollum, we now have reason to believe he's on that same trajectory, just a little earlier on the timeline. A little piece of hardware this spring would help validate that progress.
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