The Most Improved Player race should be fun to watch down the stretch

The NBA's award for the Most Improved Player is perhaps the league's most debated award next to Most Valuable Player, which is apparently designed specifically to foster arguments.

In any case, the MIP award is usually fairly hotly contested, because the interpretation of the award can vary. Objectively, the award should go to the player who has shown the most on-court improvement, all things considered. But really, there are a few other definitions that tend to be employed, such as:

  • Biggest jump in points per game
  • Biggest jump in minutes while maintaining per-minute rates
  • Improvement on a team with a good story

It's easy to see why those short-hands may be useful - it's unreasonable for every voter to be a Zach Lowe or Kelly Dwyer and watch every minute of basketball that's out there. Voters have to use context clues, extrapolate from small samples and rely on statistics to back up their case.

This year, Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers is considered the favorite for the award. Not only are the Pacers one of the league's best teams, but Stephenson has gone from valuable cog to borderline All-Star, improving his per-minute scoring, rebounding and assist numbers and posting higher efficiency marks across the board. He's also got a great story as a second-round pick who spent two years carving out a role with the team before becoming a regular.

But there are others in the race, as well, and their stories may be enough to compel voters, too.

While looking at stats alone is not, by any means, what we would recommend for judging this award, stats can serve as a baseline to guide our analysis. As such, we developed a rough Improvement Metric (IM) to denote statistical gains for a player year-over-year.

IM = 2013-14 ((PPG+RPG+APG+SPG+BPG-TOPG-FGA)/MPG*36) / 2012-13 ((PPG+RPG+APG+SPG+BPG-TOPG-FGA)/MPG*36)

Put more simply, we summed all of the counting stats, subtracted turnovers and field goal attempts as proxy for efficiency and then put it on a per-minute basis. Scores were compared between years, showing a percentage improvement.

In short, IM represents "additional statistical contribution," which we hope works as a proxy for player improvement (we won't know until voting is in, of course, and even then we may not). In any case, here are the top-10 qualified players by IM:

Player IM
Gerald Green 166.69
Marco Belinelli 159.3
Arron Afflalo 141.08
Bismack Biyombo 140.53
Lance Stephenson 140.33
Draymond Green 134
Markieff Morris 132.94
Norris Cole 131.55
Randy Foye 131.53
DeMar DeRozan 128.73

We think that matches up pretty well with the narrative about players who have taken a stride forward, too. Gerald Green has had a major resurgence, Arron Afflalo has become a borderline All-Star, Draymond Green has been a difference-maker for the Warriors, and DeMar DeRozan has ascended to All-Star status.

It's not perfect, of course, but it gives you an idea of who is in the MIP discussion. Stephenson is not alone, and even if he may be the favorite and eventual winner, there's still work to do.

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The Most Improved Player race should be fun to watch down the stretch
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