The Most Improved Player Award: A New Kind of Improvement
See Part 1 in my prior article, outlining the history of the often forgotten yet ever intriguing Most Improved Player Award.
“What makes the quirky Most Improved Player Award so much fun is determining what you value as improvement. Some may lean towards G-League players make the leap as consistent 8th men on a roster. Many are often persuaded by the leap from starter to All-Star. The jump from All-Star to All-NBA is another measurement. And although it has never been rewarded with enough votes to win the award, many voters strive to recognize the hallowed jump from All-NBA to MVP level talent (see Giannis in 2019). Or the even more rare MVP season level up to better MVP season (see Curry finishing 4th in 2015–16 where he averaged a record 6.3 PPG more than his previous MVP campaign).”
What makes Ja Morant an interesting case study this year, is no player of his ilk — who has delivered at every step of the way early in his career , who has made the leap from borderline All-Star to potential All-NBA player, has ever won the Most Improved Player in the 36 year history of the award.
Morant has been the odds on favourite since games kicked off this season. Morant is currently 7th in MVP odds. He has taken a massive leap from borderline All-Stara to having a good shot at making All-NBA. This fits the archetype of many recent winners;Giannis, Randle, Oladipo, Butler, and Paul George. It’s an impressive case. It’s a very difficult leap to make. I wouldn’t argue against a person lamenting the lack of recognition players making that type of leap have gained in the past in the context of the award.
The elephant in the room differentiating Morant and all those players, is that he was the second overall pick. Oladipo was as well, however he was toiling away in OKC, as a sideshow to Russell Westbrook in his prior season. He won the award in Year 5. Oladipo’s 2013 draft was a famously weak one (at least as far as the lotterry was concerned) at the time anyway. Expectations for the two have virtually never been the same.
Morant, in his 3rd season, has not given anybody any reason to waver on his superstar trajectory since his historic Rookie of the Year campaign. In my opinion, would have gone 1st overall in a good percentage of other drafts. Even if you disagree with that statement, what can’t be argued is that he was considered a strong second overall pick.
In terms of other precedence, Kevin Love was the 5th overall pick, and won in his 3rd season. He made All-Star, while falling short of All-NBA. It’s hard to compare precisely now, but there can often be a world of expectations between the 5th and the 2nd pick in the draft. (See 2016 Draft*). Prior to Love, you have to go to the first few years of the inception of the award to find young lottery picks who ended up winning. The only precedent of top 3 picks winning Most Improved are Pervis Ellison (1st overall in 1989), and Chris Jackson / Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (3rd overall in 1990). They won in back to back years in ’92 and ’93, both in their third year.
- *Brandon Ingram was drafted second overall behind Ben Simmons, with a steep dropoff in expectations afterwards. Kris Dunn was drafted 5th.
Neither Ellison or Abdul-Rauf we’re particularly large prospects. Abdul-Rauf was an undersized flashy guard. Ellison — one of the weaker 1st overall picks of the past 30 years, missed most of his rookie season due to injury. He was a part of a three team trade between the Kings, Jazz, and Washington Bullets before his sophomore season. The Kings received Eric Leckner, Bob Hansen, and draft picks in return for Ellison. Clearly expectations for him had dropped drastically.
Ellison spent Year 2 relegated in Washington as a backup, averaging 10 points on 2.8 FTA and 25 MPG. Ellison’s third season in which he won Most Improved saw him become a starter, jump from 10 to 20 PPG and 38 MPG. He would spend much of the remainder of his career injured, aptly nicknamed “Out of Service Pervis” by teammate Danny Ainge.
So the trajectory between Ellison and Morant isn’t an ideal comparison. That’s a long winded way of saying Morant winning the award this year would be unprecedented. On this pace, Morant remains my pick to win, although not necessarily my pick if I were to have a personal vote.
If Ja keeps his pace up, he could potentially contend for a Second Team All-NBA slot. Assuming we are without injury, Curry will take 1 of the 2 guard spots on the First Team. The other spot is somewhat up for grabs, with Doncic, Lillard, and Harden off to relatively slow starts. Still, it feels as though it will be hard for Morant to pass and the rest of the elite guards. Beal, Paul, Booker, and Mitchell will be right in the mix. There’s a lot to unfold for that slew of players with so many games remaining. All-NBA is an award that is influenced by expectations (see Harden in 2015–16), and team success. As of November 23rd, the Grizzlies are currrently 9th in the West, with a -4.8 point differential. Exceeding expectations and making the top six, would most certainly benefit the narrative.
Morant has the same narrative going for him that Randle had last year. It’s the situation of being the clear cut best player on a team without an obvious second banana that succeeds expectations. Despite this common “team archetype,” where 4–5 other players take turns moonlighting as the second best player on the team in a given game, the best player is continually overrated in one way or another. (Not to say Morant couldn’t possibly be deserving of a Second Team spot).
Even still, some may argue that winning MIP required “Second-Team level” seasons from Giannis, Oladipo, and Randle, whose expectations both for their career, and entering their seasons, we’re wildly different. That may mean that the bar for “improvement” for Morant may be higher. Yet somehow, I’m not getting that feeling.
I suppose much of Morant’s chances will be out of his control — influenced by the level of play of the other MIP contenders. If OG makes All-Star and All-Defense, as a 23rd overall pick in his 5th season, will he leapfrog Morant? If Poole — a 28th overall pick drafted the same year as Morant — can average the second most PPG on the best team in the league, will he become the frontrunner? We will have to wait and see how the seasons of the other four primary contenders bear out. Stay tuned for that in Part 3.