How to Predict The Winner of The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award A Season in Advance: Introducing The 2017–2018 Candidates

(If you want to look more in depth at the players and the numbers that went into these selections, here is a spreadsheet with just that.)

The Most Improved Player award shouldn’t be predictable, right? Is improvement predictable? Turns out it is. There are some very strong factors that indicate a player is headed for a season in which they’ll win the Most Improved Player award. I looked the MIP winners since the 1999–2000 season, and saw what trends emerged that could help predict possible breakout stars in the 2017–2018 NBA season.

Disclaimer: I used the data of every player with the exception of Hedo Turkoglu’s 2007–08 season. He is the only athlete through that defied just about everything the data would project a MIP to have (he was too old, too seasoned, was coming off a down year, wasn’t getting more minutes etc.). Turkoglu’s an outlier, and doesn’t really help to project a breakout year. Using him wouldn’t help us to arrive at the best prediction for MIP, since we’d be looking at different types of players.

Here are some facts about winners of the award:

12/17 MIP winners won the award in their 3rd or 4th season, 14/17 won it in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th season.

53% of (non-sophomore) winners averaged anywhere between 10 and 14 ppg in the season prior to winning MIP. It’s a wider margin for scoring, but 88% of all winners averaged between 6.5 and 17 points per game the season prior to their win.

Most players went through a “mini-jump” the year before. Every single eligible player saw an increase in points from two years before winning MIP to the year before winning MIP, with the average increase being 4.1 points per game. In fact, 73% of winners had an increase between 2.9 and 6.1 points per game from two years before winning it to the year before winning it.

11/17 MIP winners went from being bench players to starters in the year that they won MIP. However, this year, there were a shockingly low number of players that moved from bench positions to starting ones, and almost all of those players didn’t fit any of the other criteria that would predict someone to be a Most Improved Player.

The Player who won Most Improved must have started in the year they won Most Improved.

All played at least 47 games the year before

If it’s an athlete’s second year, in order to win Most Improved, they have to start getting many more minutes per game than their rookie season, they have to get more responsibility, and, therefore usually need to go from being a bench player to a starter. It’s very unlikely a second year player would have started in their rookie year. If a Sophomore were to win, they probably wouldn’t score more than 11 ppg. Otherwise, a jump would be ‘expected’ eg Devin Booker’s 14 ppg to 22 ppg or Towns’ 18 ppg to 25 ppg, and not warrant an award.

While “points per game in the year before winning” seems to have a somewhat strong correlation to “the year in league when the award was won,” there is almost no correlation between “year in league when the award was won” and “the improvement in points from two years before winning Most Improved Player” to the year before winning it.

Those on the Fringe

Don’t expect these young guns to receive this award, but predict some improvement.

Justise Winslow: Winslow played 18 games last season. No player since 2000 has won the award playing less than 47 games the season before. There’s a reason for that. Consistency and playing time help build players up for breakouts. He did have decent stats in those 18 games he played, averaging 11–5–4 with strong defense, but he also shot a poor 36% from the field and a measly 20% from deep.

Willie Cauley-Stein: As I’ll explain with Capela later, Cauley-Stein doesn’t really fit the bill in terms of players who win this award. In addition, he only saw a 1 point per game increase, and only scored 8 points per game last year, showing a value significantly lower than the mean for players who won the award.

Those Who Are The Sophomore Hopefuls

Only 12% of MIP winners since 2000 have been second year players, and of those, none were full-year starters in their rookie season. It’s unlikely any of these guys win it, but they are the most likely of any of the players going into their sophomore season.

Brandon Ingram: Magic Johnson believes.

Buddy Hield: Vlade Divac believes.

Caris Levert: There’s still the question of who’ll be starting at SF for the Nets next season; Crabbe, Hollis-Jefferson, Carroll and Levert are all candidates for the job. But if Levert can prove himself quickly with the starting job, watch out.

Those Who Could, But Probably Won’t Due To The Nature Of The Award

Kristaps Porzingis: He’s great. He could be a top 10 player at some point in the near future. His point production shot up from 14.3 points per game his rookie season to 18.1 in his second season. With the triangle (and maybe Melo) out of New York, KP6 will be able to operate in an environment better suited for his playstyle. But there’s a few problems that keep him out of contention. Firstly, while players have scored 18+ points per game in the season prior to winning the award, it is extremely rare. Secondly, the hype is already extremely high for Porzingis. A breakout year is expected for him. Anything outside of top-15 status won’t warrant him this award.

Clint Capela: A good young player with stellar defense who’ll be catching lobs from two of the best passers in the game, in an offense ran by Mike D’Antoni. All signs point to increased production next year. But players like Capela — defensive bigs who, on offense, almost completely operate in the pick and roll — don’t win these types of awards. Even if they’re extremely talented at these facets of the game. Because for all the talent they possess, they aren’t really considered “skilled enough”. They don’t score in enough ways, and usually don’t score enough period. There’s a bright future for Clint Capela, but it’s one in the Rudy Gobert/DeAndre Jordan mold, and not one where he wins Most Improved.

Zach Lavine: Similarly to Porzingis, his 18.9 points per game make it hard to slot him the award. Getting traded to a team in which a 35 year old Dwyane Wade is the only other offensive option might help Lavine’s production, but the basketball situation in Chicago is most likely too much of a dumpster fire to see any player exceed expectations.

The Top Nine

9. Bojan Bogdanovic: The Nets gave Bogdanovic plenty of time to shine. He did okay. He’s a bit old. It’s doesn’t seem too likely Bogdanovic wins the award, but there isn’t a huge chance he gets worse next year.

8. Nikola Jokic: He could fit in the “Those Who Could, But Probably Won’t” catagory. But the awards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Danny Granger were given would beg to differ. Both Antetokounmpo and Granger had fairly impressive seasons the year before winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Giannis putting up 16.9–7.7–4.3 and Granger with a strong 19.6–6.1–2.1. The hype might be too high for Jokic to win it, (he was a candidate for the award last year) but the year-to-year, and even month-to-month gains that Jokic has made might lead to a season too great for voters to ignore. Jokic has asserted himself as the centerpiece in one of the league's top offenses. I’m excited to see where he goes from there.

7. Elfrid Payton: Statistics back this up. He’s made improvements in just about every (offensive) stat, each season in the league. He has a few problems a) his jump shot b) his jump shot and c) you guessed it. It’s very hard to be a reliable point guard in the modern NBA without one. It’s possible he’d develop a jumper, but without the aid of a haircut, it seems unlikely. His defense is solid, though not great, but for this award, it doesn’t matter too much (see: CJ McCollum). His passing is superb. If Payton’s shooting gets to the next level, he could be a lock for the award. If.

6. Julius Randle

Despite Larry Nance Jr. fighting for the starting spot, the other growing offense weapons in LA, and rapidly changing team around him, Randle has sneakily been improving his game the past few years. The stats are there, it’s a question of whether the situation is right. (With Lonzo, it might be).

5. Jusuf Nurkic: McCollum and Lillard have already been billed as premier guys, but Nurkic was still able to find the space to dominate after getting traded to Portland and getting the starting job last season. Will he be able to improve upon his post-trade numbers in 2017–2018? Only time will tell.

4. D’Angelo Russell: The Nets ‘Moreyball’-esque offense alongside their renowned training staff and facilities should benefit D’Angelo Russell. Speaking of which, doesn’t their team kind of resemble a dumpster-fire version of the Rockets? They have two quick point guards who can shoot, attack, and assist in Russell and Lin, they have 3-and-D wings in Crabbe and and Carroll, an at-least-serviceable-from-deep stretch four in Trevor Booker (I’ll admit it, this one’s a stretch), and pick and roll bigs in both Mozgov and Jarrett Allen.

Those In The Top 3

3. Gary Harris

Don’t discount Harris just because his team has a lot of firepower around him. Butler won the award with Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose getting lots of touches, McCollum won it sharing the ball with Damian Lillard. It helps to be the best player on your team, that’ll be the ultimate test for Harris. It will help Gary that the talent around him includes willing passers in Jokic and Millsap, and an offense that ranked first in the NBA in the second half of last season. Harris went from averaging 12.3 points per game in his second season to 14.9 in his third, and has significantly boosted his field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, rebounds, assists, and win shares every year he’s been in the league.

2. Aaron Gordon: He’s a Power Forward. And he’s great as one. At SF last year, Aaron averaged close to 11 points per game. After Ibaka was traded, he averaged 16.7 points per game (and 19 points per game in the last six games of the season). In the 2015–2016 season, Air Gordon averaged 9.2 points per game. Solely looking at Aaron as a Power Forward, that’s a 7.5 point per game increase. Mix in the team’s improved spacing, lack of a “go-to guy”, Gordon’s athleticism, ability to put the ball on the floor and blow by larger guys, and “AG” seems like a perfect candidate to break out in the 2017–2018 NBA season.

But 16.7(!) ppg at PF!
  1. Myles Turner

With Paul George gone, this is Turner’s team now. Turner has a great post game, with a big body and a quick release. He’s shown he has range, knocking down 35% of his jumpers from three, up from 21% his rookie year. He’s displayed the ability to put the ball on the floor. He’s athletic, strong, and is already a top defensive big. He’s been exceptional in all areas. If you were to bet money on anyone to win this year, let it be Myles Turner. Based both on statistics and the eye test, Myles seems to be the poster child for predicting the MIP. There’s so much more to say about Turner, but the tape speaks for itself.

I strongly suggest you watch at the very least 4:48–5:00

Oh yeah, and there’s this

Bonus: Those Who Won’t Get The Chance

These are the guys who will be on the bench, but have stats that indicate if they were to start, they’d probably have a pretty decent chance to win.

Tyler Johnson: Dion Waiters is keeping him from his award. Still love you Dion.

Frank Kaminsky: (maybe?) It all depends on if he wins the starting job from Marvin Williams. Kaminsky scored 14 points per game following the All-Star break, including a month of 18 points per game last February.

TJ Warren: I do not in the slightest condemn Phoenix for choosing to go with Josh Jackson. He’s the younger player, and he has much higher upside, as I wrote about in my pre-draft rankings. But Warren has shown the ability to be a competent player, and his year-to-year progression bodes well with him. If Warren shows enough talent as the Suns’ prospective 6tth or 7th man off the bench, maybe Phoenix would even consider sliding Jackson to the 4 and letting Warren start at the 3. Cause wow, Warren is a carbon-copy of what a Most Improved Player would be. (Look out for Tyler Ulis too!)

Norman Powell: With Terrence Ross off to Orlando, Powell should get more time to shine. But sharpshooting CJ Miles still stands in his way. Maybe the Raptors decide to blow it up and decide to trade DeRozan part-way through the season. If not, Norm, there’s still a good chance you’d win 6 Man of The Year as a consolation prize. Sorry.

Major creds to Basketball Reference and NBA Stats for the data collection for this article.