There are three measures by which I determine who gets my Most Improved Player Vote: improvement from last year to this year, improvement throughout this year, and improvement relative to our expectations. There really only seem to be two viable candidates: Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo. So, let’s go through each of the three categories and pick a winner.
On the surface, Jokić and Giannis improved by similar amounts. Jokić added 6.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game to his line. Meanwhile Giannis added 6.0 points, 1.1 assists and 1.0 rebounds per game, but also made a bigger leap on defense than Jokić did. But the question is, how much of Giannis’ improvement came this year?
He exploded last year when he moved to point guard. He averaged 19.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the last 24 games of last season. His 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists this season are better… but by how much? Jokić had no such stretch last season. He was good pretty consistently, but he gave us no reason to believe he was going to evolve into the player he became.
In fact, that dovetails nicely into the next category. Jokić wasn’t good enough last season to lock up a starting job this season. He came off of the bench from mid-November through mid-December. Not only does that prove how far he’s come from last season, but it shows how much he improved during this season. He didn’t start for a month, and he still beat Rudy Gobert in both the player and fan votes for the All-Star Game. These aren’t the best measures of performance. But, it’s not like Jokić plays in a huge market or is particularly well known. This is not Yao Ming getting voted in by China every year. We’re talking about a No. 41 overall pick from Serbia. He had to earn those votes.
Which brings us to the final category. Nobody on Earth expected Jokić would be this good. Again, he was the No. 41 overall pick from Serbia. He improved from a decent rookie into a potential franchise cornerstone, and it took him one season. Giannis is also a franchise cornerstone, but he didn’t get there nearly so quickly. And, we all expected this out of him. Not because of his draft position (No. 15, which is still better than No. 41), but because of the breathtaking athleticism he displayed from the start.
Jokić is a completely average athlete at best. There were never any signs that indicated he was going to be a star in the way that they at least existed with Giannis, even if we didn’t notice before he got to the league.
It’s hard to say that Giannis improved more than anyone in the league when he really just improved about as much as we expected him to. Jokić came out of nowhere and became one of the best big men in basketball. Giannis might be a better player, but Jokić improved more from last season, throughout this season and relative to our expectations.
The Rest of My Ballot…
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo: Even if he doesn’t win the award, holy crap did Giannis improve. It’s not just the stats, as displayed above. He’s turned himself into the real defensive menace we’ve expected since his rookie year. Watching him leap into passing lanes out of nowhere is basically the basketball equivalent of a falcon swooping in out of the sky and grabbing some unsuspecting rodent. It’s brutally efficient and happens in the blink of an eye, and there’s absolutely nothing offensive players can do to prevent it. Giannis doesn’t need a Most Improved Player trophy. He’s going to compete for MVPs and Defensive Player of the Years for the next decade.
3. Otto Porter Jr.: I cannot overstate the value that a team adds when a player’s three-point percentage improves by seven percentage points. That’s bigger than the career difference between Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul. Imagine finding an extra $20 bill in your pocket one day… and then finding an entire extra fully furnished wallet in your pocket. Porter improved in other areas. He’s at least a good defender, he rebounds a bit more and he’s a downright useful passer. But that shooting gave the Wizards a vital spacer that does most of the little things well and in time, could do some of the big things when John Wall and Bradley Beal sit. He went from an afterthought to a max player in one season. That’s about as much improvement as you can reasonably ask for.
4. Seth Curry: The lesser Curry doubled his minutes and shot attempts and somehow became more efficient. That doesn’t happen particularly often, and the Mavericks have him under contract for $3 million next season. Dallas might prefer his brother even at 10 times that cost, but the younger model is a nice consolation prize.
5. Gary Harris: Harris’ improvement from three-point range was nearly identical to Porter’s. And, he’s a superior defender at this point. But he was also better overall last year, and this is an award for improvement. But if Denver gets Harris to sign a contract extension this summer, he’ll likely be a better long-term buy than Porter. The Nuggets certainly aren’t complaining about him.