Of all the NBA's marquee medals, Most Improved Player is the most subjective, and the blandest. It isn't contentiously magnetic like MVP. It doesn't have straightforward qualifications like Sixth Man or Rookie of the Year. Every year, the pool of candidates is too large to accurately determine who, in fact, has improved the most in a meaningful way.
Honoring the value of player development is important, but clear parameters are necessary if we seriously want to identify the most deserving candidates. Some voters take the award's name too literally and reward players who are supposed to be improving, like second- or third-year players who are still a work in progress (Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns), or guys who bounced back from an injury (Bradley Beal). There are also those players who thrived more due to a fresh environment and new responsibilities than any dramatic sharpening of their own skills (Harrison Barnes); at the very least, a new supporting cast and/or system is hard to disentangle from any given player's individual growth.
So with that in mind, here are the players who would land on my imaginary ballot for the 2016-17 season.
3. The Late Bloomer: Joe Ingles
This was technically just Ingles' third NBA season, but the 29-year-old Australian is a seasoned basketball veteran with plenty of experience overseas, not some wide-eyed prospect.
Ingles jumped from 190 to 52 in Real Plus-Minus this season, mostly because he went from a decent three-point shooter to an elite marksman. He shot 38.6 percent in 2015-16, which is pretty good, but this year's 44.1 percent figure is worthy of an invitation to All-Star Saturday night. His assist rate jumped up five points, and he got to the free-throw line more often, too. And while it can't be credited to Ingles alone, Utah scored 99.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor last season; this year, that number spiked to 109.4.
He went from inept to effective at running a pick-and-roll, initiating many more of them this season with a sizable uptick in efficiency to boot. But it all goes back to that three-point stroke. Maybe this was just an aberration and Ingles sinks back down to league average next season. Either way, among all players who launched at least 250 attempts, only Kyle Korver and Allen Crabbe were more accurate. He was a critical contributor for one of the NBA's eight best teams. Let's give Ingles his due.
Honorable mention: James Johnson
2. The Hungry All-Star: Isaiah Thomas
Last year, Thomas was the best player in a winning environment. He made his first All-Star team while averaging 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game.
That's fantastic, but it paled in comparison to what came next. Thomas followed it up with the Godfather Part II of basketball seasons—a legitimate MVP candidacy (even if the race has crowded him out) and one of the most lethal scoring seasons we've seen from anyone, including players taller than six feet.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the only two players who averaged more points than Thomas' 28.9, and he finished with higher field-goal, three-point, and free-throw percentage than both those superstars. Thomas also posted the lowest turnover rate of his career despite having one of the five highest usage percentages in the league. Taken together, it's the type of year that's good enough to headline a Hall-of-Fame resume.
How did he get there? A whole bunch of reasons, but Thomas wouldn't be the fifth wheel in a four-player MVP race without a souped-up jumper. Last year, he shot 33.5 percent on 2.9 pull-up threes per game. That's not a bad number. Pull-up threes are really hard and knocking down at least a third of them, at the very least, prevents on-ball defenders from ducking under screens. It's a big reason why he attacked the rim as much as he did last year.
Well, this year the percentage of all his shots that were pull-up threes rose by 7.0 percent, and he made 36.6 percent of them. How good is that? Of the 94 players who pulled up at least three times per game, only Kyle Lowry—who basically didn't play after the All-Star break—had a higher effective field goal percentage.
The addition of Al Horford to the Celtics undoubtedly helped. He's an unselfish big with rare vision who forces opposing shot blockers to make impossible help decisions throughout any given possession. But Thomas was more predatory with or without Horford on the floor—his True Shooting percentage literally did not flinch. He wasn't bad in clutch situations last year, but what he has done over the past six months is special. He finished second to Westbrook in total clutch points and came up 24 short on 50 fewer field goal attempts; no player had a more favorable plus/minus. And for all the criticism people heap on his defensive metrics, this dude never takes a play off on either end. He's smart, scrappy, and fearless.
This leap isn't all that dissimilar from what Steph Curry pulled off between his two MVP seasons. Thomas deserves all the recognition for chiseling the finer specs of his skill set and becoming the absolute best version of himself.
Honorable mention: Jimmy Butler
1. The Evolutionary Wonder: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo did not sniff last season's All-Star game. This year, his peers awarded him with more votes than Paul George and Jimmy Butler combined. It's a mountainous leap by a franchise pillar who's on the path to someday becoming the best player in the world.
In 2015-16, Antetokounmpo finished third for this award, behind Kemba Walker and eventual winner C.J. McCollum. The then-21-year-old flashed glimmers of stardom after the All-Star break, averaging 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists in 28 games. He had five triple-doubles over that span, which was a jaw-dropping accomplishment before Russell Westbrook made every night feel like the Fourth of July. The outline of a transformative icon took shape.
This year, he did just about everything with unprecedented physical authority. In only 22 more total minutes than last season, his PER jumped from 18.8 to a flat 26. His True Shooting percentage reached .600 despite his three-point percentage failing to crack 30.0 for the third year in a row, and his productivity within three feet of the rim rose even though defenses know it's the only place he can do real damage.
Antetokounmpo's playmaking ability shined, too. He ran 172 more pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy Sports. And for the fourth straight season his assist and usage percentage spiked while his turnover rate tailed off.
The scariest part? Imagine this guy with a three-point shot, then immediately start to pray.
Honorable mention: Rudy Gobert
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