I’ve never really quite gotten behind the Most Improved Player award or the 6th Man of the Year award. Two guys can be playing on teams that are just as good, put up the exact same numbers, play the exact same amount of minutes, and play defense just as well as the other one. But if one of those guys comes off the bench, he’s eligible for an award and the other guy isn’t. Likewise, if one guy had a bad year the year before, he becomes eligible for an award that the other guy won’t be. (I suppose you could say all of this about the rookie of the year award as well, but every NBA player is a rookie at some point.)
One thing about the Most Improved Player award is that it’s never quite clear what exactly “most improved” means in the context of the award. Is it about raw improvement, or improvement relative to what the player did the season before? (In other words, is a player going from 5 points per game to 12 points per game more impressive than a player going from 10 points per game to 19 points per game?) Can a player be considered “too good” to win a most improved player award? Is that right?
Some very smart people have been asking the following question: why shouldn’t Kevin Durant win the Most Improved Player award? The award has generally gone to a solid or relatively unknown player who becomes a key contributor for their team, not a star who becomes a superstar. Having said that, I highly doubt that any player has improved as much as Kevin Durant has this season.
Durant’s scoring average is up four points per game this season. He averages a rebound more than he did last season. His PER has gone up a full six points this year. Before the season, raw and adjusted +/- numbers showed Durant to be somewhat of a liability. This season, Durant is among the league leaders in both metrics, a completely unprecedented improvement. (I can’t get over how ridiculous this was. When an advanced metric questioned Durant’s value, Durant broke the stat and made it difficult to ever take at face value again. It’s like how Jordan used to break the spirit of anyone who ever questioned him, but for the twitter generation.)
Eddy Rivera has a handy little spreadsheet that shows Durant’s statistical improvement in comparison with some other candidates for the MIP award, and the numbers look good for Durant. And Durant’s improvement has been about more than just numbers. His defense is worlds improved. He’s matured into a leader on an unlikely 50-win team. He’s well on his way to becoming a crunch-time assassin when his teammates manage to get the ball into his hands. He’s a legit top-five MVP candidate at 21 years old.
I understand that the NBA likes to spread its awards out and recognize players who normally wouldn’t get late-season publicity. And I doubt Durant will care that much (read: at all) about not being considered for an MIP trophy. But wouldn’t it be something to give out the Most Improved Player award to the player who actually made the biggest improvement this season?