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NBA Awards: 2015 Most Improved Player

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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Feb 27, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) breaks up a pass to Minnesota Timberwolves guard Gary Neal (12) during the second quarter of a game at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Awards: 2015 Most Improved Player

Funny most players who end up winning the Most Improved Player Award often establish themselves as an important player the year prior to their victory.  Due to that reason it’s likely our projected winner will be reaping the rewards from the play he began to demonstrate in 2013-14.

Looking back at the previous winners of the last four seasons this rings true:

2010-11: Kevin Love – the year prior to winning Love averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds and followed it up with 20.2 points and 15.2 rebounds

2011-12: Ryan Anderson -the year prior he became known as a 3-point specialist scoring shooting 39.3% with 2.1 three’s and followed it up with the exact same percent and improved to 2.7 three’s a game.

2012-13: Paul George: He followed up an impressive sophomore campaign of 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals with 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals.

2013-14: Goran Dragic Likewise, the Dragon’s break through season came a year prior to his win when he registered 14.7 points, 7.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals with last season’s award year of  20.3 points, 5.9 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals. Notably he improved his three point field goal percent from to 31.9% to 40.8%.

Next: The Contenders?

February 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) listens to head coach Steve Kerr (right) during the third quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Mavericks 128-114. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are players this season who had break out campaigns but the fact they either came on late in the year or are just becoming household names doesn’t bode well for them winning. Despite that, there are many players who’ve garnered recognition for Most Improved this season:

Hassan Whiteside: If the pundits say Westbrook missing 14 games rules him out of the MVP running then how can you give this award to Whiteside when he only played 48 games. And don’t laugh, but how do you give a player who wasn’t even on a NBA team last season Most Improved? Don’t we have to have stats from last season to compare this improvement to?

Sure, he made a difference on a squad sorely lacking any front court presence and if he can manage to control his emotions he’ll be an asset on the court in a starting line-up due to feature: Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Chris Bosh.

But, I’m not 100% certain he’ll be able to replicate this effort in back to back seasons given his history of not being able to contain his emotions or maintain his conditioning/work ethic. His season stats were 11.8 points, 10 rebounds (3 offensive) and 2.6 blocks.

Rudy Gobert: I’ve brought it up more times than I’ve called LeBron James Cleveland’s General Manager, but the absolute turn around the Utah Jazz experienced via trading Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City to make room for Gobert may be the smartest trade of the year. It was as if he had his coming out party at the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend and then decided to bring that same ability and new found confidence to the Utah court.

Looking at how much the Thunder slipped defensively since acquiring Kanter it’s easy to see why the Jazz were more excited with the potential of Gobert. Moving forward to next season it’s a virtual guarantee Gobert will vie for Most Improved next season (as well as Defensive Player of the Year).

His stats of 8.4 points, 9.5 rebounds (3.2 offensive rebounds) 1.3 assists and 2.3 blocks aren’t reflective of his real progression given they include his time on the court prior to the Kanter trade. Looking at his pre versus post All-Star Break numbers you can see his growth:

Pre All-Star: 6.9 Points, 7.3 Rebounds, 1.1 Assists, 0.7 Steals, 2.2 Blocks and a -1.2  with a 19 – 34 record by Utah

Post All Star: 11.1 Points, 13.4 Rebounds, 1.8 Assists, 1.0 Steals, 2.6 Blocks and a +2.3 with a 19 – 10 record by Utah

Khris Middleton: While Jason Kidd made the most of the least the young upstart Milwaukee Bucks were known mostly for their defense; not to mention their amazing length with Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and newly acquired 6’6″ point guard Michael Carter-Williams. But they were short on offense which cost them in games especially down the stretch.

The one player who kept them in games and made some amazing late game winning shots was Middleton.  Of all the players in consideration for the award, Middleton’s number improvement is more subtle with him likely getting the nod as a contender more so for his effect on the team in terms of wins and timely shot making.

Draymond Green: I worry Green who should also receive Defensive Player of the Year consideration won’t win anything and get edged out in both categories. With Andrew Bogut (67 games) playing limited minutes (23.6mpg) and Festus Ezeli (46 games) not available it was Green who stepped up to lead the Association’s best defense. Moreover he is the guy on the Warriors who gives them their toughness and doesn’t take being punked lightly:

Looking at the Warriors’ small forward he’s shown significant growth: 11.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks. He’s shot 44.3% from the field and 33.7% from three. But where the third year player showed his moxy was in his ability to guard one through five on the floor.

Looking back over the season you can pull up numerous examples of him stopping point guards (Chris Paul) right through to centers (Jonas Valanciunas). He’s also the main guy talking on defense and the key (in my opinion) to the betterment of the Warriors overall defense.

See my pick below for some more interesting stats, however I’ll leave you with this thought: Draymond Green is 6’7″ which is one inch taller than point guard Michael Carter-Williams!

Dennis Schroder While he doesn’t appear on many pundits lists we’d be remiss not to include him on ours. Of all the players on the list he’s shown the most significant growth:

2013-14: 3.7 Points, 1.2 Rebounds, 1.9 Assists, 0.3 Steals shooting 38.3% from the field and 23.8% from three

2014-15: 10.0 Points, 2.1 Rebounds, 4.1 Assists, 0.6 Steals shooting 42.7% from the field and 35.1% from three

Next: The Rocket Launcher

Feb 10, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas (20) makes a move to the basket against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Rockets won 127-118. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Donatas Motiejunas: As much as James Harden carried this team where would the Rockets be without the Lithuanian third year player who held down the front court while both Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones were out injured. Season ending back surgery was his reward for his efforts, but the growth of the big man and his future potential is the Rockets’ reward in coming years.

Like several of the other contenders Motiejunas took huge strides over his previous season especially considering he did it without key core starters available due to injury.

2013-14: 5.5 Points, 3.6 Rebounds, 0.5 Assists, 0.3 Steals shooting 44.3% from the field and 25.0% from three

2014-15: 12.0 Points, 5.9 Rebounds, 1.8 Assists, 0.8 Steals shooting 50.4% from the field and 36.8% from three

What made Motiejunas’ season so noteworthy was his career highs in most areas and most importantly the growth in his game in terms of versatility. He was equally adept at playing in the post while also hitting from the field and improving his three point shot significantly. There still needs to be improvements made defensively, however he played for most of the season without the benefit of having Howard beside him.

He may not receive many votes, but look for him to continue growing once he gets back on the court and recovering from his late season back surgery. Moving forward with the recent sightings of big man Clint Capela and return of Howard and Jones, it has me thinking the Rockets could potentially have the most diverse front court in the association.

Next: The Other Rockets Contender?

Mar 21, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) reacts after making a basket during the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Toyota Center. The Suns defeated the Rockets 117-102. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to Trey Oursler who provides an additional Rocket Player as Most Improved Candidate for your consideration:

The Rockets had a slew of players that improved this season, a benefit of having a roster filled with solid young players. Donatas Motiejunas is a legit contender to win the Most Improved Player Award this year and will be up against stiff competition in Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green for the trophy. With that being said, we will discuss the next M.I.P on the Houston Rockets roster and that is SF/PF Josh Smith.

J-Smoove was released by the Detroit Pistons after a few woeful seasons, but signed with Houston to win a championship and play with his former AAU-teammate Dwight Howard. There’s no doubt that Smith has always been a threat on the court, it’s just finding the right spot and players around him that has always seemed to be a problem.

GM Daryl Morey had no clue Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones would miss so much time during the second half of the season, but signing Josh Smith could have single-handedly saved the season. We were able to use Smith in many different roles including guarding a smaller Forward or handling a bigger center, he has always been up for the challenge.

Smith has always been a guy to watch out for on the boards, at 6’9 225-lbs someone better get a body on him or he is going to thrown down the put-back. In his 55 games for the Rockets this year he averaged 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 blocks and .9 steals a game, but more importantly he became a much better player mentally.

Apr 8, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) looks to pass the ball as Houston Rockets small forward Josh Smith (left) defends during the second half at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 110-98. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Josh was use to carrying the ball up court, calling plays and doing a lot in his past year’s with the Pistons and Hawks, but once he eased into his role he found out he legitimately had other talented players around him to lean on. Full credit goes to Coach McHale for using Smith in the right sets and times because he is a valuable player if you can use his skills correctly.

Not because of points, or double-doubles or any kind of skill he learned, Josh Smith is one of the Most Improved Rockets because he learned how to play within a group that welcomed him and helped him mature even after 10 seasons.

Next: Who Will Win?

Jan 5, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives around Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) during the game at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler:  As I highlighted from the beginning of the article the player who often will warrant the most consideration begins to establish themselves as a possible Most Improved Candidate the season prior to their win. In essence their break out season begins two seasons prior to garnering the award. In some rare cases a player can explode to win the award, however this is the exception.

To that end, Butler began his ascent last season in the absence of injured Bulls point guard Derrick Rose who returned from injury only to go back out with another serious injury. Butler stepped up in Rose’s absence showcasing an offensive game to complement his already well known defensive game. The NBA tends to follow certain trends with the predominant one being the ascent of the point guard in the league resulting in arguably the best crop of point guards league wide ever.

Another trend over the past few seasons brought about primarily by LeBron James and Kevin Durant playing at the four spot (power forward) was teams moving to smaller line-ups. This lead to more and more teams using power forwards playing outside the paint and ones who could hit from the field and even better if they had a three point shot.

Butler belongs to a new emerging trend of shooting guards who are equally adept on both ends of the court. He joins reigning Playoff MVP Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson as two of the key players within this category. Now with Butler likely to win Most Improved I’ll be interested to see what occurs in the league should the Spurs and Bulls both do well in the post season (and especially if Leonard and Butler both perform well).

Butler for his part came out of the gates on fire offensively showcasing an improved shot from the field, more strength in the interior and an overall scoring prowess. The fact he is in a contract year will no doubt pay dividends especially since he represents the aforementioned two-way shooting guards in the Association.

To showcase my theory of the MIP being awarded to players who began their breakthrough in the season previous lets look at his growth over the past three seasons:

2012-13: 8.6 Points, 4.0 Rebounds, 1.4 Assists, 1.0 Steals shooting 46.7% from the field and 38.1% from three

2013-14: 13.1 Points, 4.9 Rebounds, 2.6 Assists, 1.9 Steals shooting 39.7% from the field and 28.3% from three

2014-15: 20.0 Points, 5.8 Rebounds, 3.3 Assists, 1.8 Steals shooting 46.2% from the field and 37.8% from three

Although there were some upgrades and downshifts from the 2012-13 season to the 2013-14 season the current season saw an increase in most areas, moreover they came with the presence of new offensive additions Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic as well as the return of a healthy Derrick Rose.

Where Butler really trumps his competition is in win shares:

  • Butler ranks 8th in offensive win shares with  8.2
  • Butler ranks 8th in defensive win shares with 4.6
  • Butler ranks 6th overall in combined win shares – 11.2

Other notable stats are:

  • Butler ranks 4th in steals with 1.9 per game
  • Butler ranks 7th in total steals with 463

Next: Space City Scoop Writers Pick Their Winner?

Apr 8, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) reacts after hitting a three point shot during the second quarter against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Trey Oursler:

This was definitely one of the closest pick’s for me with a few different guys all very much in contention heading down to the last month. Donatas Motiejunas played a great season and has earned himself playing time and a fight for the starting spot with Terrence Jones, but just couldn’t finish the season healthy and didn’t get a lot of help from his other big men. Hassan Whiteside may still be the most underrated center at the moment, people just aren’t paying attention to this guy, but he will continue to mature and get a lot better soon. Without Jimmy Butler though, the Chicago Bulls could be on flights to their off-season vacations, his improved play in the last year has him winning the NBA’s Most Improved in 2015.

Chicago’s 4th-year pro out of Marquette stood up for the Bulls this year and was one of the most valuable players to his team, along with Pau Gasol. Butler was invited to his first All-Star Game and was one of the most versatile shooting guards in the game. He averaged 20 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG and 1.8 SPG in the 2014-2015 season. The Bulls are lucky to have the young star and look for him to be a captain in the future. Jimmy Butler is the 2015 NBA’s Most Improved Player and another player from the City of Houston wins another award!

Who is the Most Improved Player of 2015?

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Lee Golden:

I was born and raised in Chicago but I promise you that I’m not handing out these awards due to my hometown alliance. However, Jimmy Butler is the most deserving player for the Most Improved Player award. It would be asinine to dispute otherwise. Other noteworthy contenders are Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Donatas Motijunas and Draymond Green. Gobert and Whiteside have been huge defensive anchors for their teams.

Outside the statsheet, you have to understand how many shots are NOT taken in the paint due to their new-found presence. They’re reliable options around the rim too. Motiejunas has been an excellent X-factor for Houston as they were without one or two bigs for the majority of the season.

I’m definitely not taking anything away from him as his post game has undeniably upgraded. Green was the closest to Butler for me. He literally does it all and has become a pesky defender. I honestly believe that if not for him, the Warriors would not be as good due to his ability to also handle the ball off rebounds.

But, Butler takes the crown because not only has his numbers improved in almost every category but he’s done so by averaging the same minutes as last year. Each other candidate has seen at least 10 more minutes per game and still does not exhibit the qualities that Butler does. He turned down a four-year, $40 million contract extension last year because he knew he was worth more. This year, he undisputedly proved it.

Tamberlyn Richardson:

Why change things up now… i.e. let me continue to be the lone voice of the writing panel to not make it unanimous by the panel. I recognize it will be Butler who earns the award (as I highlighted above) however my personal opinion is Draymond Green has arguably affected the Warriors as much and on any given night more than Steph Curry.

What stands out for me specifically aren’t his career highs (though they are impressive) it’s his defensive presence and how much better the team plays on the opposing end of the court when he’s in the game. Notably Green ranks ninth in Value Over Replacement Player (4.4), second in defensive win shares (5.2), fourth in defensive rating (97.2) and fifth in defensive +/- (*4.0).

Next: Rockets Round 1 Series Preview

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