Who will win the NBA Most Improved Player award?

When handicapping the NBA MIP award, I always like to look at the player’s original draft position. Here’s a table with the last 20 winners of the MIP award. Take a look:

Notice anything? Only one MIP winner in the last 16 years (Tracy McGrady) was drafted in the first 12 picks.

It appears that the voters don’t just look at overall improvement, they also take into account unexpected improvement.

Looking at TrueHoop’s list of MIP candidates that received more than one vote from a panel of voters, here are draft positions for each player: Kevin Durant (2), Andrew Bogut (1), Corey Brewer (7), Joakim Noah (9), Josh Smith (17), Russell Westbrook (4), Aaron Brooks (26), Anderson Varejao (30), Channing Frye (8), Al Horford (3), Andray Blatche (49) and Zach Randolph (19).

Can we safely cross Durant, Bogut, Noah, Westbrook, Frye and Horford off the list?

Actually, I’m not sure. I don’t remember a year when there were so many top candidates drafted in the first ten picks. The top non-lottery pick is Josh Smith, and he averaged more points and almost as many rebounds two seasons ago. I don’t think the writers are going to look at his career stats and think improvement even though he played much headier ball this season (as evidenced by his improved shot selection and increased assists).

Of all the non-lottery candidates, Aaron Brooks best fits the MIP profile. Here are his numbers year over year:

2008-09: 11.2 ppg, 3.0 apg, 2.0 rpg, 40% FG%, 37% 3PT
2009-10: 19.6 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.7 rpg, 43% FG%, 40% 3PT

I think he’s going to win the award, but a case could be made for the first four players on the list:

1. Kevin Durant was supposed to get better, but I don’t think that there were too many pundits predicting a 30-8-3 season and 50 wins for the Thunder. He averaged 25-7-3 the year before, so his stats don’t really reflect his improvement. I think this will hurt him in the MIP race. (It also doesn’t help that he’s also on the short list for MVP.)

2. Andrew Bogut might be the darkhorse. Yes, he’s a former #1 overall pick, but he’s been around just long enough for people to give up on him. A little more than a year ago, a buddy of mine said he was a bust. I know he was trying to tweak me — I’m a sometimes-proud Bucks fan — but still, since he was the top overall pick, we’re expecting more than the 12-10 that Bogut posted in 2008-09. We were expecting a star, and that’s exactly what Bogut became this season. He averaged 16-10, and was second in the league in blocks (2.5) and fourth in charges drawn per game. In fact, he was second in the league in HoopData’s stat “DEF” which tallies the total number of blocks, steals and charges. (It should be noted that Josh Smith was the player ahead of him, though I don’t know that too many MIP voters dig this deep into statistics.) In the end, the Bucks’ emergence as a playoff team, Bogut’s improvement on both ends of the court, and his season-ending arm injury might produce a groundswell of support in terms of winning the MIP.

3. Corey Brewer averaged 6-3-2 last season and 13-3-2 this season. That’s a nice jump in scoring, but Brooks’ improvement was more impressive.

4. Joakim Noah averaged 7-8 last season and posted 11-11 this year. That’s also an impressive improvement, but we saw it coming, didn’t we? If Noah gets starters minutes, there’s a great chance that he’s going to post a d
ouble-double. It doesn’t fit the profile of unexpected improvement.

What about George Hill? He only got one vote from the TrueHoop panel, but the former 26th overall pick improved his numbers from 6-2-2 last season to 12-3-3 this season, and was a big reason why the Spurs stayed in the playoff picture even though they lost Tony Parker for part of the season.

So, in terms of the MIP profile — a big statistical jump from a non-lottery draft pick — I think Brooks is the frontrunner, but Bogut has an outside shot and Hill is the guy (almost) no one seems to be talking about.

But should anyone even want to win this award? In its history, no MIP winner has ever won a NBA championship. Strange, but true.

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