Going way, way too deep on Most Improved Player
Dark horses for the George Mikan Trophy, plus some fun(??) history!
We just talked about the Sixth Man of the Year Award and some dark-horse candidates for that honor. Today, we will discuss the other award that I spend a frankly irresponsible amount of time considering: Most Improved Player.
(Before we get further: apparently, Buddy Hield will be traded soon. I recently wrote about Hield and eight other players with a surprising skill, so check that out if you missed it!
If and when the Lillard trade happens, you know I’ll react to that, too.)
Two years ago, when Ja Morant won MIP, I was desperately worried that the award would turn into a sad stepping stone for future MVP candidates, the trophy that gets tossed aside by winners who have their eyes set on more prestigious prizes. Morant cared so little about it that he literally shipped the award to his teammate Desmond Bane, like an older brother giving away his hand-me-down T-shirts.
Personally, I don’t believe that top draft picks entering their second or third year should even be eligible for MIP. Those players are theoretically destined for greatness. The MIP should be for those guys whose path to stardom was never guaranteed, who had to grind and improve in ways that didn’t seem likely before they happened.
One can reasonably argue that the MIP should go to the person who has the most improvement on an absolute basis, which will almost invariably go to a top-three pick entering his third or fourth year. If that’s what you believe, I can respect that. It’s a very literal interpretation. But it goes against what I consider to be the spirit and history of the award.
Thankfully, it appears my fears were misplaced. Last year, Lauri Markkanen won the award in his sixth season at the ripe old age of 25. He came out of nowhere to display across-the-board improvements married to a bigger stage on which to shine, and he was a deserving winner.
I have a sneaking suspicion there will be another longshot winner this year. But first, let’s talk about a few of the likeliest names.
Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets
Mikal Bridges is the betting favorite, and I understand why. After being traded from Phoenix to Brooklyn, his points per game jumped from 17 to 26 (!), and his shooting percentages stayed relatively consistent.
A full offseason to practice new skills could give him greater comfort as an offensive engine, and like Markkanen last year, it’s possible he becomes one of the top scorers in the league.
But I’m a little skeptical. Bridges was a bit overtaxed as the number-one guy. He shot 40% or worse from the field in seven of his last eight games, including playoffs, and looked tired by the end of Brooklyn’s sweep at the hands of Philly.
I’m not sure he’s the natural scorer and playmaker he’ll need to be for this Nets team to make a lot of noise. His vaunted defense took a significant step back as he shouldered a larger offensive burden, too.
Don’t get me wrong; Bridges is the favorite for a reason. He’s already proven he can play at an MIP-worthy level for a stretch. But the Most Improved race rarely plays out predictably (and this article would be boring if I rubber-stamped his status as the favorite).
Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Like everyone else, I am very high on Cade, and I expect a big season from him (particularly in light of all the flattering comments around his Select Team performances). But it’s disingenuous to award MIP to a number-one overall pick who barely played in his second season. Just staying on the court should be considered a significant improvement.
I think Cunningham will be excellent and, yes, much improved. But number-one picks are supposed to explode in their third year. (It sure would be nice if Cunningham could finally hit a three-pointer, though…)
Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers
Sharpe will be entering just his second year, and we haven’t had a second-year winner since Monta Ellis back in 2006-2007. But he’ll be a hot candidate for good reason. Sharpe sat out his college year to prepare for the NBA, and as a rookie, he might’ve been one of the biggest in-season improvers as he adjusted to competitive basketball again.
He showed improved command of the offense and made smarter reads with the ball:
In his last 10 games, inserted as a starter for a Portland team trying to lose, he put up 24/6/4 while shooting 38% from three on high volume.
Those are All-Star-caliber numbers. The presence of Scoot Henderson, Anfernee Simons, and/or Damian Lillard likely makes those figures unattainable over an entire season, but it does hint at the ceiling Sharpe possesses as he gains more on-court reps. If he becomes the focal point of the offense, he’ll earn the major stat boost that voters like to see (and there’s nowhere to go on defense but up!).
The other 2021 rookies
We already talked about Cade, but it would not be a shock to see any number of his fellow ‘21 rooks enter the conversation. Evan Mobley has plenty of room to improve offensively, Scottie Barnes has plenty of room to improve everywhere, Jalen Green will be playing meaningful minutes for the first time in his short career, and Austin Reaves will be given a much bigger role. Franz Wagner’s ceiling is likely limited by Paolo Banchero’s presence and his already-pristine second-year reputation. Still, perhaps his teammate Jalen Suggs can finally string together a couple of jump shots? Can Herb Jones find a consistent offensive role? Can rising stars Josh Giddey, Trey Murphy, or Alperen Sengun make a leap? Will Ziaire Williams, Jonathan Kuminga, or hell, even Cam Thomas make good on flashes they’ve shown? (This draft class is absolutely loaded with fascinatingly flawed characters.)
Those are all pretty obvious possibilities that bear explicit mentioning (even if I would never countenance several of those selections). But now, like a New Orleans Mardi Gras under a full moon, let’s get a little freaky.
Here are five dark-horse candidates that, like Markkanen, could win Sixth Man of the Year if things break just right.
**Paying subscribers get access to my dark horse picks PLUS a bunch of nifty historical facts and breakdowns of the award’s history! What a deal!**