Who will be Most Improved in 2012-13?

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Well, it could happen!

With the beginning of a new NBA season almost upon us, it’s time to engage in one of humanity’s favourite and most futile pastimes: predicting the future.

I’ll make it even harder on myself by having a go at one of the most difficult awards to predict at the start of the season. No, not Coach of the Year (COY); even a psychic wouldn’t guess at that one until at least mid-season. I’m talking about the Most Improved Player (MIP) award.

Before I get into who I believe are this year’s candidates, let’s take a look at the previous winners:

Season Player Age Experience +MPG +PPG Vote %
 2012 Ryan Anderson 23 4 9.9 5.5 43%
 2011 Kevin Love 22 3 7.2 6.2 69%
 2010 Aaron Brooks 25 3 10.6 8.4 66%
 2009 Danny Granger 25 4 0.2 6.2 60%
 2008 Hedo Turkoglu 28 8 5.8 6.2 61%
 2007 Monta Ellis 21 2 16.2 9.7 55%
 2006 Boris Diaw 23 3 17.3 8.5 79%
 2005 Bobby Simmons 24 4 12.7 8.6 62%
 2004 Zach Randolph 22 3 21.0 11.7 63%
 2003 Gilbert Arenas 21 2 10.4 7.4 49%
 2002 Jermaine O’Neal 23 6 5.0 7.1 41%
 2001 Tracy McGrady 21 4 8.9 11.4 60%
 2000 Jalen Rose 27 6 11.9 7.1 26%
 1999 Darrell Armstrong 30 5 4.2 4.6 46%
 1998 Alan Henderson 25 3 12.3 7.7 28%
 1997 Isaac Austin 27 4 8.5 4.6 36%
 1996 Gheorghe Muresan 24 3 5.9 4.5 44%
 1995 Dana Barros 27 6 9.4 7.3
 1994 Don MacLean 24 2 22.3 11.6
 1993 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 23 3 14.5 8.9
 1992 Pervis Ellison 24 3 12.4 9.6
 1991 Scott Skiles 26 5 13.5 9.5
1990 Rony Seikaly 24 2 7.4 5.7
 1989 Kevin Johnson 22 2 15.2 11.2
 1988 Kevin Duckworth 23 2 15.0 10.4
 1987 Dale Ellis 26 4 22.4 17.8
 1986 Alvin Robertson 23 2 13.8 7.8

The MIP award usually goes to the player who increases his point total more than anyone else. Since the 2002-03 season (when the voting process changed to its current incarnation), the MIP has played at least 32 minutes per game in at least 67 games, and scored at least 13.3 points per game. The MIP is also young; only one winner, Hedo Turkoglu, has been older than 25 years old and playing in more than his fourth season when he won the award. And of course, thanks to Yay! Points!, the defining feature of the award is that the winner has increased his previous year’s scoring by at least 5.5 points per game — actual improvement of play is not required. Most MIP winners achieve this PPG increase through a simple increase in playing time; Danny Granger is the only winner in the last ten years who increased his PPG without increasing his MPG.

It’s difficult to predict the award before the start of the season — we don’t necessarily know where players are their teams’ rotations, or how injuries or trades are going to affect minutes — but I’m going to do my best. Here’s my guess at who this year’s MIP candidates will be:

 James Harden

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 31.4 MPG, 16.8 PPG

After the shocking Thunder-Rockets trade, Harden will be thrust into a larger role in Houston. In addition to an increase in his MPG, expect Harden to increase the rate at which he takes shots (and thus increase his points). Barring injury, Harden should be looking at a PPG in the mid twenties and have a good shot at this award.

Tristan Thompson

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 23.7 MPG, 8.2 PPG

Canadian Cavalier Tristan Thompson looks like he’ll be the Cav’s starting power forward. He may even play a decent amount of time at centre if Anderson Varejao continues to have injury problems. That means that Thompson is poised for a large increase in his MPG, and thus an increase in PPG. If Thompson gets enough playing time to hit 13 PPG, look for him to be a contender for MIP.

Omer Asik

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 14.7 MPG, 3.1 PPG

Like his teammate, Omer Asik will get more playing time and be a larger part of his team’s offense. But in Asik’s case, this is likely to be a very large increase in playing time. As long as his body can handle it, he’s looking at somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15 additional minutes per game. As long as Asik increases the rate at which he takes shots, he should be in the running. Like Thompson, if Asik manages to hit 13PPG, look for him to be in the conversation.

Isaiah Thomas

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 25.5 MPG, 11.5 PPG

The new Isaiah Thomas had an excellent rookie season, ranking third in rookie Wins Produced last year. If the Kings know what’s good for them, they’ll be upping Thomas’ MPG to somewhere in the 34-36 range. If that happens, his PPG will be at 16 or higher, even without any actual change in his shooting or scoring rates, and without any additional improvement in his efficiency. The only concern for his chances is that Sacramento has too many PGs and won’t give him the playing time he deserves.

Nikola Vucevic

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 15.9 MPG, 5.5 PPG

He’ll probably be behind Gustavo Ayon, Glen Davis, and maybe even Al Harrington, but if Vucevic gets 28+ minutes — perhaps some injuries here and there, or maybe the Magic will decide to focus on their younger players — he has a chance at the MIP. He’ll also have to increase his shot-taking rate too, so Vucevic is a bit of a long shot. But the Magic don’t figure to be very good this year, and stranger things have happened. Besides, voters seem to have a soft spot for Orlando for some reason — Magic players have won four of the last 14 MIP awards and five in the 27 year history of the award.

J.J. Hickson

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 23.0 MPG, 8.4 PPG

Hickson wasn’t very good in Cleveland or Sacramento, and that lead the Kings to cut him loose in March. But the Trailblazers picked him up, and in 600 minutes since then Hickson has actually played quite well. He averaged over 31 MPG and 15.1 PPG once he landed in Portland. If he can simply maintain those numbers, his PPG increase will put him near the top of the list of MIP contenders.

Nikola Pekovic

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 26.9 MPG, 13.9 PPG

I was all in favour of giving Pekovic last year’s MIP award, but the voters inexplicably gave the award to Ryan Anderson instead. Pek posted a PPG increase of 8.4 and placed third last year. He won’t be able to top that PPG increase this year, but with Kevin Love out for the first month or so of the season, and the Timberwolves probably relying heavily on Pekovic at centre throughout the season, Pekovic should be looking at around 36 MPG. With that amount of playing time, it’s likely that he’ll score around 19 PPG. That, coupled with his increase from last year and the Timberwolves’ likely return to relevance, could be enough to finally win him the award. Of course, at 27 years old, Pekovic may also be older than the voters would like, but he hasn’t been in the league for that long, and the voters have chosen older players in the past.

O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley

Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 26.8 MPG, 12.6 PPG; Relevant 2011-12 Stats: 23.1 MPG, 11.5 PPG

Our last two potential MIP candidates are interesting ones. Both of these players are overrated scorers who have posted PPG numbers above 18 in the past, but had their playing time cut recently. Both are in a position to substantially increase their MPG, and thus their PPG. Mayo could be looking at about 15 PPG, and Beasley could go as high as 18 PPG. But the award has never been given to a player who has shown a decline in PPG prior to their PPG increase. For this reason, I don’t think either is a very likely choice to win the award, but I suspect that both could be in the conversation in some circles.

What’s that? You mean you expect me to actually single out one player so I can avoiding claiming credit if any one of these players wins the award in a year’s time? Well, if you force me to make a selection, I’ll go with…James Harden. Then again, I could be convinced to go with J.J. Hickson, or maybe….

- Devin


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