Forget Most Improved Player of the Year: Gordon Hayward is the Most Improved Player of the Last Half Decade
The end of the NBA regular season is officially one week away, so naturally the biggest debates going in NBA circles are about the playoffs, who the real championship contenders are, and -- of course -- the major awards.
The MVP race was beaten to death months ago, but there are plenty of other interesting debates to be found in the other awards. The Most Improved Player (MIP) honor, for example, is always one of the trickiest races to gauge, since the criteria for it are perhaps the muddiest of all. (Yes, even more so than the MVP race.)
Maybe the honor should go to someone who went from being a somebody to somebody special? In that case, we should be looking at players like first-time All-Stars Jimmy Butler or Klay Thompson, or perhaps even Klay's teammate, Draymond Green.
If any of those guys were to win the award this year, it would be hard to fault the voting contingent. Each of those players took advantage of a new role or a new set of responsibilities and made a considerable leap. This award often rewards those who make an unexpected jump like theirs during one season, more often than not because they got more minutes or touches and -- quite honestly -- because we expected them to do worse than they ultimately did.
How about this year, we make it a "lifetime achievement" award of sorts? Maybe look at someone who has improved incrementally every year he's been in the NBA?
The lack of an extreme leap will always count guys like that out for this award, regardless of how deserving they may have been for a period longer than just one season. A perfect example of this is how Arron Afflalo has never won the honor, despite increasing his scoring average in each of his first seven seasons in the NBA (2014-15, his eighth, will mark the first year of his career where he didn't score more points per game than the last). He didn't explode any one season, but he worked on his game and showed marked improvement every single year. Still, he doesn't have anything to show for his efforts and gradual amelioration, mostly because we came to expect it from him.
One player that is unmistakably going down the Afflalo path is Gordon Hayward. He might not win this year's MIP award, but his steady refinement of his game over all five years of his career-to-date has been impressive and deserves some kind of recognition.
The most obvious place to see the Afflalo parallel is in Hayward's raw per-game averages:
Hayward is the only non-All-Star this year to average at least 19 points, 4 boards, and 4 helpers. Perhaps even more impressive than the numbers on their own, however, is the fact that, like Afflalo, Hayward has increased his scoring average in each of his first five seasons. On top of that, he's also taken leaps in his number of rebounds, assists, and steals per game. It's easy to see a correlation in increased counting stats with the jumps in minutes played (MP), but that doesn't tell the whole story. What if we examined how these averages would look when equalized to their per-36-minute equivalents?
That's more like it. Hayward has increased his per-minute scoring, rebounding, and stealing averages every year since he's been in the NBA and his assist rate peaked last season (although it's still respectable this season, considering he now takes almost two more shots per 36 minutes than he did the two previous campaigns).
And it's not only the raw averages where Hayward has improved, but also his efficiency. Last season was the first in the post-Jefferson, post-Millsap Utah. Hayward was thrust into a lead role and struggled with efficiency out of the gate. He posted a career-low 45.4% Effective Field Goal Percentage, for shooting a pretty unimpressive 41.3% from the floor on 13.4 shots per game, to go with a lowly 30.4% rate of accuracy from long range on 4.4 attempts.
This season, he's still in the lead-man role on the Jazz for all intents and purposes (26.4% usage rate compared to last year's 23.1%, and a team-high 14.4 shots per game compared to last year's 13.4), but he's now doing way more with his touches.
Yes, he's assisting on fewer of Utah's made baskets when he's on the floor (24.1% assist rate down to 22.0%), but he's also turning the ball over less (15.0% turnover rate down to 13.9%). Besides, his running the offense less should be looked at as a natural transition, when you consider that the Jazz have landed lottery-pick point guards in the last two drafts with Trey Burke and Dante Exum.
Instead, Hayward is being looked upon to score more and he's passing with flying colors. He has increased his Effective Field Goal Percentage to an even 50.0% this season -- a near 5% jump -- thanks to his field goal percentage of 44.5% (up 3.2%) and three-point percentage of 36.2% (up 5.8%).
Not only is he hitting more of his shots, but he's getting to the line more than ever. His .419 free throw rate this year (free throws per field goal attempt) is way up from last year's .369. As a result of his 6.1 freebie attempts per game and his having played in 74 of Utah's 77 games this season, Hayward is currently sixth in the league in free throw attempts (448) and fifth in the league in makes (364), while hitting a respectable 81.3% from the stripe.
As a result of the increased efficiency that Hayward has found to go with his bigger team role of the last two seasons, he's now posting career highs in a number of advanced stats as well. His rate of Win Shares per 48 minutes is at .158 this season, a far cry from last year's .062. In fact, his 8.4 Win Shares accumulated this season has almost reached his last two seasons combined (9.0). Similarly, his Player Efficiency Rating has jumped from 16.2 last year (just above league average) to 20.2 (among the league's best). His nERD, our in-house metric which measures how many games above .500 a league-average team would finish a full season with the player in question as one of its starters, is currently at 6.5, way up from his -4.6 of last year (killed mostly by the high usage plus low efficiency combination).
The future in Utah is looking perhaps the brightest it has since Stockton and Malone hung up their kicks, and Hayward is quietly at the heart of that. Gobert's emergence has people going "ooh la la", Derrick Favors continues to grow into a solid big, and Burke's and Exum's rates of development will have a big impact on what this team will become, but it's Hayward's steady and understated improvement that has the Jazz thinking playoffs next year and beyond. His near-$16 million average annual salary looked like a steep price tag at first, but after next year's new TV deal, Hayward could become one of the league's cheapest stars.
For now and for starters, though, he should win this year's Most Improved Player award. There are plenty of candidates that have bettered themselves this year, but Hayward's one of the only ones that comes to mind that's been doing it for five.