NBA Most Improved Player Award: Can Anybody Top C.J. McCollum?

It seems to be a foregone conclusion that C.J. McCollum will be taking the honors. Is there anyone who could steal the award from him?

With the NBA's regular season in our rearview mirror, we are moving full steam ahead into the playoffs.

However, before we do, let's take a little detour and take a look at one of the more intriguing year-end awards of the season: Most Improved Player.

Of all the NBA awards handed out, Most Improved Player is the most subjective.

The winner of the award typically goes to one of two types of players.

There is the second- or third-year player who finally get a crack at the starting lineup and a significant minutes increase. Former winners fitting this criteria are Monta Ellis in 2006-07, Kevin Love in 2010-11, and Ryan Anderson in 2011-12. All three primarily came off the bench the previous year before becoming a full-time starter.

We have also seen the trophy go to the player who had has turned the corner, boosted their scoring average and realized their full potential even after being in the starting lineup for a year or so. They are a true breakout star, à la 2012-13 recipient Paul George and 2014-15 winner Jimmy Butler. In fact, Butler saw a seven-point scoring increase despite actually playing fewer minutes per game.

Whichever type of player you believe is most deserving, the reality is the winner undoubtedly has his "breakout" season as no former All-Star has won the award. In fact, of the 30 previous recipients, only eight have been named to an All-Star team the same season they won the Most Improved Player trophy. 

While this year it looks like we may have a runaway winner, Portland's C.J. McCollum, let's break down the race and all the likely candidates for the honor.

Honorable Mentions

Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard deserve some recognition here even as the defy the criteria for the category -- the winner should be an up-and-comer.

The reigning MVP, Curry, has increased his scoring by over six points per game thanks to one of the greatest shooting seasons in NBA history. He is destroying his record for three-pointers made all while leading the league in steals and posting a career-best 5.5 rebounds per game. His jump from elite to godlike has been the story of the year, one that lends itself to unanimous MVP awards more than MIP honors.

Over the course of Leonard's five-year career, the Spurs' forward has transformed himself from a mere role player as the primary defensive stopper to absolute superstar. In any other season, Leonard could be the one we would be talking about as runaway top player in the league. Not a complementary scorer anymore, Leonard has transformed himself into a deadly shooter as he nearly finished with a 50/40/90 season from the field, three-point range, and the free throw line (50.6/44.5/87.4).

He increased his scoring output by almost five points per game this season, landing in the top 15 scorers. However, just like Curry, Leonard is a reigning award winner and not the ideal candidate for Most Improved Player.

Who, then, is in the mix?


Giannis Antetokounmpo, SF, Milwaukee Bucks

2014-15 31.4 .491 12.7 6.7 2.6 0.9 1.0 100.8
2015-16 35.3 .506 16.9 7.7 4.3 1.2 1.4 103.9

Entering this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks faced high expectations for the 2015-16 season. The Bucks just came off a dramatic 25-win improvement and bettered their roster in the offseason. However, they were still in need of a true star. That is where the Greek Freak stepped in. Boosting his points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, the 21-year-old took a real leap forward as the heart and soul of the Bucks.

If we looked at just the post All-Star break numbers, Antetokounmpo would have a chance to steal this award. He averaged 18.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game all while shooting near 51% from the field over the final 28 games. During that span, he also had five triple-doubles, as he showed off his versatility by taking over point guard duties for Jason Kidd's squad.

Will Barton, SG, Denver Nuggets

2014-15 16.9 .425 .271 6.8 2.8 1.4 98.5 0.3
2015-16 28.7 .432 .345 14.4 5.8 2.5 102.4 2.4

Virtually unused in his two-plus seasons in Portland, Will Barton found his role as the first man off the bench for the Nuggets after his initial 28 games in Denver last season. The only one of our candidates to play fewer than 30 minutes per game, Barton still saw his points per game jump up by nearly eight per game to become the Nuggets' second-leading scorer at 14.4 points per contest. 

One of the leaders for Sixth Man of the Year, Will the Thrill has started only one game this season while being the scoring punch off the bench the Nuggets have needed. He has registered two 30-point games and 20 games with 20-plus points after logging only six in his 172 games before this season. His increased scoring is not just the product of extra minutes as Barton posted career highs in three-point shooting (34.5%) and True Shooting Percentage (53.5%)

Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors

2014-15 31.5 .443 .337 11.7 8.2 3.7 8.5 7.4
2015-16 34.7 .490 .388 14.0 9.5 7.4 11.0 10.2

Can there be any NBA article this season without mentioning the Warriors? To be fair, there is a reason you can make the case for a Golden State player to win every award. If that were to happen, Most Improved Player would be all Draymond Green's. While he did not see the scoring jump his fellow competitors did, Green saw improvements in his rebounds, assists, blocks, and shooting percentages across the board all while taking on a larger role in the Warriors' offense.

Still a defensive force, Green became a more dynamic offensive threat as he doubled his assists and boosted his field goal percentage by nearly five percentage points. The only thing holding him back from winning the award is that the 2014-15 season was Green's true breakout season when he emerged as a vital piece to the NBA champion Warriors squad.

Jae Crowder, SF, Boston Celtics

2014-15 20.1 .420 .293 7.7 3.6 0.9 3.9 1.3
2015-16 31.6 .443 .337 14.2 5.1 1.8 7.2 5.9

Boston clearly made out like bandits when they dealt Rajon Rondo to Dallas last season. Not only was the point guard a disaster with the Mavericks, but the Celtics also received arguably the best player in the deal: Jae Crowder. At the time he was traded, Crowder had only averaged 15.9 minutes per game in his 181 games in a Mavs uniform. While he had decent per-36 numbers (10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.7 steals), his ascension to crucial starter on a rising Boston roster was unseen by most as he was a mere throw-in into the transaction. 

After starting 17 of his 57 Celtics appearances last season, Crowder has been a fixture in Brad Stevens' starting lineup this year, starting all 74 games he has played. As their jack-of-all-trades, Crowder is a tenacious defender ranking fifth in steals of all non-point guards. He has also emerged as the third option on a balanced Celtics offense.

His 6.5-point-per-game scoring increase is not just from an increasing number of looks (6.6 to 11.1 field goal attempts) but from being able to find a greater success shooting the ball especially from three. The fourth-year small forward also posted the highest increase in nERD (4.6) of all the candidates making him a close second to...

Projected Winner

C.J. McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers

2014-15 15.7 6.8 .396 0.9 .699 1.0 0.7 20.5
2015-16 34.8 20.8 .417 2.5 .827 4.3 4.4 27.1

The Most Improved Player award was created 30 years ago with players like McCollum in mind. Riding the bench the first two years of his career, the 6'5" shooting guard finally got his shot after the Blazers' roster purge this past offseason, when they said goodbye to four of their five starters from 2014-15. Without his contributions as the second-best scorer on the team, the Blazers would have finished in the lottery, as we all expected, and not as the 5 seed looking to upset the Clippers in the first-round of the playoffs.

Joining superstar Damian Lillard in the backcourt, McCollum took full advantage of his opportunity to form the second-deadliest shooting combo in the NBA, behind only Curry and Klay Thompson. When Dame missed seven games with a foot injury in late December, McCollum proved he had pure star potential as he took over for his backcourt mate. He led the Blazers to a 4-2 mark in the six games he played, including a 29-point victory over the East-leading Cavaliers. McCollum averaged 26.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game during the Lillard-less stretch.

His ridiculous 14.0-point-per-game increase left the Lehigh product as the 18th-best scorer in the league and top nine in both three-pointers made and percentage. He had eight 30-plus point games this season. Playing against stiff competition didn't slow him down either; the 24-year-old averaged 22.5 points per game against the top two defenses in the league in regards to Defensive Rating, San Antonio and Atlanta. In fact, the third-year guard practically claimed the award on opening night as he dropped 37 points on the Pelicans.

If you need any more convincing that McCollum is a superstar in the making, check this out.