The purpose of the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is to recognize a player who has made "a significant improvement from the previous season." At least, that was the language used in Wednesday's official press release announcing Suns guard Goran Dragic as the 2013-14 recipient.
Dragic won handily, just as Paul George did in 2012-13. The Pacers' forward posted sizable increases in virtually every major statistical category last season while leading Indiana to 49 wins, the team’s most since 2003-04, and a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference. George was such a convincing winner that he earned four times as many first-place votes as runner-up Greivis Vasquez.
The voting isn’t always as clear-cut, though. Sometimes there are a number of candidates with a viable claim to the honor. And further complicating matters is the lack of clear criteria to win the award.
What, exactly, constitutes "improvement," anyway? More efficient and prolific statistics are part of the equation, sure. But what about team success? Should the award go to a role player who elevates his game? Should it go to an established player who blossoms into a star? What if a certain player used to be great, endured a rough season and bounced back? There are a bunch of factors to consider.
Was Dragic the right choice this year? Perhaps a review of every winner (excluding Dragic) since the award's inception in 1985-86 will provide some clarity.
Using data from basketball-reference.com, we computed the difference between each winner’s Player Efficiency Rating in his winning season and the year before. We also found the mean of the winners' PERs in both seasons, as well as the mean difference between them.
The goal was to try to gain a better understanding of what types of players have won the award in its 29-year history and how much they improved over one season. While PER is not a perfect statistic, we determined it to be the best gauge of player value over time.
In the season before winning the Most Improved Player Award, players have posted PERs that are, on average, only slightly greater than the league average of 15.0. Players hovering close to that mark this season include Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson (14.9) and Celtics power forward Brandon Bass (15.1).
In the seasons players have won the award, the recipients boosted their PERs by about 3.62 points. Players this season with PERs near 18.64, the average mark for winners, include Heat center Chris Andersen (18.5) and Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (18.6).
*Figures rounded to the hundreths place
Another interesting figure to note is that more than half of the winners were second- or third-year players. People often talk about the "sophomore leap" and how rookies need at least a year to figure out how to adapt to the NBA game (and earn the minutes needed to produce award-worthy numbers). So it makes sense that several players made their biggest PER leaps in their second (seven winners) or third (nine) seasons.
There is no statistical prototype for the award. Last season, for instance, George was the runaway winner and his PER increased only 0.3 (16.5 to 16.8). This year's winner, Dragic, improved his PER 3.9 points, from 17.5 to 21.4, in his sixth season. That's a pretty healthy climb, but not even the biggest on his team. Phoenix swingman Gerald Green, who finished fourth in the voting, saw his PER skyrocket 6.6 points, to 16.5.
Dragic's PER jumped slightly above the historical average of MIP winners. But he also posted major statistical increases in points per game (14.7 to 20.3), effective field goal percentage (49.1 to 56.1) and Win Shares (5.7 to 10.3), while leading the Suns to an NBA-best 23-win improvement from last season. The Suns' star is plenty deserving of the award. But that's not to say there isn't room for debate, which makes arguing over the Most Improved Player Award such a fun (and/or infuriating) exercise.