In the 2013-14 season, Goran Dragic led the Suns to a 48-win campaign and was the only player in the NBA to score at least 20 points per game while also shooting 50% from the field and 40% from three. Not even MVP Kevin Durant hit those elite marks in efficiency.
For his efforts, “The Dragon” won the league’s Most Improved Player award over a field of worthy candidates including Anthony Davis, Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Thomas and former teammate Gerald Green. The crop of nominees is comparatively loaded this year, too.
Showing major year-to-year improvement and posting an esteemed breakout season are what voters want to see. Sometimes that means blossoming into a first-time All-Star—like Kevin Love in 2011 and Paul George in ’13. Other times out-of-nowhere surprises prove to be the best choice, like Boris Diaw in ’06.
This season Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler raced to a stellar start and was named to his first All-Star team. He has been viewed as the favorite to win the Most Improved Player award for some time. Can any of his peers close the gap?
Jimmy Butler, Bulls
Butler entered the 2013-14 season set to become Chicago’s full-time starter, so it was logical to expect a breakout campaign from him last year. That didn’t happen, however, as the Marquette product struggled to find his offense. He shot just 39.7% from the field and an ugly 28.3% from beyond the arc.
That regression raised some red flags, but Butler put concerns to rest this season by going for double-digit points in 14 of 15 games in November. He averaged 21.9 points per contest while shooting 49.8% during the month, and his production has stayed steady ever since.
Continuing the upward trend, Butler’s points, rebounds and assists numbers have kept on climbing. He is posting career bests in all three categories while shooting 46.2% from the field (35.1% beyond the arc) and playing solid perimeter defense.
An elbow injury has forced him to miss Chicago’s last nine games, so perhaps that will open the door a crack for other deserving candidates to gain recognition.
Draymond Green, Warriors
Stephen Curry’s MVP case is growing stronger with each Warriors’ win. Fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson is having a tremendous year in his own right, earning a spot on his first All-Star team and exploding for an NBA-record 37 points in a single quarter in January. But Green is the glue holding Golden State together.
Like Butler, Green is posting career highs in just about every statistical category. His scoring output has nearly doubled in his new role as a full-time starter behind 44.3% shooting from the field and 34.7% shooting from deep (both career bests). His calling card, however, is defense.
Golden State boasts the NBA's best defensive rating (97.6). Green’s contributions as a versatile forward who can defend multiple positions have proven invaluable.
Defensive intangibles rarely hop to the forefront among casual fans, but the two-way impact Green has made in his third year cannot be ignored.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Utah has posted the best winning percentage in the NBA since the All-Star break with a record of 11-3. Skyscraping center Gobert is averaging 34.1 minutes over that span and posting averages of 10.3 points, 14.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
Dealing Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline—a move that has worked out nicely for the Thunder—was an addition by subtraction move for Utah. It opened up more time for Gobert, who has taken full advantage of his new role.
Postseason play remains a pipe dream for the Jazz, but Gobert has anchored their league-best defensive rating of 90.3 since All-Star weekend. Missing out on playing time early in the season (just 15.8 minutes per game in November) severely handicapped Gobert’s shot at the Most Improved Player award. Nevertheless, the “Stifle Tower” is making a strong push for more voter deliberation as the season winds to a close.
Hassan Whiteside, Heat
Whiteside is clearly this year’s out-of-nowhere guy. He hadn’t played in the NBA since the 2011-12 season with the Kings, making stints in the D-League, Lebanon and China with hopes of returning to the big stage.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra brought Whiteside aboard, and when Josh McRoberts was lost for the season with a knee injury, he had little choice but to see what the 7-footer could do. The 25-year-old hasn’t disappointed; he ranks sixth in the league in player efficiency rating.
Going from out of the league to a key cog on a potential playoff team is quite a turnaround. Whiteside should be seen as an intriguing dark horse for Most Improved Player, but PER alone does not determine the best contender.
Victor Oladipo, Magic
One unsung candidate who doesn’t garner much praise among other Most Improved Player contestants is second-year guard Oladipo. The 22-year-old has improved in a number of ways this season (averaging more steals per game and limiting his turnovers), but his strides scoring stand out most.
The former Indiana star is averaging 17.6 points while shooting 44.4% from the field and 34.2% from three (both improvements from his rookie campaign—41.9% and 32.7%).
His development on offense is a great sign for Magic fans, but Oladipo’s modus operandi has always been giving opponents fits with his defense. On Tuesday the youngster helped hold Rockets MVP hopeful James Harden to 4-of-14 shooting (the bearded guard had just six points on 1-of-8 shooting in the first half).
Don’t expect Oladipo to garner many votes for this award given that the Magic are still toiling near the bottom of the standings. But he should at least be in the conversation.
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