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Data Dimes: Could Stephen Curry steal Most Improved Player award?

The race for Most Improved Player has more intrigue than it did when Jimmy Butler pulled off a dominant win a year ago. 

Jimmy Butler’s fourth-year leap for the Chicago Bulls a season ago—which propelled him to his first ever All-Star Game—made him the undisputed frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. He took home the honor at season’s end by making huge statistical improvements across the board and pacing the Bulls as the team’s leading scorer.

Butler's 4th-Year Leap Earned All-Star and MIP Honors | PointAfter

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Of course, Most Improved Player isn’t always so easy to determine. Ryan Anderson won MIP in 2011–12 even though his numbers stayed relatively consistent from the previous year—especially from a shooting efficiency standpoint.

Ryan Anderson's Shooting Percentages by Season | PointAfter

The biggest difference between the two seasons? Anderson was the full-time starter and played nearly 10 additional minutes per game for Orlando when he was ultimately recognized as the Most Improved Player.

Butler and Anderson represent the two typical templates needed to win the award: A massive increase in production while occupying a similar role, or an (expected) statistical increase following a big boost in playing time.

For this week’s iteration of Data Dimes, the PointAfter team will break down 2016 Most Improved Player candidates by those two categories.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network.

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Group 1: Sheer Improvement

Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond

Throughout the history of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, which dates back to the 1985–86 season, no previously established All-Stars have won (unless they were named an All-Star in the same season as being named Most Improved). That could potentially change in 2016, as reigning MVP Stephen Curry has somehow managed to improve enough statistically to put himself in the conversation.

Curry Improving on an MVP Campaign | PointAfter

Save for the assists column, where Curry has experienced a slight dip (even though the Warriors assist percentage as a team is up from last year, due to Draymond Green’s meteoric rise as a passer), he’s improved upon his MVP self. He’s converting a higher percentage of field goals, his PER has increased and his scoring output has jolted nearly seven additional points per game—despite the fact that his minute allotment remains quite comparable.

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It would be unheard of for an MVP winner to take home Most Improved honors, provided that a former All-Star hasn’t even accomplished that feat. Nevertheless, Curry’s ability to pour in more points at a more efficient clip necessitates recognition in the eyes of voters.

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Of course, there’s clout to the argument that “Chef Curry” may not even be the most improved player on his own roster. That distinction likely falls to Green.

Draymond Green's Rise to All-Star Status in 2016 | PointAfter

The former Michigan State Spartan has upped his game across the board for the mighty Warriors, particularly in the assist category. Though he’s spent 100% of his court time at either the power forward or center position, per Basketball Reference, the talented Green ranks sixth in the league in assists per game.

2015-16 NBA Assists Per Game Leaders | PointAfter

Green dishes out more assists per game than most point guards, and he averages fewer turnovers (3.1) than six of the players in the top 10 for assists. He also leads the league in triple doubles with 11. Russell Westbrook sits second place in that category with nine. If Green was to win Most Improved, he’d be the ninth player in history to do so during a season in which he also made his first All-Star team. 

Joining him in that camp are Kawhi Leonard and Andre Drummond, who also became first-time All-Stars in 2016. While Drummond’s averages in his fourth year haven’t reflected the eye-popping improvement usually needed to secure the award, Leonard’s scoring prowess from beyond the three-point arc has spiked dramatically.

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Leonard is Locked in from Long Range in 2015-16 | PointAfter

After never shooting at least 38% from downtown in a season in his career, “The Claw” is sinking treys at a 47.9% clip—second in the league among qualified players behind J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers.

That year-to-year boost of 13 percentage points (while sustaining volume, no less) is nothing short of remarkable. However, it may not be enough to merit Most Improved Player.

Reggie Jackson’s numbers have also been stellar, but he showed much the same improvement last season after being traded to the Detroit Pistons. Since there’s already evidence Jackson merely needed to be handed the keys to the car, so to speak, that may hurt his case in the eyes of voters.

Group 2: Enhanced Role

C.J. McCollum, Jae Crowder, Will Barton

Many pundits and fans view C.J. McCollum as the odds-on favorite to win MIP in 2016—and for good reason.

C.J. McCollum 2014-15 vs. 2015-16 Stats | PointAfter

McCollum has experienced a statistical explosion as Damian Lillard’s partner in Portland’s backcourt. He’s gone from averaging 6.8 points as a second-year pro to 20.8 points through 60 games this season. And while it’s easy to conclude that the improvement is mostly due to a huge increase in minutes and role, that’s not exactly the case.

When comparing McCollum’s year-to-year rise on a per-36-minute basis (thus normalizing to help account for the minute discrepancy), it’s clear the Lehigh University product has improved outside the realm of mere opportunity.

C.J. McCollum 2014-15 v. 2015-16 Stats per 36 Minutes | PointAfter

Even when you expand his previous season out to 36-minute averages, McCollum has been outscoring those projections at a more efficient clip. Considering he’s also made that happen via an increased usage rate against first-string NBA players, rather than against second units, McCollum’s case for Most Improved is close to iron clad.

That leaves Jae Crowder and Will Barton.

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The former has started 62 games for an upstart Boston Celtics team currently sitting third in the Eastern Conference standings. He’s notching career highs in field-goal percentage (45.6%), three-point percentage (35.5%), points (14.5), rebounds (5.2), assists (1.9) and steals (1.8). His energy and hustle has been a big catalyst for head coach Brad Stevens’s crew, but those aren’t traits that often get reflected in the box score. Though he’s a big reason for Boston’s success and deserves recognition for his maturation, his stats don’t raise eyebrows.

“Will the Thrill” has likewise upped the ante to career bests across the board. However, he’d become the first Most Improved Player since 1997–98 (Alan Henderson) to win while playing fewer than 30 minutes per contest.

Will Barton's Year-to-Year Improvement | PointAfter

Since the turn of the century, voters have favored guys who play big minutes. And while Barton leads the NBA in fourth-quarter minutes, he may not have enough exposure to beat out the aforementioned guys.

McCollum has been (and should continue to be) the frontrunner for Most Improved. A win for Curry would be unprecedented, so runner-up candidates might ultimately be the first-time All-Stars, Green and Leonard.

In any case, there’s plenty of competition this season following Butler’s dominant win a year ago.