2019-20 NBA Awards: Most Improved Player & Sixth Man of the Year

Ben Ladner

Even as basketball feels increasingly irrelevant, our awards series trudges on. Amid the swirl of a pandemic and widespread protests against police brutality and racial injustice, a simple game can seem rather trivial. But it can also serve as a momentary release, however fleeting, from the chaos around us. Here’s the final installment of this site’s 2019-20 awards series, including Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player. (MVP, All-NBA, All-Defense, Rookie, Coach and Executive of the Year have already been covered.)

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Montrezl Harrell

2. Derrick Rose

3. Maxi Kleber

It almost stretches beyond the spirit of the role to consider Harrell a sixth man, though having come off the bench in 61 of his 63 games, he technically fits the definition. Harrell logged nearly 28 minutes per game for a team to which he was essential, often closing games with L.A.’s best players. As a result, he had his most productive season to date -- 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists on nearly 61 percent true shooting -- while offering enough interior defense to make the Clippers’ small closing lineups viable.

Harrell is somewhat single-minded, and his limited playmaking and defensive abilities might be more exposed in a starting role or weaker surrounding environment. But when a player scores as often and as efficiently as he does, his team lives with whatever limitations he has (Harrell has also improved in those areas). The Clippers had a 114.7 offensive rating with him on the floor -- 2.3 points better than with him off -- and his pick-and-roll chemistry with Lou Williams remains among the best in the NBA.

George Hill provides more value on a good team than Rose does because of his ability to fill different roles. The veteran guard led the league in 3-point percentage (on a fairly low volume) while providing solid defense and secondary playmaking for the league’s best team. But Rose efficiently played the role of a primary option for the Pistons. He was a far better shot creator for himself and others than Hill, and was more essential to Detroit’s success than Hill was to Milwaukee’s.

Rose’s resurgence hurt the case for his teammate, Christian Wood, who emerged as a valuable rotation piece in Detroit after playing just 251 total minutes last season, and so Kleber, Dallas’ unheralded jack of all trades, rounds out the ballot.

Outside of genuine offensive catalysts like Harrell and Rose, it’s malleable role players who typically provide the most value off the bench (despite what Sixth Man voting in 2015, 2016, and 2017 might indicate). Kleber frequently closed games alongside Dwight Powell or, more often, Kristaps Porzingis, and his ability to fit seamlessly with either is where he derives most of his value. He can space the floor next to a rim-running big man or dive to the basket himself with another stretch big on the court. Kleber eclipsed 60 percent true shooting this season and shot over 37 percent from beyond the arc, and he’s a capable perimeter defender and rim protector, which made him an easy and natural fit wherever Rick Carlisle deployed him.

Dennis Schröder was the most prominent member of a limited Oklahoma City bench, but also had the benefit of playing 44 percent of his minutes with starters Chris Paul and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander -- both of whom took on larger defensive and playmaking roles than the more limited Schröder. The Thunder blitzed opponents in those three-guard alignments, but struggled when Paul left the floor and cratered when Schröder piloted backup units without another point guard. That suggests Schröder was more a beneficiary of that three-guard success than a principal driver of it.

His teammate, Nerlens Noel, would have had a stronger case had he played more than 1014 minutes. The sixth-year center supplied efficient scoring and expert interior defense on second units, though it’s unclear whether he would have sustained that production under a heavier workload. The same goes for rookie Brandon Clarke, who provided more versatile and slightly less efficient scoring for a worse team.

Most Improved Player

1. Luka Dončić

2. Bam Adebayo

3. Trae Young

Second- and third-year players are often left out of consideration for this award on principle; taking a significant step or two forward should be part of a young player’s natural progression, and thus doesn’t align with the spirit of Most Improved Player, which often recognizes more unpredictable rises. That criteria holds weight, but Dončić improved so rapidly and so drastically as to warrant an exception.

The most significant and difficult leap a player can take is one into true stardom. The importance of breaking into the league’s elite class of players is greater than simply cracking the All-Star conversation, even if the raw improvement isn’t as large. Dončić went from promising young player and fringe All Star to MVP candidate and undisputed centerpiece of the most efficient regular-season offense in NBA history. That kind of leap is nearly unprecedented and enough to defy the conventions for this award.

In his second NBA season, Dončić ranked in the 100th percentile leaguewide in both usage and assist rates while posting a 58.4 true shooting percentage and lowering his turnover rate. Despite minimal progress as a 3-point shooter, Dončić recouped some of that efficiency at the foul line, where he took over 13 shots per 100 possessions. He also shot 73 percent at the rim -- equal to Giannis Antetokounmpo and better than LeBron James -- despite a lack of elite burst or length.

Last month, I laid out the full case for Dončić and the rest of this year’s candidates.

Who was the NBA's Most Improved Player this season?

The beauty of an award like Most Improved Player is in how wide a net it casts across the NBA. The more glamorous MVP and Rookie of the Year draw only on a select pool of elite candidates; by definition, Sixth Man of the Year ignores most of the league's best players; Defensive Player of the Year looks only at one side of the ball, which typically makes it easier to parse.

Adebayo has the most complete case for this award, and in many other years, would likely be the frontrunner to win it. In his third NBA season, the big man became a full-time starter, first-time All Star, All-NBA candidate, and essential two-way component for a strong playoff team. Adebayo is among the league’s preeminent passers and most versatile defenders for his position -- a jack of all trades who can be deployed from anywhere on the floor.

He not only produced more, but did so under more challenging circumstances. Even as he carried a heavier workload on both ends and became a focal point of opponents’ gameplans, Adebayo nearly doubled his scoring average while maintaining elite efficiency. It’s hard to scale up in so many areas all at once, yet Miami’s center did so with the confidence and savvy of a multi-time All Star. And soon enough, he’ll become one.

Young’s offensive improvement was similar in scale to Dončić’s, but he didn’t reach quite the same heights. Atlanta’s point guard became one of the league’s best offensive engines, adding over 10 points per game to his scoring average while scoring more efficiently than his Slovenian counterpart. Nearly everything about Young’s game was sharper in Year 2, but he made minimal progress on defense and didn’t have positive team results to show for his improvement (though his supporting cast was significantly worse than Dončić’s). He deserves to be recognized, but it’s hard to put him in the same conversation as Dončić or Adebayo.

2019-20 Player Review: Trae Young

When a player improves as rapidly and significantly as Trae Young did this season, the individual components of the leap can get lost in the mere spectacle of it all. Typically, a young player gradually builds out his game, adding or sharpening a piece or two every season until he hits his prime.

That was nearly enough for Brandon Ingram to nudge Young off the three-man ballot, but the value of reaching the rarified playmaking air Young did was greater than Ingram becoming a borderline All Star. Still, the Pelicans’ young wing may have made the single greatest shooting improvement in NBA history, which helped clarify several important long-term questions for the team in a pivotal contract year for Ingram. He attempted nearly as many 3-pointers in his first season as a Pelican than he did in three years as a Laker, and improved upon his career 3-point percentage by nearly six points.

He had more opportunity, yes, but also took better advantage of it with a smarter and more refined game. Ingram was a better cutter and spot-up scorer, a wiser playmaker, and more patient driver. He remains a poor defender for someone with his physical tools -- getting over screens is particularly challenging for the lanky forward -- which could prove more problematic if Zion Williamson doesn’t realize his potential on that end either. But even without major improvement on defense, Ingram has given New Orleans more than it paid for in the Anthony Davis trade.

Jayson Tatum had a similar argument to Ingram’s, though he started from a higher baseline. Duncan Robinson, meanwhile, almost literally came out of nowhere to have one of the greatest shooting seasons in NBA history and become an essential piece of the NBA’s seventh-best offense. Norman Powell had a more traditional kind of Most Improved season, doubling his scoring while upping his usage and efficiency as a role player for a great team. Fellow Raptor and reigning Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam took another huge stride forward, which included sharpening his playmaking and ball-handling, improving his post game, and even launching off-the-bounce 3s.

Devonte’ Graham largely toiled in obscurity after a hot start, but finished the season averaging 18 points and 7.5 assists per game on 25 percent usage and 37 percent shooting from deep -- all massive improvements over his rookie year. His overall efficiency, however, was well below the league average and his juiced-up numbers felt somewhat like a product of Charlotte’s lack of surrounding talent. Others added new wrinkles to their games while Graham mostly improved upon existing skills and took advantage of greater opportunity. His case is the inverse of Dončić and Young’s; Graham went from almost off the radar to legitimate NBA rotation player, but that jump isn’t as meaningful as breaking into the elite company others reached. 

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