Every year, returning NBA players hope to make more of a positive impact than they did the previous season. Some fail, some succeed, and some REALLY succeed.
Today, we’ll be looking at guys who have the best chance at significantly raising their level of play in the 2016-17 season and contending for the Most Improved Player award.
The league does tend to look for guys who make big leaps in raw statistics due to increased roles. Over the past 10 years, the average MIP has put up 19.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 35.7 minutes per game, a year after posting digits of 12.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 27.9 minutes per game.
With that in mind, let’s preview the top five candidates for the 2016-17 Most Improved Player award
Honorable mentions: Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets), Hassan Whiteside (Miami Heat), Stanley Johnson (Detroit Pistons), Jeremy Lin (Brooklyn Nets), D’Angelo Russell (Los Angeles Lakers), Harrison Barnes (Dallas Mavericks), Andrew Bogut (Dallas Mavericks) Gerald Henderson (Philadelphia 76ers), Danny Green (San Antonio Spurs), Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks), Andrew Wiggins (Minnesota Timberwolves)
5. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
2015-16 per-game statistics: 19.1 minutes, 7.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.2 blocks, 18.3 PER, 0.144 win shares per 48 minutes
The minutes should be there for Capela this season. Last year, the Rockets occasionally used him in a two-center lineup with Dwight Howard, which actually worked pretty well (plus-9.4 net rating). Still, Howard’s presence kept Capela’s playing time limited.
However, the Rockets don’t really have any other true centers deserving rotation minutes this season, which means the Swiss big man should get plenty of burn. He’ll be the team’s token interior defender on a squad of many turnstiles, and his excellent rebounding will be a boon for a team with few other plus rebounders.
The only thing holding Capela from even more minutes (and, in turn, better raw statistics) is his dreadful free-throw shooting. He’ll have to improve his 37.9 percent clip from last season.
Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 27.6 minutes, 9.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.7 blocks, 18.0 PER, 0.150 win shares per 48 minutes
4. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets
2015-16 per-game statistics: 21.2 minutes, 5.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, 14.2 PER, 0.094 win shares per 48 minutes
Hollis-Jefferson didn’t play a lot last season due to a fractured right ankle, but he definitely stood out in the 29 games and 615 minutes he was on the court. And it all started with his defense.
The former Arizona standout uses his long, athletic 6’7″, 220-pound frame extremely well to cut off penetration and make all sorts of plays on the ball. He showed the traits to make him a future staple in the All-Defensive Team conversation.
At the end of the year, he had the second-best win shares per 48 minutes total of 13 Nets who played at least 500 minutes (0.094, following Brook Lopez). His jump shot isn’t close to being fully developed yet, but his 51.9 true-shooting percentage wasn’t too terrible considering the circumstances.
Except a healthier Hollis-Jefferson to come into his own for a terrible Nets team. Of course, the opportunities for stat-stuffing will be there in all the blowout losses that should be heading Brooklyn’s way.
Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 29.7 minutes, 10.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 16.5 PER, 0.110 win shares per 48 minutes
3. Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks
2015-16 per-game statistics: 20.3 minutes, 11.0 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks, 15.5 PER, 0.064 win shares per 48 minutes
Schroder could be terrible in an expanded role, or he could be great, but I’m leaning toward the latter. He’s got plenty of swagger, a bunch of talent and a flair for the spectacular.
The addition of Dwight Howard in Atlanta also makes things interesting. Schroder was able to hook up with Al Horford for several alley-oops out of the pick-and-roll, but Howard is one of the league’s best at finishing around the rim.
Schroder sometimes makes poor decisions and lets his emotions adversely affect his play, but the presence of steady veterans like Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap should keep him from going totally nuts.
Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 31.1 minutes, 16.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 18.8 PER, 0.115 win shares per 48 minutes
2. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
2015-16 per-game statistics: 28.6 minutes, 6.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 8.4 PER, 0.054 win shares per 48 minutes
The fact that many people saw Winslow’s rookie season as a success despite poor offensive production is a testament to defensive abilities that were far beyond his years. The 20-year-old swingman quickly became the guy the Heat comfortably put on the opponent’s best offensive perimeter player.
Without Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng there to take reps away from the 2015 first-round pick, Winslow’s offensive role will expand significantly. His jump shot was, to put it bluntly, a train wreck in 2015-16, but his college production hints that he has the tools to improve it significantly as his NBA career progresses.
And then there’s Winslow’s slashing ability, instinctive cuts and high-IQ play, which should help him develop into one of the league’s best young two-way players.
Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 34.1 minutes, 12.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 13.8 PER, 0.108 win shares per 48 minutes
1. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
2015-16 per-game statistics: 25.2 minutes, 8.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 15.5 PER, 0.155 win shares per 48 minutes
And here we have the reason I believe Oklahoma City doesn’t lose too many wins from its 55 victories last season. Adams was the chief reason the Thunder went from a clear step or two below the Spurs and Warriors in the 2015-16 regular season to beating San Antonio and taking a 3-1 lead on Golden State in the postseason.
If Adams merely replicates his postseason performance for the entire 2016-17 season, he’ll already put himself in the conversation for Most Improved Player. However, when you take into account the fact that he just turned 23 years old, has improved every season in the league and will help fill the usage void left by Kevin Durant, it’s only reasonable to expect him to improve his case some more.
I think we see Adams refine his offensive game and establish himself as a borderline All-Star big man in the Western Conference.
Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 32.9 minutes, 12.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.3 blocks, 18.4 PER, 0.173 win shares per 48 minutes