Every year, same noise. The Basketball Jones' J.E. Skeets famously hates the award. The well-respected Tom Ziller of SB Nation called it a "sham" on Friday. Nobody seems to want to get it right, and yet it exists. And, on Friday, it'll be handed out again — as Orlando Magic forward Ryan Anderson wins the Most Improved Player award for essentially playing slightly better basketball than he did last season.
The problem is two-fold. One, most MIP voters still look at per-game stats as a way to determine how well a player is playing. So, Anderson jumps from 10.6 points per game to 16.1 and 5.5 rebounds per game to 7.7, and he must have improved considerably, right? Except, he didn't. He just played 10 more minutes per game, with former Magic forwards Rashard Lewis in Washington and Brandon Bass banished to Boston. His per-minute totals are mostly the same — up less than a point per 36 minutes of play, down half a rebound, field-goal percentage up .006 of a percent and 3-point percentage exactly the same.
The second problem is ennui, or frustration, from the fans and would-be voters that are exasperated that this award routinely turns into the Biggest Minutes Increase of the Year award. Don't give up, friends. This isn't ambiguous territory, unlike the MVP award. It's written right in front of you — "most improved." All we have to do is get voters to cast ballots for players that have actually improved, rather than just taken in more minutes because Stan Van Gundy strangely started Brandon Bass alongside Dwight Howard a lot last year, in spite of Anderson's better shooting, rebounding, and about-the-same defense.
The unfortunate part about this award, as has been the case for years, is that its criticism slightly takes away from the sort of year Ryan Anderson had. We lauded his acquisition when the Magic picked him up in the summer of 2009, and begged SVG to hand him more minutes when he put up nearly identical per-minute numbers to this award-winning year in 2009-10 and 2010-11. He's a fantastic complement to Dwight Howard, and though we're harping up the consistency of his production, it isn't as if the guy has stagnated. He's cut down his turnovers significantly, and his defense has slightly improved to these eyes.
But MIP voters weren't looking at Anderson's ever-decreasing turnover ratio, or paying attention to where his head was turned off the ball. No, again, they saw points go up. They saw rebounds go up. And they saw Anderson plenty, because he was on national TV quite a bit this year.
They didn't see Ersan Ilyasova crank 3.3 points and 2.8 boards to his per-36 numbers this year, tossing in a series of massive rebounding games for the Milwaukee Bucks while playing four minutes fewer per game than Anderson did. They didn't see Nikola Pekovic (my selection) nearly double his Player Efficiency Rating to around 21 (matching Anderson's was this year, his increased two points) while severely cutting down his turnovers, improving his footwork to NBA levels defensively, and adding heaps of points and rebounds to his particular ledger while playing 27 minutes per game.
Plenty of them probably saw Jeremy Lin actually act as the NBA's most improved player, but didn't hand him the award because he played just 940 minutes this year. Technically, Lin was probably the NBA's most improved player, even though you might hold your nose as voters vote for the best story, and we shouldn't have had a problem had they given him the award. I don't have a problem that they held off because, again, "940 minutes."
And don't hold your nose and give up on the award. There are no questions; at least, there shouldn't be. There are no limitations; at least, there shouldn't be. It can be a second-year player, or a 12-year vet somehow returning to the sort of production he came through with two years before last. There really is less than meets the eye — "most improved." The guy that played way better in this year's term than he did in last year's term.
We don't have to be all hand-wringey about it. We just have to start getting it right.
Congratulations, Ryan. Good to see you getting the sort of recognition from both your coaching staff, and the NBA media, that you deserved years ago. Pardon my hijacking of your honor.