NBA awards drive me crazy. The media vote on them, and the media like narratives, and they are often biased in favor of the team that I cover. If the coaches vote on them, well, they tend to have some biases as well. And they get announced, and people who actually understand basketball go crazy with anger even though it was clear that they weren't going to like the results well in advance. But speculating about players who might make a jump this season is a little bit more fun, so let's do that. Below, I outline some some players who could make a strong case to win the Most Improved Player Award.
The Utah Jazz contingent, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter
A lot of times the award ends up being given to guys who may not have made large Per 36 minutes jumps, but instead to guys who finally get an opportunity to play. With Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson moving on, both of these guys are going to see a large increase in minutes played. There is a reason that Utah feels alright moving on without such proven veterans, and all you need to do is ask Jefferson himself: "I told my teammates all season, 'Utah would be a fool to bring me back, with Enes [Kanter] and Derrick [Favors]. Them boys are gonna be the truth!"
Favors would seem to be the best bet. This will be his fourth season in the NBA, and yet he is still only entering his Age-22 season. Only playing 23 minutes a game last season, Favors compiled a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 17.5, while providing solid defense. He is a good rebounder, and if he plays 30+ minutes, could come close to averaging a double-double. He is offensively limited but his true shooting percentage was respectable, and he shot 69% from the free throw line. His usage rate is likely to go up which will give him better raw numbers, which award voters tend to appreciate. I think it is fair to speculate that his efficiency numbers will stagnate or even go down with more minutes and opportunities, but I find it hard to see it hurting his candidacy if he averages something approaching 16 points and 10 rebounds a game.
But I still like Kanter quite a bit. Taken just ahead of Tristan Thompson two summers ago, Kanter quietly put together a promising sophomore campaign last season. He was a better Per 36 minute scorer than Favors and rebounded alright as well. With true shooting numbers approaching 59% this is a skilled young center about to enter his age 21 season. We might be sleeping on this guy. The caveat, and it's a big one, is that we don't have much of a sample size for Kanter. He averaged 15 minutes in 70 games last year, usually against reserve centers. How will he handle doubling those minutes? How will he take the daily grind that is getting serious minutes against starting centers in the NBA? It isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, but it sure didn't suit Tyler Zeller last season.
The hometown hero, Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is in some ways not a natural fit for the type of player that wins this award. If he were to win it, it wouldn't be because of a spike in minutes played. In fact, Thompson could very well lose minutes this season with the arrival of Anthony Bennett and Mike Brown's early openness to playing Anderson Varejao at power forward. If Thompson wins, it is because the Cavaliers are having a great season and the increased attention rubs off on Thompson and/or Thompson actually does make a leap this season.
Here is why I am skeptical. First, if Anderson Varejao is back and getting serious minutes with Thompson, the available rebounds go down. The monster rebounding numbers we see from Thompson are likely to go down in that case through no fault of his own. Second, Thompson stayed healthy for all season last year and his backup was Luke Walton. He averaged 31 minutes a game. If that goes down to 27-28 minutes a game, a season averaging 13 points and 11 rebounds a night (which I have arbitrarily decided would be the threshold for him getting serious consideration) could be really difficult.
The third point is probably the most serious, though, and that is that Thompson is attempting to learn how to play basketball in the NBA with a brand new hand. I mean seriously. There are going to be some ugly moments, and with Thompson, you always get ugly moments. But here is the case for Thompson. Kyrie Irving said, in a tone that seemed serious, that he looks forward to running the pick and pop with Thompson. His jump shot can't get much worse than it was. He was already using his right hand quite a bit last season, and it looked great at times. The Cavs will be better and people who wrote Thompson off as a bust will be forced to reconsider. They might even consider him to be improved. He could win.
New situation in Sacramento, and Cousins will be playing for a contract. Could he be on his best behavior? Could new ownership and a new coach and a revamped (but still bad) roster change the attitude of basketball's most enigmatic potential star. Everyone knows the deal with Cousins, knows his tremendous potential. People seem to want to like him. I wouldn't bet on him, but the fact that he will be playing for a new deal seems like something that could motivate a guy who has never been motivated for a full season. Time will tell.