Most Improved Player is a weird award. It generally is supposed to reward the player who made the most notable leap over the course of the season, but it's winners are all over the place in terms of the role that the player occupies. There are plenty of cases of guys who made the leap from productive starter to superstar, such as Paul George two years ago or Kevin Love in 2011. There are career bench guys who became significant role players, like Hedo Turkoglu or Boris Diaw. And then there are guys who were total afterthoughts who won the award by becoming productive starters, like Isaac Austin and Darrell Armstrong. MIP covers the gambit of players, and doesn't have a real consistent voting criteria.
The type of year the player had is also up for debate on what qualifies a guy for MIP. What's more deserving of the award, a guy like Danny Granger in 2009, who made a leap from the previous season and was consistent the entire season? Or a guy like Goran Dragic, who improved slightly from his previous output at the beginning of last year but exploded late? Is year-by-year improvement the criteria, or improvement over the course of the season? I like the latter definition, and would rather reward a guy like Dragic over a guy like Jimmy Butler, who has vastly improved over last season but after a hot start, has tailed off due to injuries and playing 56000 minutes for Tom Thibodeau. Putting work in in the offseason to better yourself is great, but if you can make a drastic improvement through the drag of an 82-game NBA season, and come out as twice the player in April that you were in November, I find that more impressive. And that's why, were I to have an MIP vote, I'd give it Timofey Mozgov.
Post-January 15th isn't just the big day that the Cleveland Cavaliers began their tear through the league. It also represents Timofey Mozgov's ascension from struggling and misused big man prospect to one of the most fearsome giants in the league. Since the trade from the Denver Nuggets to Cleveland, Mozgov has been a completely different player, and he's gotten better from January on. In Denver, Mozgov averaged 8.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game, and the Nuggets were 1.5 points/100 possessions worse with Mozgov on the floor, with their defense being 2.3 points worse. In Cleveland, his per-game numbers haven't changed much; he's up to 10.5 points per game, his rebounding has dropped to 7.0 per game, and he's averaging 1.3 blocks, in about the same amount of playing time as he got in Denver. But his advanced stats point to the impact Mozgov has made on the Cavs, particularly defensively.
The Cavs without Mozgov were a mess defensively, but that's been well documented. Since, the Cavs' defensive rating with Mozgov on the floor is 100.5, and with him on the bench, it's 104.6. That's a 4.1-point drop-off, or double how much better the Nuggets defense got when Mozgov went to the bench there. This seems relevant, given the Nuggets were going to a rookie in Jusuf Nurkic or the gawd J.J. Hickson when Mozgov stepped off the floor, and the Cavs usually go to Tristan Thompson, a better defender than either. And the Nuggets got better, while the Cavs get worse. That has to indicate some improvement from Mozgov.
Mozgov has also been better defending at the rim as a Cav. He's allowing 45.8 percent at the rim as a Cavalier, per SportVU, compared to 48.5 percent as a Nugget. Mozgov had some success as a rim protector early in the season for the Nuggets (Opponents shot 7.7 percent worse inside 6 feet against him in November), but he really started struggling to make an impact in December, as opponents made exactly their average percentage in December, and just four percent worse at the rim in January. For the last two months, though? Opponents shot 11.3 percent worse against Mozgov in February, and 9.6 percent worse in March. So Mozgov went from a minimal impact rim protector to a fantastic one in two months. Some of that has to do with how much the Nuggets hung him out to dry, but there's been no question that Mozgov's been a more sound back line defender in Cleveland.
Offensively, Mozgov has also played more to his strengths, and it's resulted in a huge increase in efficiency. Cleveland has put the kibosh on Mozgov being an outside shooter, and are using him as a transition finisher, roll man, and offensive rebounder. That's resulted in Mozgov's restricted area shots increasing from 54.3 percent to 65.5 percent of his total shots, and he's converting 72.4 percent of those shots, compared to 63.5 percent in Denver. Mozgov's also getting to the line more in Cleveland (37.1 percent free throw rate in Denver, 41.0 percent in Cleveland), and he's making an impact on the performance of his teammates. With Mozgov on the floor since January 15th, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert all have worse effective field goal percentages without Mozgov, and Kyrie in particular sees his eFG% plummet from 62 percent to 46.9 percent when he doesn't have a gigantic Russian yeti clearing space in the lane for him to drive, per NBAwowy.com.
Ever since cratering on both ends in December, Mozgov has been slowly improving more and more as the season has gone on. He's almost automatic now at finishing inside, he's a solid rock on the back line of the Cavs' defense, which is a top-10 defense since the All-Star break. The trade from Denver's fountain of sadness to this Cavs squad helps, of course, but the fact that we separate the Cavs' season into pre-Mozgov and post-Mozgov indicates how much of an impact he's had on the team on both ends, and he's gotten better as the Cavs have become more and more fine-tuned for the playoffs.
So yeah, I think Mozgov should be in the discussion for Most Improved Player. You can argue that there are more deserving players, and I think that's valid; the leaps Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, and Rudy Gobert have made make them all good candidates. However, I think Mozgov's right up there with them, based on where he was in December compared to now, and how that impact has translated into positives for the Cavs.
You can say that it's all situational, that Mozgov is only better because he's being used correctly. However, we've never seen anywhere close to this level of defensive impact from Mozgov before, and if you want to make that argument, then you also somewhat need to argue that Klay Thompson shouldn't win the award either; after all, how much of his improvement is because Steve Kerr is using him better than Mark Jackson ever could? Mozgov probably won't win this award, and that's fine; but his improvement from his time in Denver deserves far, far more praise than it's getting.