The NBA’s Most Improved Player award rewards the player who has grown the most from one season to the next. It’s not awarded based on highly scientific parameters, but it suits a purpose. While there is still a lot of season to be played, one name comes to the forefront. Despite the Dallas Mavericks’ woeful start, there’s no reason Harrison Barnes shouldn’t be in the early conversation for Most Improved Player.
This season, Barnes has significantly increased his per-game production. He’s averaging 20.4 points and 5.7 rebounds in 37.5 minutes as of December 5. While on the Golden State Warriors last season, he averaged 11.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 30.9 minutes. Making a nine-point leap in production in only seven more minutes a game is pretty remarkable.
To make an even more precise comparison using his per 36 numbers, he’s averaging 19.6 points and 5.5 rebounds this year, while last season he averaged 13.6 points but tallied more rebounds at 5.7.
Of course, Barnes’ role in Dallas is significantly different than it was with Golden State. With the Mavs, he’s taken on the lead role in the absence of Dirk Nowitzki, becoming the primary option on the team rather than a fourth or perhaps even fifth option. The role change is the direct result of his increased production. And that role change should help his MIP case.
For comparison, when Jimmy Butler won Most Improved Player for the 2014-15 season, he was Chicago’s leading scorer and his averages jumped from 13.1 points and 4.9 rebounds the previous season to 20.9 points and 5.8 rebounds. He averaged the same number of minutes in both his MIP season and the season prior because Tom Thibodeau.
Kevin Love won the award in 2010-11 after seeing a roughly seven-minute increase in minutes from the year before. His points-per-game averages saw a six-point increase and his rebounding, a skill set of Love’s that is unfair to compare to Barnes’, ticked up by four.
About the only blemish for Barnes this season is that his shooting percentages are down compared to last year. He’s shooting 45.8 percent overall, connecting on 48.8 percent of his two-point attempts and 31 percent of his shots from behind the arc. Last season his averages were 46.6 percent overall, 50.8 percent on twos, and 38.3 percent on threes. But, it’s important to put those numbers in context. He is taking almost nine more shots per game, has seen his usage rate balloon by 10 points, and is now the priority for opposing defenses.
Barnes isn’t the only one in the running for MIP, though. Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a strong case for himself up in Milwaukee. He’s increased his scoring from 16.9 points to 22.4 and is getting about one more rebound per game. His overall field goal percentage is up as well, coming in at 52.6 percent over last season’s 50.6. However, his three-point shooting is down.
Kristaps Porzingis is another name to consider. He’s playing six more minutes per game in his sophomore season with the Knicks and has increased his scoring from 14.3 percent to 20.6 on 47 percent shooting, including 39.1 percent from downtown.
And, if you want a dark horse candidate, look no further than the Lakers’ Nick Young. Yes, Swaggy P is putting together perhaps the best season of his career.
The 2016-17 season is just a quarter over, and a lot can happen between now and March. But at the very least, Barnes deserves some attention. It shouldn’t matter that he’s on a losing team. The Minnesota Timberwolves only won 17 games when Love won MIP. Barnes has proven the doubters wrong with the numbers he’s putting up in Dallas. He deserves to be in the discussion and, at this point, he might even be the frontrunner for Most Improved Player.