Since the award’s inception in 1985, no Dallas Mavericks player has won the NBA’s Most Improved Player. The franchise has seen multiple Sixth Man of the Year awards, a Coach of the Year award, a Rookie of the Year award and a Most Valuable Player award. But Harrison Barnes has a chance to do what no Maverick has done before: win the MIP. His case is probably stronger than you think.
We first broached this topic back in December (you can read Doyle’s piece here) after a little more than a quarter of the season had passed. At that point, Barnes had fantastic numbers. He was averaging 20.4 points and 5.7 boards compared to 11.7 points and 4.9 rebounds the previous year in Golden State. More impressively, Barnes had increased his production in a feature role without sacrificing efficiency. NBA voters were ready to hand him the award then! Okay, that part was not true. But what was true was that Barnes had exceeded league-wide expectations, an integral aspect of winning the award.
So how do things look now? Many things change over the course of an NBA season, but Barnes’ production did not. He finished the year averaging 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He scored more than 20 points 37 times this year compared to only seven times last year. Here are his final numbers compared to last season’s, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
Things to note from the table above: Barnes increased his minutes per game and shot attempts but maintained a respectable 46 percent shooting percentage, which is remarkable considering his role is starkly different in Dallas than it was in Golden State (more on that to come).
For comparison here are the per-game stats for the last four MIP winners:
Did you notice that Barnes’ point differential of +7.5 is the second highest of the group above? (C.J. McCollum is an anomaly—his jump in minutes per game is astronomical and rare.)
As the raw data shows, Barnes’ performance is MIP worthy, but that might not have been enough to separate himself from the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic or Rudy Gobert. Here are quick stats showing how their games progressed from last season to this season:
So, what’s the case for Barnes?
Perhaps the most compelling argument for Barnes as MIP is how drastically his role changed and how well he adapted to it. In Golden State, Barnes was mainly a spot-up shooter and slasher. In Dallas, he was a focal point carrying much of the offensive load. Barnes did a lot of damage this season out of post ups: 17.8 percent of his possessions were post ups, and he scored .99 points per possession on 42 percent shooting. Last year, only 12.7 percent of his possessions were post ups, and he only scored .90 points per possession.
Barnes also saw improvement in his isolation game. This season he was in isolation on 24.5 percent of his possessions. He shot 45.7 percent in iso situations and scored .93 points per possession. In Golden State, Barnes was in isolation for only 8.7 percent of his possessions, scoring .82 points per possession on 42 percent shooting.
Another area in which Barnes saw substantial improvement was coming off screens. Dallas ran Barnes off screens on 14.5 percent of his possessions, and Barnes turned around and scored .94 points per possession on 42 percent shooting. Over in the Bay, Barnes ran off screens only 4 percent of the time and scored .90 points per possession on 40 percent shooting.
Look, do I think Barnes is going to win the award? No, probably not. Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Gobert are legit stars whose teams either made it to the playoffs or were on the cusp at the very end of the season. Basically, Barnes *might* have slightly better odds to win the award than Lloyd Christmas’ odds of ending up with Mary Swanson (Dumb and Dumber, anyone?).
Ultimately though, Barnes’ lack of improvement in areas that don’t include scoring and shot creation will likely hold him back. Add in the fact that the Mavs weren’t truly competitive until Dirk Nowitzki was healthy, and the odds appear stacked against him. That’s not to say winning should be the deciding factor of the award, but being on a losing team meant Barnes didn’t get the recognition that some other really good players did.
But if Barnes can show this much improvement after just one year in Dallas, more awards might be on the horizon.