Last season, 19-year-old Luka Doncic began his NBA career. The numbers he accomplished when his 72 game season concluded were incredibly impressive. Doncic averaged 21.2 points per game on 42.7 percent shooting, with 6.0 assists, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game. His remarkable season earned him 98 percent of the first place votes on one of the league’s most prestigious awards — Rookie of the Year. Now, in his sophomore season, Doncic looks even more impressive. Look at how his 2019-20 season is faring against some of the all-time best seasons from 20-year-old players.
Has Luka’s incredible season been a big enough step up from his rookie campaign to win most improved player? Obviously Doncic is having a historically good season, but this award is all about how you’ve improved from last season. To get a better understanding of what it takes to win, let’s take a look at the jumps made by last year’s MIP, Pascal Siakam, and compare them to Doncic’s improvements this year. Now that the NBA has announced awards will be given based on stats pre-hiatus, all statistics presented here are up to March 11.
Siakam made some clear improvements that earned him the award. Most notably was his higher points per game average and developing a much more efficient three-point shot. After playing 11.2 more minutes per game, Siakam increased his points per game average by 9.6 and his three-point percentage by 14.9 percent. A look at Doncic’s numbers suggests he developed as well. The thing that’s mind-blowing about Doncic’s jump is that he increased his points per game average by 7.5 while averaging just 1.1 more minutes per game than he did the season before. While Siakam’s point average per 100 possessions increased 8.2 points, Doncic had an incredible 9.8 point jump (per Basketball Reference).
Knowing that Doncic had improvements that would not only compete with, but even outperform last year’s winner, how does his jump compare to possible candidates this year?
There seems to be a few favorites leading the way to win this year’s award. The front runner appears to be Jayson Tatum. Increasing his points per game average by 7.9 and owning the Celtics’ best DEFRTG (> 20 MPG), Tatum is already proving himself as one of the best two-way wings in the league. Then there’s Brandon Ingram, who despite already taking 260 more threes than he did last season, is shooting them 5.7 percent better. Bam Adebayo is also a contender. Compared to last season, the Heat’s big man is averaging 7.3 more points per game, 3.2 more rebounds per game, and 2.9 more assists per game. A young Devonte’ Graham is proving to be explosive on offense as well. Pascal Siakam is even threatening a repeat. Of course, there’s also our own Luka Doncic.
Although scoring is just one aspect of the award, it’s possibly the most important. When you compare Doncic’s points per 100 possessions increase this season with the other candidates, it’s clear he deserves to be considered in this race.
Although the offensive numbers are impressive, basketball is a two-way game. One common criticism of Doncic is that his defense is an issue and to be fair, it can be. According to NBA.com/Stats, Luka Doncic has the worst defensive rating on the Dallas Mavericks of players who average 20 or more minutes per game. Giving weight to that, I decided to look at improvements made in a metric that factors in both sides of the floor: ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus.
Surprise, Doncic is still among the top. This isn’t because he became an extraordinary defender in the off-season, but rather that his explosive offense is outweighing his mediocre defense. While Doncic’s defensive real plus-minus improved by only .21, his offensive real plus-minus skyrocketed up 2.22 (ESPN). Another metric that uses both offensive and defensive factors in their equation is FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR. Doncic places fifth in total RAPTOR because his third ranked offensive RAPTOR is explosive enough to outweigh his 178th ranked defensive RAPTOR. So while Doncic has struggled the past two years on defense, the fact that he’s an offensive anomaly helps overcome that. An offensive anomaly that, according to Basketball Reference, is producing nine more points per 100 possessions than he did last season.
A Most Improved Player ballot is submitted with three nominations. In no order and in my opinion, my three choices would be Devonte’ Graham, Jayson Tatum, and yes, Luka Doncic.
Graham gets a nod for the way he offensively capitalized on a bigger role. Last year, Graham was playing just 14.7 minutes per game. This year, he was fifth in total three-pointers made, fourth in total assists, and eighth in total minutes played. He’ll lose votes because he has the 400th worst defensive rating in the NBA, but his offensive jumps really impressed me.
Next is Tatum, who’s Top 20 in both total points and total steals this season. Tatum has already solidified himself as one of the best two-way wings in the league, owning the Celtics best NET Rating at 10.3. According to NBA.com/Stats, he’s increased his plus-minus by 2.9 and is now leading the East’s third seed in scoring.
Then, there’s Doncic. The common rebuttal I’ve heard on him being considered for the award is, “He won Rookie of the Year last year! How could this year be considered a drastic improvement?” While Doncic did have an incredible first season, his offensive performance this year puts him in the conversation right beside everyone else. It’s not just the scoring increase that’s impressive about his offense. Doncic increased his assist percentage by 13.7 while actually decreasing his turnover percentage (Basketball Reference). Last year Doncic had a PER of 19.6, the 51st best in the NBA. Now it’s up to fifth best at 27.7 (2019-20 PER rankings). His offense is proving to be a catalyst to the Mavericks success. He’s provided 3.7 more offensive win shares than he did last season, and is one win away from having Dallas locked in the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
While voters may discredit Doncic due to his incredible potential and previous award, a closer look at numbers suggests it’s not that simple. Doncic probably doesn’t deserve to win, but it’s closer than you might think.
Who do you think will win Most Improved Player?
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