Most Improved Player on Every NBA Team
Without exception, every NBA player strives for improvement. But achieving that growth makes for a tougher proposition, even if those strides can take place in numerous ways.
Some contributors are thrust into expanded roles and see their numbers swell. Others legitimately improve their core skills despite filling the same job descriptions.
Here, all types of improvement count the same.
We're traveling from one team to the next in search of the players who have grown the most since 2016-17. They can be youngsters. They can be wily old veterans picking up new tricks and opportunities. Everyone is eligible.
But only one player from each of the 30 franchises can actually earn a featured spot.
Atlanta Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 5.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.9 blocks
The San Antonio Spurs never had any reason to trust Dewayne Dedmon with an expanded role in their machine-like offense while Kawhi Leonard was healthy, so they didn't. They instead kept him confined to his day-to-day grind as a defensive specialist who could snuff out pick-and-roll action both by hedging and recovering to beat guards from behind as they burst into the paint.
But the Atlanta Hawks have no such luxury.
Perhaps out of sheer necessity, they've allowed Dedmon to prove himself on the scoring end, putting the ball in his capable hands far more frequently and letting him develop. He's become a better passer who's capable of making the proper kick-out feed from the blocks, and he's even gone 14-of-29 from beyond the arc after going 0-of-1 during his first four NBA seasons combined.
Is Dedmon a star? Of course not.
Nevertheless, he's asserted himself as a legitimate two-way asset capable of protecting the rim and shooting 60.1 percent from the field while averaging double figures as one of the leaders of this lackluster Hawks roster. He's played well enough that Atlanta should hope he picks up a $6.3 million player option for 2018-19, because he can serve as one of the (admittedly less crucial) building blocks of the Peach State rebuild.
Boston Celtics: Jaylen Brown
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
Where hasn't Jaylen Brown improved?
Most noticeably, he's become a deadly three-point sniper. The California product looked the part of a confident marksman during his rookie season, but he fired away 1.7 times and couldn't connect at anything more than a 34.1 percent clip. One year later, those respective numbers stand at 4.5 and 40.2, leaving him in a class of deep threats occupied by only 27 other qualified men.
Boiling Brown's growth down into improved shooting, however, would be doing him a drastic disservice. That alone hasn't propelled him to make larger strides than a two-way version of Kyrie Irving or a fully idealized incarnation of Al Horford.
The 21-year-old has spent time showing off his quickness against fast-twitch guards. He's bodied up against Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He's called out signals while switching instinctually and helped spark Boston's havoc-inducing defense that still tops the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. Put more simply: He's helped replace Avery Bradley on that less glamorous end of the floor.
So again, where hasn't Jaylen Brown improved?
Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
On Dec. 4, 2017, Spencer Dinwiddie dropped 13 points and six assists with nary a turnover in a blowout victory over the Atlanta Hawks, completing a string of 10 outings in which he averaged 15.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.8 assists and just 1.2 cough-ups while shooting 41.7 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from downtown and 71.1 percent from the charity stripe.
On Dec. 4, 2016, Dinwiddie was a few months removed from being waived by the Chicago Bulls, and he hadn't yet signed the multiyear deal with the Brooklyn Nets that would eventually facilitate his breakout. In fact, he wouldn't become a member of the downtrodden roster for another four days, and he wouldn't become a key part of the rotation until a few weeks later.
In the span of a calendar year, the point guard went from unwanted to serving as one of the NBA's deadliest drivers. It's amazing what sheer opportunity can do for a player struggling to find the right stomping ground.
With 11 drives per game, Dinwiddie is engaging in that play type more frequently than all but 21 players. What he's doing with his journeys to the hoop is allowing him to thrive. On 52.7 percent of those drives, he's generating either points or assists, consistently sparking an uptempo Brooklyn attack with his fearless style.
Charlotte Hornets: Jeremy Lamb
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
After a half-decade of waiting, Jeremy Lamb is finally taking the leap. And it isn't coming in only one area.
"He's averaging 4.2 assists per 36 minutes, almost double his career high. He's tossing hit-aheads in transition, tic-tac-toeing extra passes, and making plays as a secondary pick-and-roll guy—including tough dishes to the opposite corner." Zach Lowe wrote for ESPN.com. "He's working harder on defense, and gobbling up rebounds."
After serving as a zero-way guard plagued by a broken shooting stroke and longstanding lethargy on defense for so many years, Lamb has made everything click. His effort is constant as he tries to lock down one opponent after another with his long arms and athleticism. His three-point stroke is connecting 35.7 percent of the time while he takes 3.7 attempts per game from outside the arc.
He's become a two-way threat capable of filling more than a three-and-D role.
Lamb still needs to become less dependent on his mid-range jumper, and it's a bit strange that he's seeing such across-the-board improvement while finishing only 53.7 percent of his shots within three feet—a drastic downtick from last year's 69.9 percent. But if anything, that just hints at further improvements and even more untapped potential.
Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 3.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Had Kris Dunn not gotten off to a blazing start after returning from injury, the putridity of the Chicago Bulls' roster would have made for a much tougher choice. Precious few players have actually improved, with most backsliding in tandem with the team's unmitigated fall down the Eastern Conference standings.
But the point guard is a glaring exception, since he's parlayed a chance to run the show into significant strides on offense.
The widespread feeling that Dunn was trending toward the realm of draft-day busts stemmed almost entirely from his ineffective shooting stroke with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was otherwise a solid defender at a position that exposes so many young stoppers who aren't yet prepared for the speed or nuance of the NBA game.
Now, he's maintaining that defensive play and becoming far more adequate on the scoring side. He's shooting 43.9 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from downtown and 57.7 percent from the stripe, which makes for significant gains after his rookie slashline of 37.7/28.8/61.0. He's averaging more assists per 36 minutes, though he's also turning the ball over far more frequently.
Dunn is far from a star. He's still significantly below-average as an offensive threat. But by going from historically awful shooting percentages to mere competence with the ball in his hands, he's improved quite a bit.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Jeff Green
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a strange bunch. They've been so reliant on LeBron James, who has a legitimate shot at taking over this featured spot by the end of the season if he keeps producing at such a high level on both ends. Granted, it would be tough to reconcile giving the Most Improved award to a man in his 15th season who's already in the hunt for the GOAT crown.
But who else should gain consideration?
Kevin Love and Kyle Korver are the only other obvious positives on this roster thus far. Dwyane Wade has played better in recent weeks, though he's still a mere shell of his old self. Jae Crowder has declined rather significantly, while JR Smith has struggled to make a consistent impact.
That leaves a bunch of fringe rotation players and Jeff Green, who is at least finishing plays with enough frequency to avoid tanking his team's chances when he's on the floor. Last year with the Orlando Magic, his teammates' net rating dipped by 3.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, and he finished with a score of minus-3.34 in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. This season, Cleveland's net rating swells by 8.0 points per 100 possessions when he plays, and his RPM sits at 0.25 with positive scores in both the offensive and defensive components.
He's improved. No doubt about that exists any longer.
But is it sustainable?
Dallas Mavericks: Salah Mejri
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 2.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.8 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 3.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.4 blocks
J.J. Barea deserves some love for his offensive explosion, but the Dallas Mavericks have seen even more substantial strides from Salah Mejri.
Though his per-game line might not reflect that, the fact that he's maintaining his numbers and playing time while the entire frontcourt was largely healthy should be noteworthy. Staving off Dallas' most notorious hot dog connoisseur wasn't an easy task (thumb injury notwithstanding), no matter what Nerlens Noel's relationship with head coach Rick Carlisle might be like these days.
Mejri doesn't put up glamorous numbers. He isn't a scorer. But he's become a genuine defensive stud capable of protecting the interior of the Mavericks' schemes, guarding the rim from the brutal assaults allowed by backcourt porosity.
Among the 315 players this season who have defended at least one shot at the hoop and logged no fewer than 200 minutes, Mejri ranks 34th by guarding 6.49 relevant attempts per 36 minutes. And looking only at the 49 players facing at least six such shots during the same average span, he's been stingier than all but two players. Allowing 52.3 percent shooting, he trails only Hassan Whiteside (49.3 percent) and Bismack Biyombo (50.6 percent).
He's more comfortable than ever as the backbone of a defensive unit, which has allowed him to maintain his role with the organization. That's a strange way to justify improvement, but given the changing circumstances, it's a sign of improvement all the same.
Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
The Denver Nuggets don't feature many players who have made substantial strides between seasons. They've relied more on the enduring excellence of key figures—Nikola Jokic, Will Barton and Gary Harris—while taking advantage of the infusion of talent Paul Millsap provided before he suffered his wrist injury.
Some young players have made marginal gains. Emmanuel Mudiay, for instance, has become a capable three-point shooter, which prevents him from sinking back down into the territory occupied by the NBA's least valuable contributors. Trey Lyles has been fine in a small role, if you're looking for another example.
But Jamal Murray has assumed more responsibilities in the Mile High City after a fairly non-eventful rookie season, and that added playing time has allowed him to grow. While his level of play hasn't risen much higher—it won't until he finds his missing perimeter jumper—his role within the organization has fostered a significant scoring uptick that leaves him as Denver's No. 5 point-producer.
Only the missing three-point stroke is preventing him from more substantial improvement. He's shooting the ball better from every area of the floor, becoming a deadly mid-range assassin and a strong finisher around the basket. If the deep ball comes around, he'll live up to his predraft potential in short order.
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 15.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
Few choices are easier than Andre Drummond, who would currently be my selection for Most Improved Player irrespective of team. As much as Reggie Jackson has bounced back or Tobias Harris has morphed into an offensive juggernaut, the big man has grown leaps and bounds across the board, to the point that focusing on one granular aspect of his game is impossible.
Perhaps most notable is Drummond's newfound confidence at the charity stripe, where his conversion rate has climbed from 38.6 percent to 62.2 percent. That's had a larger impact than just a few more points here and there. It has allowed him to remain on the floor in key late-game situations and attack the basket with more ferocity, making the most of his overpowering athleticism now that he's no longer afraid to draw whistles and expose his weakness in the sport's most isolated setting.
And how about his passing?
Drummond had never before averaged more than 1.1 assists, but the Detroit Pistons are now allowing him to initiate the offense from the top of the key on a regular basis. Dishing out 4.0 dimes per game, he's serving as a secondary distributor in the Motor City and is consistently elevating the outputs of his teammates with on-target feeds.
And as if that isn't enough, he's also become a more disciplined defender around the basket who can do far more than use his quick hands and feet to jump into passing lanes. He's become an All-Defense threat who might even draw fringe consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, assuming he doesn't regress during the remainder of the season.
Golden State Warriors: Patrick McCaw
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 4.0 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 3.8 points, 0.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks
Finding an improved player on the Golden State Warriors is a tough task, since the entirety of the roster was already operating at such a high level in 2016-17. Everyone played well during yet another historic campaign, and the team as a whole has trended slightly in the wrong direction one year later. Plus, the Dubs are still led by all the same key figures, and they can't hand enough minutes to any up-and-comers to facilitate true breakouts.
So Patrick McCaw is the choice, even if his per-game numbers give an initial impression of stagnation. Part of that stems from playing 1.9 fewer minutes per outing, but that's also the product of a slightly changing role that no longer asks him to operate in quite the same manner.
McCaw is now more comfortable serving as a facilitator for Golden State, and he's improved his assists per 36 minutes from 2.6 to 3.9 while turning the ball over exactly the same amount during that average stretch. He's also producing his scoring figures in increasingly efficient fashion, as his slashline has grown from 43.3/33.3/78.4 as a rookie to 49.3/40.6/77.8 during his sophomore go-round.
Truthfully, it's probably a good thing McCaw has been the team's leading candidate for Most Improved Player. Imagine how unfairly dominant Golden State might be if someone more crucial to the rotation had embarked upon a notably upward trajectory.
Houston Rockets: Clint Capela
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.8 blocks
Some Most Improved candidates benefit from swelling playing time. Others find themselves filling roles that are more crucial to their teams' endeavors. Others still improve their own skills and become better basketball players.
Clint Capela falls into all three categories.
He's spending slightly more time on the floor for the Houston Rockets, though stamina continues to be an issue, which prevents him from pushing too much closer toward the 30-minutes-per-game benchmark. The Rockets are turning to him for more than just pick-and-roll finishes by asking him to become more involved defensively and work with more touches during his average appearance. Plus, he's slightly expanding his shooting range, becoming more confident at the charity stripe and showing off his newfound understanding of defensive nuance.
That last part has been the biggest reason for his drastic growth, as he's shifted from 0.9 to 4.1 in defensive box plus/minus and 1.12 to 2.07 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus. He's no longer merely a big body operating on the interior, so much as an intelligent defender with a fine-tuned understanding of positioning and schematic advantages.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks
Plenty about Victor Oladipo's emergence is interesting, but perhaps most fascinating is his predilection for taking three-pointers off the bounce. The Oklahoma City Thunder never allowed him to handle the rock often enough to play his type of game (understandably so during Russell Westbrook's historic campaign), but the Indiana Pacers are putting no such restrictions in place.
During the 2016-17 season, 88.2 percent of Oladipo's makes from beyond the arc resulted from one of his teammates' setup passes, and he took 5.3 treys per game. This year, he's only taking an additional 0.3 deep shots per contest, and the Pacers are assisting 50.8 percent of his conversions.
Typically, catch-and-shoot opportunities are easier than perimeter jumpers created off the dribble. But that isn't the case for this Hoosier.
Last year, he hit 36.1 percent of his triples. Now, he's connecting at a 43.7 percent clip, and the respect defenders must afford him when 25 feet from the basket opens up far more opportunities in the rest of the half-court set. Couple that with improved passing vision and defensive chops, and Oladipo has gone from forgettable complementary guard to legitimate Eastern Conference All-Star threat in less than a calendar year.
Los Angeles Clippers: Wesley Johnson
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 2.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks
At first, the story behind Wesley Johnson's return to respectability seems fairly simple.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been crippled by injuries throughout the 2017-18 campaign, so they needed help from their incumbent pieces to replace Chris Paul's production. A healthy Johnson was a natural beneficiary. Of course he was going to see his playing time more than double under head coach Doc Rivers, given his comfort in the schemes and fully functional body.
Johnson has also played so much better.
Defense has never been an issue for the 30-year-old swingman, but a disappearing shooting stroke could sometimes doom his chances of staying in previous rotations. That isn't the case this time around, as he's knocking down a career-high 43.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and making a no-longer-cringe-inducing 31.9 percent of his deep looks.
Maybe those numbers aren't what you typically want from your leading wings. But they still represent significant growth for Johnson at a time in which the Clippers so desperately need reliable production.
Los Angeles Lakers: Jordan Clarkson
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.1 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.0 blocks
Don't be fooled by the per-game numbers. Seriously.
Jordan Clarkson is a distinct threat to take home the Sixth Man of the Year crown for his efforts with the Los Angeles Lakers. He's fully accepted a role that sees him on the court for nearly seven fewer minutes per game, and he has focused his energies on maximizing the run granted by head coach Luke Walton.
So while the per-contest figures might not seem like they've taken a leap, he's averaging 5.3 more points, 0.8 more rebounds and 1.5 more assists per 36 minutes. Oh, and he's gotten quite a bit more efficient, shooting the ball more proficiently from all over the floor while continuing to keep his turnovers in check.
Last year, Clarkson was one of 65 qualified players who averaged at least 14 points per game, and he sat at No. 61 among that group in true shooting percentage (52.6). This go-round, he's among the 74 basketballers in that same club, but he's risen to No. 44 in true shooting percentage (55.7).
Would it be nice if the Missouri product played a bit more defense? Of course. But the Lakers are doing just fine on the preventing end in spite of his porosity, and he's rather easily been the team's most dangerous and consistent offensive threat throughout the 2017-18 season's opening quarter.
Memphis Grizzlies: Tyreke Evans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
For Tyreke Evans, everything boils down to health and three-point shooting.
The swingman seemingly has been plagued by injuries throughout his entire career, and his breakout is not so coincidentally coming during the first season in years in which his body has been in working order. As he explained before the start of the year, per Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, "I feel like it's my rookie year again with me being healthy, so I'm excited. When [the Memphis Grizzlies] were talking to me, they were excited about getting a guard like me to help Mike [Conley] create and get to the basket."
Except he's done more than that.
Entering 2017-18, Evans had connected on 29.5 percent of his career heaves from Curry-land. His three-point percentage in 2016-17, during which he suited up for both the Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans, stood at a palatable 35.6 percent. But that was still slightly below the league average (35.8 percent).
Now, a confident stroke has him hitting 43.0 percent of his deep attempts while taking 4.5 per game—both of which are career highs. And the respect defenders must pay him has opened the door for all of his other exploits, making it even easier to attack the hoop and find open teammates as he crashes toward the painted area. The development has virtually completed his offensive game, making him the idealized version of the oversized guard who once won Rookie of the Year and establishing him as one of the early favorites for a new award: Sixth Man of the Year.
Miami Heat: Kelly Olynyk
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks
The Miami Heat haven't lived up to the second half of their 2016-17 campaign, as their 11-13 record masks a distinctly negative net rating. And because of the downward spiral, precious few players have taken strides in the positive direction. Dion Waiters, perhaps hindered by a balky ankle, has trended the wrong way more suddenly than anyone else.
So, we're left choosing from a few uninspiring options.
Wayne Ellington has continued to serve as a defensive sieve, but his red-hot shooting has helped spark the Miami offense at times. Justise Winslow's ability to serve as an infrequent facilitator has opened up new sets for head coach Erik Spoelstra. But no development has been more impactful than Kelly Olynyk blossoming into a three-and-D contributor while wearing a new uniform.
We saw signs of this while the big man was still with the Boston Celtics, so it's more validation than a true breakout. But Olynyk is now hitting a staggering 48.3 percent of his 2.5 triples per game, and he's doing so while posting a career-high 1.7 defensive box plus/minus.
To put that in perspective, only seven other players throughout the league have a DBPM north of 1.0 while hitting 40 percent of their threes and qualifying for the deep-shooting leaderboard: Paul George, Al Horford, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Otto Porter, Jayson Tatum and Marvin Williams.
That type of company ain't too shabby.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 29.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.7 blocks
Yes, Giannis Antetokounmpo won Most Improved Player last year. What's your point?
The Greek Freak became an All-Star for the first time in 2016-17, but he wasn't yet an MVP threat, finishing tied for seventh in the race. That has changed now, even if he lags well behind LeBron James and James Harden in the quest for the league's preeminent individual award. He's a distinct threat to finish third at the moment, which still makes him a true candidate on a ballot with slots for five unique names.
Antetokounmpo has become one of the league's most dangerous scorers not by developing his jumper, but by embracing his lack of need for one. He's realized that his size, length and athleticism make him impossible to stop in the open court or in a half-court set, attacking the basket more frequently than ever before and watching as both his volume and efficiency skyrocket.
What are defenders supposed to do? If they play tight on him, he'll burst by them for an easy finish at the tin. If they sag off, he can drive right at them, attack the exposed hip and use his length to circumvent any futile contests of his shooting attempt. The pick-your-poison scenario almost always has negative repercussions for the defense, and Antetokounmpo is now tantalizingly close to becoming the sixth player in NBA history to average 30 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 61 percent.
The others who have done so? Stephen Curry, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone.
That type of company is a clear-cut indication that last year's MIP isn't done rising toward the top of the NBA totem pole.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Taj Gibson
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.6 blocks
Let's dive into some advanced numbers right off the bat:
- Offensive box plus/minus: minus-2.4 in 2016-17; 1.2 in 2017-18
- Defensive box plus/minus: 0.3 in 2016-17; 0.5 in 2017-18
- Box plus/minus:minus-2.1 in 2016-17; 1.7 in 2017-18
- Offensive real plus-minus: minus-1.76 in 2016-17; minus-0.41 in 2017-18;
- Defensive real plus-minus: 2.02 in 2016-17; 1.13 in 2017-18;
- Real plus/minus: 0.26 in 2016-17; 0.72 in 2017-18
- On/Off Differential: minus-0.3 with the Chicago Bulls in 2016-17; minus-1.3 with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016-17; 22.0 in 2017-18
That's a lot of information in quick succession.
So here's the TL;DR version: Gibson's numbers have universally improved (save his score in DRPM, which was shockingly positive last year and remains well north of zero). Most notably, he made both teams for which he played in 2016-17 worse, while he's been a hugely positive presence for the Minnesota Timberwolves throughout 2017-18.
Gibson often looked washed up while representing the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder one season ago. But he looks rejuvenated after reuniting with head coach Tom Thibodeau, and he's served as one of the few positive defenders on the entire roster. Even though he's spent so much time next to matadors in the starting lineup, the 'Wolves are allowing 11.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
New Orleans Pelicans: Darius Miller
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: N/A
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 1.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks
Maybe this is cheating. Suiting up during the previous season is typically a prerequisite when breaking down the NBA's most improved players. But allow us to skirt the rules and highlight one of the few members of the New Orleans Pelicans (other than Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins) who's consistently adding value to the cause.
Heading into 2017-18, Darius Miller hadn't logged a minute for an NBA squad since appearing in five games for the 2014-15 Pelicans. Instead, he was playing abroad for the German BBL's Brose Bamberg.
But that was before he signed a non-guaranteed two-year contract and emerged as one of the few bayou-based wings who could avoid the pesky injury imp. Since then, all he's done is take 4.2 triples per game and find twine 47.1 percent of the time.
During his first stint in the NBA, Miller was a liability on both ends of the floor. He didn't have the foot speed necessary to hamper opposing wings, and his inability to make an offensive impact when his shot wasn't falling (and it typically wasn't) prevented him from carving out a consistent spot in the rotation.
The former remains true. But he's making shots now, and the Pelicans are increasingly dependent upon the spacing he provides—spacing they so desperately need while running the offense through ball-dominant big men.
New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.0 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.1 blocks
From a purely statistical standpoint, Courtney Lee and Enes Kanter may have improved more for the New York Knicks, hard as that is to believe. But that doesn't take into account the relative differences between roles in the NBA.
Going from bad to average is hard. Going from average to good is tougher. Going from good to great is even more challenging. But entering into the realm of unquestioned superstars is a monumental leap on an entirely different scale.
That's the jump Kristaps Porzingis has made for the Knicks, effectively filling the void Carmelo Anthony left by becoming one of the NBA's deadliest scorers and still finding time to protect the rim with aplomb.
Porzingis isn't just averaging 25.4 points per game. He's doing so while shooting 46.5 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from downtown (on 4.8 attempts per contest) and 84.1 percent at the free-throw line. He's been so aggressive that he's taking 6.6 freebies per game, and that's when he isn't toying with undersized defenders who don't have a prayer while trying to stop his devastating mid-range game.
Every single number in the previous paragraph is a career high.
Meanwhile, the Latvian 7-footer is holding opponents to 38.2 percent shooting at the rim while defending 4.5 attempts per game. How good is that? Well, he's one of six players keeping their foes below 40 percent in this situation while suiting up in at least 10 games, but the other five—Jonas Jerebko, Davis Bertans, Malik Beasley, Rashad Vaughn and Jake Layman—have combined to face only 4.2 shots per contest. Porzingis' volume and effectiveness at the rim is literally unmatched.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks
The extra space created by Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining the Oklahoma City Thunder has afforded Steven Adams more room to operate when he's either attempting a post-up move or diving toward the hoop in the pick-and-roll game.
Last year, he could muster only 1.09 points per possession as the roll man, which left him in the 64.2nd percentile. But in 2017-18, his rolling efforts have produced 1.27 points per possession (78.6th percentile), and those possessions are now accounting for a larger percentage of his offensive exploits. Increased touch around the basket, the patience to get defenders in the air and that extra breathing room have all proved beneficial.
Meanwhile, he's been far more judicious with his back-to-the-basket attempts.
In 2016-17, post-ups accounted for a whopping 23.2 percent of his offense, but he could score nothing more than a meager 0.83 points per possession (35.8th percentile). Now that he has improved his shot selection and expanded his repertoire, he's using those plays 8.9 percent of the time and scoring 1.1 points per possession (88.7th percentile).
Even without factoring in his effectiveness leading the Thunder's charge up the defensive-rating leaderboard, his offense has improved enough to justify this placement.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks
Aaron Gordon's unsustainably hot shooting from beyond the arc was unquestionably a big part of his rapid ascent up the power forward hierarchy. But even as his percentage has regressed to more reasonable levels in recent games, he's continued to look like a vastly improved player for the Orlando Magic.
During his last 10 games, Gordon has shot 34.8 percent from downtown while taking 6.9 attempts per game. And yet, he's managed to average 19.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and coughing the ball up just 1.4 times per game.
The three-point shooting was part of his growth, but it wasn't the lone impetus behind his overall trend toward stardom.
The Magic essentially wasted Gordon during the 2016-17 campaign, pigeonholing him into a wing role due both to a desire to expand his game and a logjam in the frontcourt. As a result, he played like a bust for a squad unable to escape its longstanding rebuild or the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
Fortunately, the long-term effects have been far more positive.
Now back in his natural role as a 4, Gordon is applying everything he learned. He has the perimeter skills necessary to dazzle overmatched defenders, and he's more involved than before as a secondary facilitator in head coach Frank Vogel's schemes. His shooting stroke is vastly improved, allowing him to provide spacing and up his efficiency levels. And he can still use his overwhelming athleticism around the basket.
The total package is coming together, regardless of how far his three-point prowess regresses toward previous levels.
Philadelphia 76ers: Robert Covington
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.7 blocks
Remember when Robert Covington couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from beyond the arc during the opening portion of the 2016-17 campaign? Through his first five games, he went just 5-of-30 from three-point land, consistently throwing up bricks to the sound of boos from home crowds yearning for results from the Process.
So much for that.
Covington has stuck as a strong rebounding forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, and he quietly remains one of the league's most effective defensive presences. He finished with a score of 4.32 in ESPN.com's DRPM last year, which left him ahead of every single player at his position. Now, his mark of 2.66 again tops all qualified small forwards.
His quick hands and quicker proclivities for helping from the weak side haven't initiated his growth into a player worth extending for four years and $62 million (including a substantial salary bump during the present season). They're a part of it, but the true uptick comes from downtown. Even after a recent dry spell, Covington is hitting 40.8 percent of his treys while taking a whopping 7.8 per game.
The 26-year-old has become the living embodiment of a three-and-D standout.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Devin Booker remains a turnstile on the defensive end, rarely capable of slowing down foes and often failing to exert the necessary energy in off-ball scenarios. He's made marginal strides as a distributor, though his growth there would seem more impressive if his teammates could hit more than 44.7 percent of their shots after receiving his feeds.
No, we don't need to overthink this.
Booker is a scorer first (see: 46-point outburst against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday), and his improvements have largely come in his pet area. Not only is he taking on even more responsibility for this desert-dwelling franchise, but he's learning how to take the right shots and torment the opposition on the regular.
Last year, the Kentucky product shot 42.3 percent from the field, 36.3 percent from downtown and 83.2 percent from the stripe. This time around, those numbers are universally up, forming a slashline of 45.3/38.3/87.0.
And while those might not seem like big differences, they matter when Booker is taking so many shots. Plus, it helps that he's launching a substantially higher percentage of his shots from beyond the arc and still earning plenty of trips to the line. His true shooting percentage has risen from 53.1 to 57.3 percent, finally cresting over the league average (55.2 last year and 55.5 this year) and leaving no room for doubt.
Booker has arrived as a deadly volume scorer, not just a gunner failing to provide as much value as his per-game average might seem to indicate.
Portland Trail Blazers: Shabazz Napier
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 4.1 points, 1.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.0 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.1 blocks
As Isaiah De los Santos wrote for Blazer's Edge, Shabazz Napier's early performance may yet be fluky:
"Napier’s excellent play may be smoke, an intoxicating mix of blistering confidence and lucky shooting nights, exaggerated by small sample size. Or he may be re-defining our assumptions about potential for reserves in a star-laden backcourt. Do the Blazers need him, or will he become the latest in a long list of former Blazers who succeed outside of Portland?"
But even if Napier is still a product of small samples, he's putting together an impressive facsimile of a deadly sniper. We can enjoy that while it lasts, because his hot shooting has allowed him to look like a monumentally different player than the overmatched backup who struggled to earn double-digit minutes during his first season with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Napier's field-goal percentage has jumped from 39.9 to 47.1. His three-point percentage has risen astronomically from 37.0 to 48.6. Even his free-throw percentage has grown from 77.6 to 85.7—the best sign of all that we're looking at legitimate improvement and not a player who happens to be getting a string of fortuitous bounces in quick succession.
We'll know which is the case by the end of the year. But consider this: Napier has to miss his next 19 shots for his field-point percentage to fall below last year's mark. And since he averages just 5.2 shots per game, that means he'd have to put up bagels for about the next four contests.
Sacramento Kings: Willie Cauley-Stein
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks
Willie Cauley-Stein hasn't yet blossomed into a star for the Sacramento Kings, but he's taking a number of baby steps along the path toward that classification. Little by little, his game is growing in several different areas, allowing him to emerge as one of the organization's brightest spots during a disappointing season.
As Kyle Ramos wrote for Kings.com, the big man's improvements aren't limited to just one facet of the game:
"A prime example is Cauley-Stein, who is breaking out in his third NBA season. Trill has played large parts in leading the Kings to some of their biggest wins this season, including a game against the Golden State Warriors where he led the team in points, rebounds, and assists. More evidence of Willie’s improvement is evident by his PER, which currently stands at a career-best 17.2 and is second highest on the team."
The 24-year-old has been a more disciplined defender on the interior, recording more blocks by avoiding chasing meaningless rejections in favor of protecting the basket. He's shown flashes of a developing mid-range jumper. He's displayed a growing post-up game, creeping up from last year's 0.63 points per possession (8.4 percentile) to 0.81 points per possession in 2017-18 (38.3 percentile).
Cauley-Stein's path to relevance has been more circuitous than originally expected after Sacramento took him with the No. 6 pick of the 2015 NBA draft. But so long as he continues these widespread trends, he'll be in great shape.
San Antonio Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
"I think he was kind of caught off guard. I don't think he really had noticed [that I was unhappy]. But once I said it, he was great about listening, and it was good from there. I felt like I wasn't really fitting into the system as best I could. I wasn't really helping like I felt I could," LaMarcus Aldridge said about an offseason meeting during which he expressed his discontent to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, as reported by ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright.
Oh, how things can change in a matter of months.
With Kawhi Leonard struggling to recover from a mysterious quadriceps injury that has prevented him from making his 2017-18 debut, the power forward has taken over as the focal point of the San Antonio offense. And it's worked wonders for his game, allowing the 32-year-old to re-break out into a scoring star capable of keeping a team afloat on the point-producing end.
Aldridge is expanding his range and is on track to shatter his previous career high in three-pointers made while shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the rainbow. He's getting his teammates involved from the elbows. He's drawing fouls and earning trips to the stripe at heretofore unseen rates—seriously, his free-throw rate is higher than it ever was during his All-Star days with the Portland Trail Blazers.
And best of all? He looks comfortable, almost like he belongs. That, in and of itself, is a massive improvement.
Toronto Raptors: Jakob Poeltl
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 3.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.0 blocks
The Toronto Raptors emerged as one of the toughest teams in this analysis. Not because, like some other squads, they had a dearth of improved players, but for the opposite reason. So many members of the bench mob have grown that singling out only one is nearly impossible.
Had Delon Wright not suffered a shoulder injury, he might have been the choice for his surge on both ends. Pascal Siakam's emergence as a sharp-shooting threat is huge. Fred VanVleet's comfort as a playmaker is a new development, while Lucas Nogueira continues to prove he's one of the NBA's better backup centers in small spurts.
But Jakob Poeltl rises above everyone.
Self-awareness might be his best trait, since he knows not to overextend himself on the offensive end. He's not only taking a higher percentage of his shots right at the rim this season, but he's also finishing them at a higher clip—the product of improved patience and selection, since he's biding his time in search of easy finishes and putback attempts. Meanwhile, he's proved a defensive terror on the interior by cutting his foul rate (it still needs to trend further down) and contesting everything in his ever-growing vicinity.
Earning this spot isn't easy, given the number of strong contenders for featured placement. But Poeltl has done everything he can in 15.7 minutes per game to show he belongs and needs an even larger role down the road.
Utah Jazz: Derrick Favors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks
"Can't wait to see what happens when I'm not playing on one leg," Derrick Favors tweeted in March after finding a stat that showed how frequently opponents rejected his dunk attempts throughout the 2016-17 season.
Last year, 32 of Favors' shots were blocked, which comes out to 7.7 percent of his total attempts. He's been swatted 11 times thus far in 2017-18—a much more impressive 4.6 percent. And though that's not too important, it does help showcase how much more explosive he's been while playing with a clean bill of health.
This is the Favors the Utah Jazz have wanted to see—a physically dominant 6'10" power forward who can jump out of the gym and parlay his athleticism into production. After serving as a liability on the offensive end last year, he's been able to explode through contact and finish plays around the basket, morphing back into a two-way asset.
And here's one more telling stat for you.
During his disappointing 2016-17 campaign, the Jazz were 2.7 points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the floor and exposing the injury-aggravated limitations. This year, they've been 2.5 points per 100 possessions better while he's strutting his stuff on the hardwood.
Washington Wizards: Kelly Oubre Jr.
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kelly Oubre Jr. has always played with an indefatigable motor for the Washington Wizards, but he's learning how to harness his fervent energy supply as a third-year player.
Rather than fouling excessively, he's putting himself in proper defensive positions and making life tough for the opposition. Rather than crashing into the boards in search of a rebound, he's biding his time and waiting to take the right angle for a carom. Rather than attempting to finish everything through traffic, he's picking his spots and taking the right kind of shots.
Plus, a better stroke helps.
Oubre's improvements haven't been limited to one end of the floor, but his offensive growth is particularly noticeable. After knocking down a putrid 28.7 percent of his long-balls as a sophomore, he's now connecting on 38.8 percent of his deep tries while nearly doubling his attempts per game. He's become a legitimate spacing option for the Wizards, and he's even beginning to create some of these looks off the bounce.
Bradley Beal has continued to morph into an All-Star out of the backcourt. Otto Porter Jr. keeps getting better to validate his max deal, and he's frequently performed like Washington's premier player. But neither can match the growth of Oubre, who has become a two-way weapon off the bench.