With the NBA regular season seemingly over with, due to the Covid-19 pandemic (you may have heard of it), it seems remiss of me to wait any longer before casting my votes on my imaginary NBA ballot. GIVE ME MY BALLOT, NBA! COWARDS!
As well as nominating my winner, and acknowledging those in the conversation, we’ll also go back through my preseason and mid-season predictions, so we can see just how off the mark I was (which might go someway to explaining why I don’t have a ballot. Sorry for venting, NBA).
Today, let’s have a look at those that have emerged, developed or reinvented themselves and crown our NBA 6th Man of the Year.
Most Improved Player
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Pre-season prediction: Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Mid-season prediction: Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
In the mix: Brandon Ingram, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Devonte’ Graham, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Markelle Fultz, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam, Richaun Holmes.
The NBA Most Improved Player award is perhaps the most narrative driven of all the major NBA gongs. That’s probably because it’s the most nebulous. There are so many ways that an individual can put themselves in the running for this award:
- The talented youngster coming from the clouds to be a good rotation piece (Fultz)
- The solid contributor leaping towards stardom (Adebayo, Ingram, Tatum, SGA, Siakam)
- The veteran who belatedly puts it all together (Holmes)
- The player making the most of their opportunity (Graham, Wood)
- The rarely seen 2nd year star becomes an MVP candidate (Doncic)
This is an especially difficult award to hand out, given both the variety of ways that our contenders put themselves in the running and, quite simply, the astounding talent that is in the mix for Most Improved. To give you an idea of how deep this field is, I had to lop Bucks pair Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middelton from the long list – I’m sure they’ll survive. Giannis is up for a few more trinkets before this award series is done.
In most seasons all of these players have a legitimate claim to this award, but this year there is a cleat top tier : Brandon Ingram, Luka Doncic, Pascal Siakam and Bam Adebayo.
Ingram and Siakam have stepped out of the spotlight of superstar former teammates (albeit in extremely different circumstances) and into their own, becoming legitimate upper echelon basketballers.
Siakam was fortunate enough to sit at the alter of the best two way player in the world last season and he certainly took note of Father Leonard’s sermons. The 4th year forward is of course last seasons winner of the NBA Most Improved player. No player has won this award twice, let alone back to back. That alone show the meteoric rise of the Cameroonian over the past few seasons. After more than doubling his scoring average last campaign, he made the arguably more difficult step of becoming a #1 option this time around.
You could forgive Siakam if he experienced growing pains in adapting to the role, yet from the opening game of the season – hanging 34 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists on the Pelicans – Siakam took to his new role like a fish to water. He averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 boards and 3.5 assists and proved his shooting from last season wasn’t a fluke by dropping 2.2 three pointers at 35.9% and shooting an even 80% from the charity stripe. He did all this, whilst maintaining his stellar defense and leading the Raptors to a surprising 2nd seed in the East.
Ingram’s chance to shine was a touch more circuitous. After three years of flattering to deceive in Los Angeles, Ingram was the headliner in the package New Orleans received in the Anthony Davis trade. Even out of the glare of Lakerland, questions remained: Was Ingram going to be the featured man in New Orleans? After all, he was still playing with former All Star Jrue Holiday and some kid named Zion. Good fortune struck for Ingram – although he’ll never admit it for obvious reasons – in Williamson’s knee injury, giving him the chance to be the main man. He didn’t disappoint.
Like Siakam, Ingram jumped out of the gate, giving his team close to 26 points, 7.5 boards and 4 assist per game through October and November. He was able to just about maintain those numbers through to the All Star break, where he made his debut in the mid season showcase. Post All Star his numbers did dip a little as he made space for Zion’s considerable shadow., although he still put up 23-7-6 per 36 minutes when he shared the floor with the rookie phenomenon. A stellar season – Brandon Ingram has finally proven the doubters wrong.
Luka Doncic can count himself extremely unlucky not to win this award, though given he’s a lock for a top 5 MVP finish, he’ll probably cope. Given his MVP contender status, the question has been asked: is Doncic truly eligible for this award? Of course he is! I won’t penalise someone simply because their floor is higher than the other contenders.
Doncic is indeed, at the ripe old age of 21, one of the best handful of basketballers in the world. Not only has the Slovenian marvel put up some incredible counting stats (28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.1 steals), he has led his Dallas Mavericks to a league leading 116.7 offensive rating. The difference between the Mavs and 2nd place Rockets is the same margin as the Rox to the 15th placed Pelicans. This offense is simply historic: per Basketball Reference, this is the highest offensive rating in the history of the league. For sure, there is talent around him, but Luka is the catalyst.
There were some very noticeable advances to Doncic’s game this season. His left had dribble was relatively loose last season – that was improved. Doncic came into the NBA in less than ideal shape. He’s still not in elite condition by any means, but he was certainly fitter this season. Imagine what havoc a properly condition Doncic could unleash! Luka went toe to toe with the best this season, truly establishing himself amongst the best in the world.
Yet, it has to be acknowledged that this is where we expected Doncic to be – amongst the very best – even if it has happened earlier than anybody could have reasonably expected. Luka, whilst ahead of the curve, is what we expected him to be. That reason, and that reason alone is why Doncic isn’t our Most Improved winner.
That honour goes to Bam Adebayo. He was my pick in the preseason, and my pick at mid-season. He’s done enough to carry his bat and win our end of season NBA Most Improved Player award.
Whilst Adebayo’s ascension is partly down to the opportunity afforded him by the team moving on from Hassan Whiteside, Bam has more than made the most of his chance. He came into the league as an athletic hustler and despite being afforded greater status, he hasn’t forgotten that.
Bam has demonstrated his considerable defensive abilities throughout his short NBA career. He’s an imposing shot blocker, ranking inside the top 20 in block percentage. He ranked behind only Anthony Davis in steals amongst power forwards and centres. He’s a top 10 rebounder in the league. He’s also perfectly capable of sticking with the good and great of the elite perimeter scorers.
He’s turned himself into a premier roll man, ideally suited to finishing off the bullocking play making of Jimmy Butler or the crafty screen use of Goran Dragic.
But where Bam has really excelled is the rounding out of his offensive game. His vastly improved ball handling and footwork, aligned with his excellent natural vision, has made mad Adebayo an elite play making centre – perhaps the best East of Jokic. – able to create easy buckets for himself and his teammates.
He’s yet to make a shot from deep in an NBA game, but the potential is there.
The first time All Star has averaged 16.2 points, 10.5 boards, 5.1 assists (behind only Jokic & Giannis amongst bigs), 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals. He’s an all-round menace at both ends of the floor. He’s our Most Improved Player. He’s Bam Adebayo.