30 Games In: Who Is The NBA’s Most Improved Player?

30 Games In: Who Is The NBA’s Most Improved Player?

With roughly one third of the season behind us, several names have begun to emerge as potential nominees for “Most Improved Player”. As Sports Illustrated pointed out: “The criteria for this award is anyone’s guess, but given the last three winners – Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler – it appears we’re setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD.”

By those standards, Victor Oladipo seems to have one of the best cases for winning “Most Improved Player”. His stats make that abundantly clear [via NBA.com]:
Oladipo is performing at an all-star level; however, knee issues currently have him sidelined. There’s currently no way of knowing how that will affect him season moving forward, so let’s look at some of the other candidates.
Tim Hardaway Jr and Aaron Gordon are some other names that fit the Sports Illustrated model, but there is also a less obvious candidate ascending through the ranks.
Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls is having a career year. For those who don’t know his backstory: Mirotic spent six years playing for Real Madrid, during which time he was a two-time EuroLeague Rising Star and a Spanish League MVP. Unfortunately, he had limited success after coming to the NBA in 2014.
While Mirotic had a good rookie season, he seemed to disappear during his second and third years in the league. The Bulls developed a perpetual logjam at the power forward position and the 6’10” Montenegrin found himself consistently stuck behind Taj Gibson.
As part of a system that showcased ball dominant players like Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, Mirotic unable to live up to his perceived potential. Trade rumors dogged consistently. During this time, fans described his offense as “terribly inconsistent”, and Mark Karantzoulis claimed his defense mostly “ball watching” and losing touch of his man.
On top of that, Mirotic seemed to have terrible luck. His 2016 season was cut short by an unexpected appendectomy. Worse still, the operation was botched and required a second emergency surgery to fix it.
Then, in 2016-17, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade publicly accused Nikola, and others on the team, of not caring whether their team lost games. After that, Mirotic fell out of the rotation. The Bulls were eventually knocked out of the playoff in the first round.
The Bulls moved on from both Butler and Wade, but re-signed Mirotic. It seemed like Niko would finally get a chance to shine; but, just as this season was about to start, he was injured during a physical confrontation with teammate Bobby Portis. Mirotic had maxillary fractures and a concussion that kept him off the court until early December… That’s when everything changed.

In their first seven weeks, without Niko, the Bulls had a record of 3 wins and 20 losses. After his return, the team went a perfect 7 for 7. Niko averaged 19.6 points a game on 52% shooting. In fact, the whole team seems to be playing better now that he’s back. And, if his comments to the press are any indication, Niko seems to be taking on a leadership role within the team:

“I think we have a lot of talent and a lot of young guys who are playing amazing. What everyone has to expect from us and what we need to do each night is give our best. At least that’s what we can do. These last eight games, we’ve been playing way better on both sides, offensively and defensively. I think we’re going to continue to grow as a group and build from this moment.”

Coach Hoiberg seems to have confirmed Niko’s new role in his recent comments to reporters:

“You see our bench really rallying behind him when he’s out there making plays. You see the guys on the floor celebrating together when he makes the big plays. … Niko’s been in pressure situations a lot over the course of his basketball life. And it’s great to have an experienced player out there with our young guys to help close some of the close ones. I give Niko a lot of credit; he’s been awesome, especially since he’s been back in the lineup. When you’ve got guys out there playing with confidence, that rubs off on the whole team.”

While the team’s performance has dipped a little since those first seven games, Niko’s still playing at an elevated level. If you look at his stats, you’ll see a marked improvement in the majority of the column:
He’s score 21+ points in 7 of his last 14 games. If he can keep up that level of play, I believe Mirotic could easily find himself in serious contention for the “Most Improved Player” award.