In the spirit of full transparency, I’d like to preface this article with a confession: Pascal Siakam is my favourite player in the NBA.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about him when commissioner Adam Silver first announced his name on draft night in 2016. But, as soon as he stepped out on the Raptors’ court for the first time, I was blown away. Within a few minutes, he had chased after a loose ball, grabbed a couple boards and showed tremendous tenacity on defense. Sure, he looked completely lost on the offensive end, as one would expect after being unexpectedly thrust into a starting role; but, Siakam’s energy was infectious. I told myself, “If this is all this guy can ever be, I’ll still be satisfied.”
Oh man, was I selling him short. Just two years later, Pascal Siakam is the second-leading scorer and most versatile defender on a 55+ win Raptors team. Naturally, as Most Improved Player (MIP) talks grew over the course of the season, I became hopeful that my favourite player would receive this award. After all, I could gush over Siakam’s play for hours.
However, I’m a basketball fan, not just a Raptors fan. As Siakam has blossomed in front of our eyes, other fan bases have rallied around their own hometown favourite for MIP. And, trying to remain as impartial as possible, I believe it’s important to do my due diligence. There are a couple of other players that have put up unprecedented numbers this season: the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox and the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell.
Don’t get me wrong — there’s certainly a benefit to watching a game live, and seeing how a player carries himself. Still, through casual viewing (a.k.a. the eye test), opinions can sometimes become muddy. Usually, fans will support their own team’s candidate. But, this idea applies to the official voting parties as well, each having his or her own set of eyes, beliefs, and team-watching preferences. Moreover, the voters rotate each year, providing even more uncertainty as to how the award gets decided. Matt Moore of The Action Network summed up the voter distribution nicely:
Looking at last year’s vote break down I’d change it.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 2, 2019
60% serious writers
30% TV folks
Seeing as it’s impossible to have watched every single Nets, Kings and Raptors game, I thought it would be helpful to investigate how the underlying numbers, from last year to this year, either bolster or hinder each player’s case for MIP. For each of the three candidates, I tabulated the percentage increase from last season to this season in most major statistical categories, finally landing on their total increase in productivity. I didn’t want to assign arbitrary values to each category (i.e. assists being worth more than rebounds), so they’re all weighted the same (which is flawed, but I’ll touch on that later).
To begin, I thought it would be helpful to pore over the per game numbers. Granted, this isn’t my favourite method to determine which player has outperformed his peers, as these stats don’t account for the discrepancies between each player’s minutes. However, they do provide a simple overview of each player’s performance, and correlate more directly with the “eye test” than deeper analysis.
Per Game Conclusions
From the above chart, it appears that Pascal’s overall season-to-season production rose more than both Fox and Russell. However, as I mentioned before, all categories are weighted equally. While the totals provide an easy overview, they unfortunately do not take logic into account. For example, each player’s blocks per game barely changed, but because they were such small numbers to begin with, even the slightest variance will cause a dramatic percentage increase or decrease, unfairly skewing the final total calculation.
Furthermore, these stats don’t account for varying team situations. Siakam has the privilege of playing alongside another adept scorer in Kawhi Leonard (as does Fox, in Buddy Hield). While the presence of an additional offensive force potentially dampens the opportunity for an MIP candidate to reach his full offensive potential (points per game, in this context), field goal percentage is a likely beneficiary. Alternatively, D’Angelo Russell is routinely counted on to provide Brooklyn’s scoring. He takes by far the most shot attempts on his team — 6.5 more than his team’s second leading scorer, Spencer Dinwiddie — and his points per game this season is, naturally, the highest of these three players. Ideally, surrounding personnel should not influence the voters’ decision as to which player improved the most. Improvements in each category are partly a result of roster changes, and should be viewed with this consideration in mind.
As well, it’s essential to distinguish which categories are the most important to each player. Russell’s rebounding may have decreased slightly, but rebounding is a far more important facet to Siakam’s game than a typical point guard. Of course, the same applies to assists for both Fox and Russell.
So, what conclusions can we draw from the per game stats? Unfortunately, not many. Sure, Pascal’s scoring and rebounding rose higher year over year than both Fox and Russell, but until we compare their per 36 numbers, it’s unclear how much of those increases are due to changes in minutes. So, let’s dive even deeper.
Per 36 Conclusions
As the chart above outlines, the Per 36 numbers for each player tell a different story. Here, Russell improved this season in almost every statistical category, and only fails to do so in blocks and rebounds, two categories that his team supplements with larger players. However, his scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage only increased marginally, while his three-point percentage increased less than both Siakam and Fox.
As we peer through these numbers, I’ve come to believe that Russell’s inclusion in the MIP conversation seems to be rooted in his team’s sudden, surprising success. After all, he led the Nets to their first postseason berth in four years. But, that argument overlooks and devalues the contributions that both Siakam and Fox have made to their respective teams. For all we know, the Raptors and the Kings could have each landed several spots lower in the standings without their own MIP candidates’ improvement.
In my opinion, Fox puts forth a far more deserving case for MIP than Russell. He improved considerably in almost every statistical category — especially assists and steals, both essential facets of a traditional guard’s game. His shooting improved, albeit less than Siakam’s, and his rebounding and blocks are up as well.
On first glance, It appears that De’Aaron Fox’s underlying production increase is equally as, if not more impressive than Siakam’s. However, there are two sides of the court, and we’ve yet to touch upon the defensive statistics and capabilities of the candidates.
Compared to last season, Siakam’s defensive net rating worsened slightly (103.5 this season, 101.6 last season), while De’Aaron Fox’s improved by a similar margin (108.1 this season, 111.1 last season). Immediately, this looks damning for Siakam’s MIP case. But, let’s take a step back and consider some context.
First, Siakam’s minutes rose from season to season by much more than Fox’s (11.3 for Siakam, 4.1 for Fox). Naturally, defense becomes more difficult when one expends extra energy on the court. Because Fox hasn’t seen a drastic minutes increase, I would have expected his defense to stay relatively stagnant. Regarding Siakam, I would have expected some sort of drop-off in defensive ability from last year, and yet this hasn’t been the case. In fact, out of all Raptors that have been playing at least 20 minutes per game for the team all year, he ranks first. Fox, on the other hand, ranks fourth amongst his teammates under the same conditions.
While Fox’s increase in defensive rating year over year is impressive, his case is slightly dampened by the fact that his overall rating is still far worse than Siakam’s. Moreover, Siakam’s versatility on the defensive end makes for a larger threat than Fox.
In terms of defensive win shares, Siakam certainly has Fox beat this year — 0.142 to 0.099. While Fox still improved significantly, up 0.053 DEF WS from last year, Siakam improved almost identically, up 0.048 DEF WS.
Upon looking at these defensive stats (though not all-encompassing), it’s clear that Siakam has been a better defender than Fox this season. However, this is a most improved player award. Year over year, Siakam’s growth as a defender is, in my opinion, nearly on par with Fox.
I truly wanted to end this article by proclaiming that Siakam’s MIP case is, hands down, stronger than his competition. After all, (a) this is a Raptors website, and (b) he’s my favourite player! Yet, it would be ignorant to ignore the outstanding growth Fox (and Russell, to a lesser extent) has seen this year.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d say that Siakam will end up with this award. Historically, voters have shied away from second-year players (Gilbert Arenas was the last sophomore to receive this award in 2003), and Siakam’s growth is practically on par with Fox’s on both ends of the floor. As well, as previously outlined, there are many media personalities with an official vote. From a fun, media-friendly narrative perspective, it makes more sense to give the award to the player whose team is in second place (and whose scoring improved by 9.7 PPG) than to a player whose team did not make the playoffs (and whose scoring improved by just 4.7 PPG). While I disagree with this line of reasoning, I believe that’s how many voters will fill in their ballot.
From my perspective, I would also vote for Siakam. Regarding offensive improvement, it’s a toss-up. But, from a defensive standpoint, my reasoning comes down to this: any given player’s overall opportunity for improvement shrinks, marginally, as he edges towards the upper-echelon of NBA talent. Simply put, the better a player gets, the more difficult it is to improve: there’s a limit to how good a player can truly be! Siakam was a better defender than Fox last year, and the same remains true this year. Even if Siakam’s defensive improvement is less than Fox’s (which isn’t necessarily true), it’s more impressive to me that his elite defense did not take a hit despite taking on many extra minutes.
I’d love to hear about some statistics I didn’t touch on (there are many), as well as other factors that affect your opinion on the topic in the comments below!