Most Improved Player is a bit of a misnomer. The award almost never goes to the player who improves the most in a given season. Rather, it goes to the player who improves in a specific way. This is, in essence, the first-time All-Star award. There are 11 players currently on NBA rosters that have won the award, and 10 of them did so as first-time All-Stars. The 11th, C.J. McCollum, missed out only because of the notoriously crowded group of Western Conference guards ahead of him.
The debate plays out similarly almost every year. There is always a candidate like Devonte' Graham, Jordan Poole or Bol Bol who emerges out of nowhere to become a solid, starting-caliber player only to lose out to the first-time All-Star du jour. Of course, we aren't here to discuss who should win these awards, but rather, who actually could. So here are a few trends to keep an eye on as we dive into the odds for the NBA's Most Improved Player award:
- Only one second-year player (Monta Ellis in 2007) has won this award in the 21st century. However, third-year players have won six of the past 13 awards, and fourth-year players won three of the remaining seven. In addition, 15 of the past 16 winners have been former first-round picks. This paints a pretty straightforward picture: most of the time, this award goes to a former first-round pick on the back half of a rookie-scale contract.
- Victor Oladipo, Brandon Ingram and Lauri Markkanen have recently won the award in their first year on a new team, and Julius Randle won it in his second year on a new team. The easiest way for a player to improve is often to land on a team better suited for his skill set (or simply more willing to give him the ball).
- Eight of the past 11 winners were on playoff teams. The three that weren't included two players on teams that vastly outperformed their preseason expectations (Goran Dragic on the 2014 Suns and Markkanen on last season's Jazz) while the third (Ingram) was on a team that struggled to stay healthy. It's not impossible to win this award on a bad team, but remember, bad teams rarely produce All-Stars and this is the first-time All-Star award.
So with that in mind, here are Sam Quinn and Ameer Tyree's favorite preseason bets for the Most Improved Player award:
All odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook
Players listed here have odds no longer than +1500
Quinn: I'll begin by saying that I'm generally not crazy about any of the favorites in this year's field, but if forced to make a pick, Mikal Bridges (+700) is the obvious candidate. He averaged over 26 points per game following his midseason trade to Brooklyn and followed that up with a strong showing at the World Cup playing for Team USA. The Nets aren't exactly world-beaters, but they went 12-14 with Bridges in the lineup last season. Assume even modest improvement with a full training camp under their belt and the Nets have a roster that should at least reach .500. Yes, Bridges is older than most winners, but Julius Randle won in his sixth season, and we've already seen the growth out of Bridges an award winner needs. It just hasn't come across an entire season. If he maintains his pace as a Net from last season, he's a shoo-in first-time All-Star.
Cade Cunningham (+750) is entering his third season, but after missing most of his second, it's fair to wonder if he might compete with the same bias that works against typical sophomores. Still, he drew rave reviews as a member of Team USA's Select Team over the summer, and the improvement he displayed during his rookie season was staggering. His scoring jumped from roughly 15 points in his first 20 NBA games to over 21 in the last 20 of his rookie season. The Pistons have finally put some shooting around him with Joe Harris and Bojan Bogdanovic in place, and Monty Williams is a significant coaching improvement. If you expect Detroit to compete for a play-in spot, Cunningham is probably the reason why they'll do so. That makes him a viable candidate.
Tyree: Tyrese Maxey (+700) has long been viewed as a young player on the verge of a major breakout season, but he's yet to become a top-five vote-getter for the MIP award. His scoring average has risen from 8.0 points to 20.3 points through three NBA seasons despite the addition of James Harden, who is trying his best to find a way out of Philly. A Harden holdout could help Maxey's chances tremendously, as the Kentucky product averaged 24.8 points, 5.4 assists, and 3.8 rebounds on excellent shooting splits through 13 games without his regular backcourt partner this year. If it appears like Harden will refuse to play for the 76ers, my money's on Maxey.
Cunningham became a forgotten man following the season-ending leg injury that limited him to 12 games last year. But his hype train is gaining steam after a strong run against Team USA in scrimmages leading up to the FIBA World Cup. The top pick from the 2021 NBA Draft still has jumps to make after posting 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. A healthy third year should put him right in the mix. While Bridges is among the favorites, I'm not very high on the Nets forward. I won't be surprised if he matches last season's averages after his 27-game run as the Nets' first option last season, and neither will others. He has All-Star potential in his current role and showed that he could carry Team USA at times during the FIBA World Cup. Bridges could be a contender if he cracks an All-NBA team out of nowhere like Julius Randle did in his MIP season, but I believe bettors should focus on the players mentioned before him.
The Middle of the Pack
Players listed here have odds between +1501 and +3000
Quinn: The Rockets scored 7.6 more points per 100 possessions with Alperen Sengun (+1600) on the floor last season. Of course, they couldn't take advantage of his offensive gifts because they were, quite frankly, a disorganized mess. In a single offseason, Houston may have swapped the NBA's lesser head coaches (Stephen Silas) and starting point guard (Kevin Porter Jr.) with above-average replacements in Ime Udoka and Fred VanVleet. The latter is about as low-maintenance a point guard as exists in the modern NBA. Unlike Porter, VanVleet won't monopolize the ball.
There is room for another offensive engine to emerge in Houston, and last season's offense was at its best when that engine was Sengun. It typically takes teams a few years to recognize that it even has a big man capable of holding such a role. Neither Nikola Jokic nor Domantas Sabonis reached an All-Star Game until their fourth seasons. On a per-minute basis, Sengun's second-year numbers were slightly better than Sabonis' and were slightly worse than Jokic's.
2016-17 Nikola Jokic
2017-18 Domantas Sabonis
2022-23 Alperen Sengun
Points per 36
Rebounds per 36
Assists per 36
True shooting percentage
Comparing anyone to Jokic is practically sacrilege, but Sengun shares stylistic similarities with both All-Star centers and is further along at this stage than Sabonis was. If he gets the opportunity to serve as an offensive hub, he's going to thrive.
Franz Wagner (+3000) has a more well-rounded argument. Paolo Banchero will be Orlando's primary scorer, but the Magic run a fairly egalitarian offense. Banchero ranked 36th in the NBA in usage last season, and no other member of the roster ranked in the top 90. There's plenty of room here for a jump in volume, and Wagner has already proven capable of thriving with more shots. He averaged 21 points per game in November and December last season but dipped back into the teens simply by taking fewer shots the rest of the way. Fortunately, scoring isn't his only weapon. He does a little of everything, and his all-around game was on full display as Germany won the World Cup. Dennis Schröder was that team's primary ball-handler, but Wagner was that team's best player. If he can maintain a similar partnership with Banchero on an ascending Magic team, he'll make a compelling case for his first All-Star nod.
Tyree: Evan Mobley (+2000) made the NBA's All-Defensive First Team as a sophomore while nearly averaging a double-double with 16.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest. He's already established himself as one of the league's most versatile stoppers, and there's plenty of room for him to boost his scoring numbers given Cleveland's limited frontcourt depth. It'll be hard to overlook him if he climbs the Defensive Player of the Year ladder while flirting with 20.0 points per game in his third NBA season.
I expect the Oklahoma City Thunder to be a playoff team this season and that should help Josh Giddey (+2200) get the attention he deserves. The do-it-all Australian swingman stuffed the sat sheet nightly despite playing alongside an All-NBA First Team point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Giddey was one of four players to average at least 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game last season. The other three were Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and Domantas Sabonis. All three of those international players were All-Stars in 2022-23. OKC has a lot of young mouths to feed, but I can't see any of them slowing down Giddey's progression.
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The Long shots
Players listed here have odds of at least +3001
Quinn: Obi Toppin (+4000) has one of the most clear cases on the board. He has averaged nearly 21 points per game as a starter... but has only started 15 games in his career. Tom Thibodeau barely played him in three seasons in New York, and even when he did, it came within his slow, isolation-heavy offense. Now Toppin, one of the best transition bigs in the NBA, is going from the NBA's fifth-slowest team to its fifth-fastest. He'll presumably start alongside Tyrese Haliburton, a point guard designed in a lab to throw him lobs. Myles Turner is his ideal frontcourt partner as a defender and shooter. This roster was tailor-made to turn Toppin into his best self. If there's an All-Star in there, we'll see it in Indiana.
Derrick White (+4000) is a tougher sell as a future All-Star, but it's worth noting that he played far better basketball without Marcus Smart last season. In 21 games without Smart, he averaged 15.4 points and 5.1 assists on 47/40/89 shooting. With Smart, those numbers fell to 11.4 points and 3.5 assists on 46/37/87 shooting. White would need another jump on top of that to meaningfully enter this race, but remember, Malcolm Brogdon is coming off of a serious injury as well which should provide White with plenty of opportunities. White is the only proven guard in this backcourt. He is going to play a lot on a team with excellent spacing and far bigger names to draw the defense's attention. He probably won't be an All-Star, but there is a world in which he draws meaningful consideration on a No. 1 seed while competing for All-Defense honors. That's a viable candidate for the price here.
Tyree: I have to put White at the very top of my longs-hot list. The Boston Celtics point guard was an All-Defensive Second Team member despite playing alongside Smart. He's an undisputed day-one starter and will get plenty of media attention with a revamped team that's equipped to make a deep run in the 2024 NBA Playoffs. The only other long-shot player I'm considering at the moment is Jaden McDaniels (+4000). The Minnesota Timberwolves wing is entering a contract year and was the only player in the NBA with at least 75 blocks and 70 steals last season. He posted a career-high 12.1 points per game last season and sank 39.8% of his long-range attempts. McDaniels received the sixth-most All-Defensive votes last season and his full skill set could be flashed in 2023-24.