The case for Matthew Dellavedova's Most Improved Player candidacy
And... Matthew Dellavedova?
Could Dellavedova truly join some of those starry names as a winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player (MIP) award this season?
Without exception, all of those players have gone on to become All-Star caliber talents in the NBA.
But for every surefire two-way stud unearthed throughout the history of the award, a long list of NBA journeymen dot the landscape of past winners. Names such as Hedo Turkoglu, Bobby Simmons, Aaron Brooks and Boris Diaw represent more mediocrity than individual excellence. It’s clear that winning the MIP alone is not necessarily a roadmap towards stardom. Still, those players have had long NBA careers.
On the right team, they have flourished as complementary pieces. People forget that Hedo Turkoglu was Orlando’s second best player, and crunch-time scorer, in that 2009 Finals run with the Magic. Equally, Boris Diaw allowed the Spurs to go all-out “medium ball” in their disembowelment of the Heat in the 2014 Finals.
The point here is that career arcs can take many shapes and forms. What the MIP award has managed to do is showcase and award quality NBA players – whether they take that next step or not comes down to many factors; their overall talent level, roster context, calibre of team, quality of coaching, and motivation of the player matters. You don’t have to be a well-known name, or an established brand, to win the damn thing.
And what do you know, the criteria of the award itself is somewhat vague!
How does the NBA describe the Most Improved Player award?
"This award is designed to honor an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons. It is not intended to be given to a player who has made a 'comeback.' Please vote for three players. Five points will be awarded for a first place vote, three for second and one for third.”
That description on the MIP ballot paper purports relative ambiguity, which has always made defining the award a rather tricky exercise. How you define “dramatic improvement” is a completely subjective thing. On the most simplistic level, the award has historically been awarded to the player who sported a dramatic and unexpected rise in scoring average.
Chart through the last 15 winners of the MIP award and you’ll find that they all sported higher per game scoring averages. Naturally, that uptick in scoring blends with an increase in minutes played – it’s very much a symbiotic relationship. Complement that scoring with comparative efficiency, and bam, there’s your winner right there.
Much like other subjective awards, such as the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year titles, the ultimate winner of the MIP award has gained traction through national narratives that permeate basketball conversations. Cycle through enough angles, manoeuvre enough statistics, and you can make a case for a half dozen worthy candidates every season.
That brings us to Matthew Dellavedova.
After going undrafted in 2013, Dellavedova was plucked from the backwaters of the NBA Summer League, and ultimately snagged an end-of-the-bench spot in Mike Brown’s return to Cleveland. And despite an ungainly playing style that has drawn criticism across the league (by the way, the strongly-worded Andrew Bogut response was gold), Dellavedova has been a survivor, and even bedded down a rotation spot with Cleveland, despite the roster churn, and the merry-go-round coaching upheaval that has enveloped the organisation.
That Dellavedova is having the best statistical season of his fledgling NBA career certainly helps. His scoring and efficiency are up, and for once, the numbers back up the narrative that he is a pit-bull as a defender. Simply put, the Cavs have outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions in the 1000-plus total minutes that he has been on the court.
So, would someone like Matthew Dellavedova be able to shoehorn himself into the MIP conversation, particularly if he continues his fine form into the second half of the season?
Let’s examine his case.
By the Numbers
Looking into the stats of the winners of the MIP award over the past 15 seasons reveals some interesting kernels of insights into what influences the voters.
The table below displays the minutes-per-game average, points-per-game, field goal percentage, and usage rates of each MIP winners' campaign. You will also notice there is an additional +/- column to the right of each statistic. That +/- column defines the point improvement (or drop-off) from the previous season, before they won the award.
For example, Jimmy Butler's points per game (PTS) increased by 6.9 points from his previous season. Similarly, Goran Dragic's field goal percentage rose by 6.2% during his MIP season.
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Without exception, the eventual winner of the award upped their scoring output, along with usage of the basketball over their previous campaign. Naturally, that meant greater minutes played (duh, you play more if you’re contributing) for all except Jimmy Butler, who remains the outlier in the group (thanks, Thibs!).
It's almost without exception, that magical blend of greater volume was met with an increased scoring efficiency. Only Paul George, Zach Randoph and Gilbert Arenas recorded lower field goal percentages in their MIP campaigns, in comparison to their previous season's performance.
Moreover, almost all the winners of the award sported usage rates above the 20 mark, a figure you would expect from an up-and-coming offensive option. Only Boris Diaw's figure was below that threshold, at 17.9, but not entirely surprising when you consider the context – he played alongside an historically great point guard in Steve Nash, and a transcendent wing in Shawn Marion, both more likely to control the offense.
Those kernels of insights help us to contextualize the candidacy of Matthew Dellavedova, who has seen his minutes, points, usage, and importantly, efficiency, rise in lockstep. He currently sports a career-high in PER, and sits ninth across the league in 3-point percentage at 43 percent, another career-high.
Perhaps his greatest historical MIP comparison would be Boris Diaw. Diaw was another below average usage player, who, like Dellavedova, capitalized on the spacing afforded to him thanks to the attention drawn by his historically great teammates.
Dellavedova's usage rate is relatively low. It screams role player and might harm his overall chances, but we’ve already laid out the context that this award isn’t a roadmap for future stardom, and it’s fine to reward role players, particularly if the recipient displays dramatic improvement that doesn’t always bear out in individual numbers.
Dellavedova’s on/off court numbers continue to paint the picture that he’s a very impactful player for this Cavs team, something that was not always evident in his first two seasons in the league. The Cavs take more of the most profitable shots in the game when he’s on the court – 3-pointers, and shots within the restricted area. And did I already mention that they outscore opponents by freaking 11.1 points per 100 possessions in over 1,000 minutes of court time, with Dellavedova in the game?
That’s no mean feat when you consider that his direct competitor within the rotation, a certain Mo Williams whom many pundits assumed would be Cleveland's back up point guard at the start of the season, has been a net negative for Cleveland, in over 600 minutes of court time this season.
Of course, basketball is a team sport in which you have four other teammates on court, at any given point in time. It’s almost impossible to decipher through all the noise and pare back all the interwined layers to reveal an individual’s true value. After all, this is a 5-man game in which each player acts as a cog within a machine with constantly moving parts. Every action by a single player has the capacity to impact another. How exactly do you decipher through all that?
And isn’t that sort of the point? How you interact with your teammates on the court, how you add value to their play, which in turn cranks the machine up - that is what truly matters on a basketball team.
Most Cleveland 5-man lineups featuring Matthew Dellavedova outscore opponents. You can make a compelling case that Dellavedova deserves to be in the MIP conversation based on team success. But let’s take a look into his individual improvements as well.
Dellavedova only really shoots from one area of the floor.
~Courtesy of Point After
Despite being a one-trick-pony, he’s still punking fools from above the break who dare to go way under the screen.
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To be honest, that’s kind of inexcusable when you consider that he’s shooting the long ball at a 43 per cent clip, ninth in the league, for players who qualify.
“We’re lucky enough to have a lot of coaches at the Cavs, so one person will be passing while another one is contesting your shot”, says Dellavedova when asked recently by Australian media on his newfound proficiency. “That really helps me getting used to shooting with a hand in the face or someone flying out at you.”
He’s also developed a nifty in-between game that he pulls out every now and then, you know, for when dudes drop back and cede space for his fearsome drives.
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I’m kidding, of course.
Still, any sighting of Dellavedova drives is an adventure in itself. He doesn’t so much as drive, but plod into the lane, and with his right hand either lob the ball up for a teammate, or throw up a runner that has no chance.
[gfycat data_id="ComfortableCarefreeAmoeba" data_expand=true]
That he’s been able to fashion an improved offensive game around his athletic limitations is something to behold.
There really never was much historical evident to suggest that Dellavedova was an above average defender. He currently tops out at 18th in the league for point guards in Defensive Real Plus Minus.
Still, watching him play defense kind of gives us weekend hacks some pride. Dellavedova isn’t equipped with the wheels to slide with the waterbug point guards, the long arms to hound passing lanes and bother shooters, nor the jumping ability to nab rebounds and you know, generally do athletic things.
And that forms part of the joy of watching him flat-out try. Just putting in effort is sometimes a step too far for some NBA players with far more talent. Dellavedova maximises what gifts he has. Don’t let his athletic limitations, and the lazy “dirty player” narratives fool you – he’s a heady defender who understands angles, team principles, and is mostly on point with his rotations.
Watch him hound Russell Westbrook on this side pick-and-roll.
See how he reads and reacts to the Cavs’ coverage and bumps Karl-Anthony Towns at the right moment, and finishes off the defensive possession with the successful box-out.
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He also understands his own strengths, literally. Dellavedova is a big point guard, and he’s not afraid to throw his body around for the betterment of his team.
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Those dirty narratives are mostly misguided. What matters is that the numbers, and the eye test, show improvement, a willingness to actually defend and play both sides of the ball, and that should be factored into the equation for his MIP candidacy.
Making Teammates Better
I’ve previously covered the overall impact of Dellavedova’s game, and how the ball just zings better when he’s on the court. He currently leads the team in passes per game and hockey assists, markers of a team-first ethos.
When Dellavedova is on the court, the Cavs’ assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio spikes at rates even higher than compared with LeBron James’ on/off court differentials, underscoring his value as a playmaker off the bench. It’s these sorts of numbers that won’t necessarily appear in the nightly box score, but factors that should be considered when assessing a player’s MIP candidacy.
A player that improves, when assessed in a vacuum, is meaningless within the context of a team sport. What should be more pertinent is how that player’s improvement directly affects their team's success, their team's improvement. Dellavedova’s individual statistics may not necessarily measure up to those of previous winners, but his overall value and overall improvement, in lockstep with team success, should matter.
This is when reality sets in.
There are a host of other worthy MIP candidates this season, and any one of these names below could win without any argument from me.
CJ McCollum probably remains the favourite due to his dramatic (there’s that word again!) spike in scoring. The Blazers are a net negative across the season when McCollum hits the pine. That he’s been able to tag team with Damian Lillard to keep Portland on the Western Conference playoff fringes, says as much about the surprising state of the West, as well as his improving ability.
Similarly, Will Barton is having a stellar season as a bench spark-plug for the hapless Nuggets. Barton’s come back to the mean, after a scorching month of December averaging 20.8 points-per-game, and anchoring a Nuggets’ bench that ranked 2nd in the league in offensive efficiency during that span.
Zaza Pachulia nearly made it to the bloody All-Star game (!), and he gives the Mavs some subtle nuances on offense – clever passing, a pillow-soft elbow jumper – never before seen in Dallas, at the center position. The Mavs are also a catastrophe on defense whenever he sits, ranking at Sixers’ level on defense and a bottom-10 team in defensive rebounding.
Two-way wings, such as Jae Crowder and Kent Bazemore will also enter into the MIP debate. Who would have thought Crowder would have such an outstanding campaign, on both sides of the ball, coming into the season? And Kent Bazemore has fitted in beautifully at the Hawks, replacing DeMarre Carroll’s production with energy and verve.
You could throw in Ish Smith and Evan Fournier into the mix as well, although the former would need evidence of more prolonged production, whilst the latter has struggled of late.
In case you’re wondering, all of these players, apart from Bazemore and Pachulia, have seen their scoring averages spike this season. In the case of Pachulia, his rebounding numbers have ballooned, whilst Bazemore is scoring at career-best efficiency. Again, we come back to the case of how important raw numbers really are in determining the award winner.
Conversely, how important is winning? How important is individual sacrifice?
It’s that age-old question in the NBA again of how much a player’s context matters. Should a player be penalised for contributing in other ways, besides scoring? How important is their overall body of work? Equally, why should a player be penalised for sacrifice in the name of winning?
On a recent ESPN telecast of the Spurs/Rockets game at the AT&T Center, Jeff Van Gundy lamented on-air the absolute focus on raw numbers when assessing the All Star candidacy of LaMarcus Aldridge.
“Just because a guy doesn’t play as much and shares the limelight, we shouldn’t penalise sacrifice, we should praise sacrifice,” Van Gundy said to Mark Jones. “This is not a numbers game, going to the highest number; it goes into who impacts winning.”
And that’s precisely the point.
How do you differentiate each candidate’s merits from all the noise? What exactly is the MIP award a celebration of, if we are purely focused on the numbers?
Those are tough questions, and likely why such awards are so subjective in nature. Still, if we assess such awards as an extension of how that fits within a team context and team success, Matthew Dellavedova belongs in the MIP conversation.