The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is perhaps the league’s worst-named honor. Let’s take a gander at the numbers posted by the last six winners in the season prior to winning the award.
Aside from Siakam, the five other winners were already full-time starters that averaged 15 or more points per game before winning this award. Many of them fended off contenders with far more modest backgrounds. Jordan Poole finished fourth a year ago despite rising from G-Leaguer to third-leading scorer on the champion. Devonte’ Graham nearly quadrupled his scoring output a few years ago. It didn’t matter. This award doesn’t honor the player who improves most. It honors the player who improves in a very specific way.
In short, this is the first-time All-Star award. Of the 11 active players to have won it, nine did so in their first All-Star season, and a 10th, Goran Dragic, missed the All-Star Game only to earn an All-NBA selection months later. The only exception to this rule was CJ McCollum, and in fairness to him, here were the 2016 guards selected to the Western Conference All-Star Team: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and Kobe Bryant. The first three were MVPs. The next two were All-Star staples. Bryant was a fan vote in his final season. There wasn’t exactly room for newcomers.
In a sense, that makes this a fairly simple award to bet on. Figure out who you think is ready to become a first-time All-Star and back that player. While this is hardly an exact science, there’s typically a fairly straightforward formula here:
- Points and touches are the most important thing here. If a player finds himself on a new roster more willing to give him the ball, bet on him. If a player’s own team has offloaded its veteran guards, bet on him.
- Ideally, you want to be on a half-decent team. This trend has been a bit more recent, as players like Kevin Love and Danny Granger have won it from the lottery, but remember, media voters tend to weigh team performance into All-Star selections.
- Keep defense in the back of your mind. Antetokounmpo and Oladipo made All-Defensive teams while winning this award. Siakam and Randle were key parts of top-five defenses. This is more of a tiebreaker, but remember, D’Angelo Russell lost out to Siakam and Nikola Jokic lost out to Antetokounmpo.
Before we dive into this year’s candidates, here are two more notes to keep in mind:
- Second-year players don’t win this award. Monta Ellis is the only player to do it this century. Third-year players, on the other hand, are frequent winners. Six of the past 12 winners have been in their third season. Voters simply don’t like rewarding rookie improvement.
- Awards are frequently said to be “narrative” driven, but this is the one where it tends to happen most, and earliest. I personally about Randle as a candidate after his seventh game in 2021. I doubt I was the first writer to do so, and the award was wrapped up soon after. Poole averaged 25 points per game in Golden State’s final 20 contests. Morant spent most of that time sitting out with an injury. It didn’t matter. Voters had settled on Morant long ago. From this perspective, the time to bet this award is usually a week or two into the season. You’ll know who the two or three candidates are, and even though you’re sacrificing odds, you’re improving your chances of winning exponentially. When was the last time we saw a genuine upset in the Most Improved Player race? It doesn’t happen. We know who’s going to win it before any other award.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at this year’s market. We’ll divide the pool into three groups based on their odds.
*All odds via Caesars Sportsbook
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Two players stand out as early favorites here, and both are reasonable bets for different reasons. Anthony Edwards leads the pack at +1100, and Tyrese Haliburton isn’t far behind at +1200. I’ve already placed a small wager on Edwards, and while I don’t plan to bet Haliburton now, ask me again a week into the season and I might have changed my mind.
The path for Edwards is relatively straightforward. He ended the regular season on an extremely high note, jumping from 21 points per game in his first 60 games to more than 24 in his last 11, excluding a meaningless finale against Chicago. He followed that up by topping 25 points per game in the playoffs, and with Rudy Gobert joining the team, they’ll surely be back there next season. Yet Gobert’s presence also creates Edwards’ biggest obstacle. Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns are incumbent All-Stars. That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll make it again, but it’s fairly rare for teams to get three All-Star selections unless it’s a top seed. Minnesota might be, but there’s a chance Edwards gets squeezed out by his own teammates. Speaking of which, while the Timberwolves clearly seem ready to hand the offense to Edwards, they’ve thus far been unable to trade D’Angelo Russell. If they find a taker? Edwards becomes far likelier to win this thing as a de-facto point guard.
Haliburton isn’t just Indiana’s point guard. With Malcolm Brogdon gone and Caris LeVert gone, he’s pretty much their last ball-handler. His scoring jumped by more than three points per game after joining the Pacers last season, and at 9.6 assists per game with the Pacers, he would’ve ranked fourth in the NBA if he’d done that over the full season. The fear of a full-on tank in Indiana is problematic here, especially if the Pacers decide to trade Buddy Hield and/or Myles Turner to the Lakers, but there’s a solid on-paper case here if you assume the Pacers will be good enough to keep Haliburton in the All-Star race.
This isn’t an award that tends to be kind to preseason favorites. If you’re going to take one, be ready to hedge it early. But the odds for both are warranted. If you’re excited about either, they’re reasonable preseason bets.
The middle of the market
The drop-off from Haliburton and Edwards to the next group of candidates is enormous. Everyone between the two favorites and 25-to-1 has major red flags.
- RJ Barrett (+1800) and Jalen Brunson (+1800) cancel one another out, and both will lose shots and touches by playing next to Julius Randle and potentially Donovan Mitchell.
- Cade Cunningham (+1800) and Jalen Green (+2200) are in their second season.
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+2000) is playing on a tanker. We’ll get to a few tanking players I like a bit later, so that in itself is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but there’s just no overriding reason to believe this year will be any different than previous seasons in Oklahoma City. If anything, Josh Giddey taking on a bigger ball-handling role likely hurts Gilgeous-Alexander’s case. The spacing is still terrible. The odds of a mysterious injury knocking him out in February are still too high.
- Zion Williamson (+2500) and LaMelo Ball (+2500) have both already made All-Star Games. Unless you expect them to jump into the MVP race, they’re probably too good already.
- Anfernee Simons, Tyrese Maxey and Michael Porter Jr. are all +2500. Simons finished eighth in the voting last season. Maxey finished sixth. Porter finished third in 2021. This doesn’t preclude any of them from winning as first-time All-Stars, but the bar is higher here. Voters have already credited them with some improvement.
- Jordan Poole (+2200) won’t open the season as a starter. He might deserve to be in the conversation on merit, but he’s just going to have too much trouble swaying voters from the bench.
I have no plans to place preseason bets on any of those players. If we cap this group at 50-to-1, there are a few players I’m keeping a closer eye on.
Dejounte Murray nearly won this award as a first-time All-Star in San Antonio last season. Before the season, I bet on Keldon Johnson expecting that leap to come from him. Now that Murray is gone, it almost has to come from him. The Spurs don’t have a starting point guard right now. I’m not exaggerating. Look at their roster. The only player to have started games at point guard last season was Tre Jones… who averaged six points per game. This roster is begging for someone to soak up possessions. Johnson averaged 15 points per game in his first 44 outings last season, but jumped to 20.2 in his last 30. At +3000, there’s value here if you’re willing to overlook San Antonio’s egregious tanking.
My pick to win the award a season ago was OG Anunoby, and at +4000, much of the same logic still applies. The Raptors are better than any team in the NBA at turning their wings into ball-handlers. Anunoby’s scoring has risen steadily each year of his career and was it not for injuries, he might be a two-time All-Defense selection right now. If he stays healthy, continues to grow as a ball-handler like Siakam once did and remains the stellar defender he’s always been, he has a chance to make his first All-Star Team on a fairly competitive Raptors roster. If Scottie Barnes wasn’t here, my bet would be a lot bigger.
The long shots
Something to keep in mind on long shots is that you aren’t necessarily looking for winners here. You’re looking for cashout value. If your book lets you cash out bets, there are plenty of lower-end players who stand to improve on circumstance alone that should see their odds change significantly early in the season.
A long shot bet I’ve already made in that vein is Talen Horton-Tucker at +6000. He’s not going to win the award partially because he can’t shoot and partially because the Jazz are almost certain to tank this season. But let’s say they trade Donovan Mitchell to the Knicks and proceed to sell off their remaining veterans of note. A bad team is exactly what Horton-Tucker needs. He thrived in Los Angeles when the Lakers let him handle the ball. Russell Westbrook just prevented him from getting those opportunities last season. That won’t be a problem in Utah.
Remember, two former Lakers (Ingram and Randle) have won this award recently while another (Russell) finished in second. Putting aside the narrative nature of this award, that makes sense when you look at what the Lakers do well. They have a stellar track record of identifying talent. It’s actually using it within the context of a real basketball team that gives them problems.
Going back to Toronto’s developmental factory, I took a +150000 swing on Precious Achiuwa, whose athletic gifts are evident in every Raptor game. Everything about his defense screamed “check back in a season,” and after averaging only 1.3 3-pointers in Toronto’s first 50 games, he finished the season by taking four of them per night and making over 39 percent. Athletic big men that can shoot are rare commodities, and few teams are better equipped to maximize them than the Raptors.
Atlanta may have added Dejounte Murray this offseason, but it also quietly cleared up its wing glut by trading Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. With Cam Reddish also getting dealt a year ago, the Hawks have made it clear that they expect big things out of De’Andre Hunter. His raw scoring numbers went down last season, but his 3-point percentage hit a career-high and he came into the NBA as a strong defender. If he’s the wing that makes Atlanta’s two-point guard system work, he’s going to sneak into this conversation. Injuries have been his worst enemy thus far, but he might’ve made a run at this award in his second season if he’d stayed healthy.
Do you like any of the Orlando guards? There’s a flier in there somewhere. They’re all huddled in the same range with Markelle Fultz (+7500) barely edging out Cole Anthony (+8000) and Jalen Suggs (+10000). The Magic have settled their front court. Franz Wagner is a keeper and Paolo Banchero just got picked No. 1 overall. One of their goals this season is going to be figuring out the backcourt. If you have a favorite, there could be some cashout value on one of these guys. Fultz quietly played the best basketball of his career upon returning from his torn ACL. In just 18 games, he averaged 19.5 points and 9.9 assists per 36 minutes. If the minutes are there, the stats should be.
Collin Sexton at +8000 looks great if you think he’s playing anywhere aside from Cleveland. I’ve laid out my belief in Sexton in, but sadly, he looks like a lock to come off Cleveland’s bench on a below-market contract.
And finally, while it’s not a bet I plan to make, I’ve given Herb Jones at +10000 a long look if only because he plays for Fred Vinson’s team. When a player’s primary deficiency is shooting and he gets to work with the NBA’s best shooting coach, there’s going to be value in betting him. Vinson helped Ingram win this award. Don’t be surprised if he gets Jones in the mix.