Each year, the NBA gives an award for Most Improved Player. They base their selection on a player's improvement from the previous season, to the current season. Generally, the criteria they use is statistical improvement, particularly in the "glamor" statistical categories such as points per game.
There are inherent flaws in the NBA's approach. In almost all cases, the players who win this award receive a large increase in playing time from one season to the next. Yes, their statistical production makes a huge jump, but are they really playing better than they did the year before?
Our ranking of the Most Improved Players will utilize a statistic developed by John Hollinger, called Player Efficiency Rating - PER. This metric takes into account all statistics (positive and negative) kept by the NBA, and weights the player's production by minutes played per game, and number of team possessions per game. The PER of an "average" NBA player is 15.0.
Also, we are limiting this analysis to players who played 1500 or more minutes this season, so we have a "meaningful" sample size for each eligible player. With that in mind, let's examine which players improved their efficiency the most during the 2011-12 season:
2010-11 PER: 9.4
2011-12 PER: 14.2 (+4.8)
The 6-6 point guard out of the University of Maryland made great strides in his second NBA season. His playing time roughly doubled from last year, but more importantly, his productivity in those minutes increased by a large percentage. Known for his intensity on the floor and his ability as a "slasher", Vasquez improved in almost every statistical category in 2011-12, although his turnover rate is still something he needs to improve upon. Vasquez not only improved his overall numbers, but did it in a much more efficient way than he did a year ago...landing him on our list at number 5.
2010-11 PER: 10.7
2011-12 PER: 15.5 (+4.8)
Some wondered if Hayward was ready for the big-time when he was drafted ninth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. Having played at Butler University, he hadn't proven himself against top competition on a consistent basis in college. Hayward showed some positive signs as a rookie, but made another leap forward in 2011-12. While not great in any one area, Hayward has a solid all-around game that is translating well to the NBA. The Jazz seem to have found a keeper in this second-year forward.
2010-11 PER: 13.2
2011-12 PER: 18.0 (+4.8)
Goran Dragic came to the Houston Rockets from Phoenix after a mid-season trade last year, and after getting his feet wet with his new team, came on to have a very good year for the Rockets in 2011-12. Houston was counting on the 6-4 point guard to be a major contributor, and Dragic delivered. He showed vast improvement in several areas, including free throw percentage, assists per game and points per game. The Rockets traded Aaron Brooks to Phoenix in the deal that landed Dragic, and so far, the 25-year-old Slovenian has made that deal look like a winner for his new team.
2010-11 PER: 14.4
2011-12 PER: 20.5 (+6.1)
Ilyasova is an excellent example of someone who did not receive a significant increase in playing time, but was significantly more effective in the time he had on the court. The 6-9, 235 lb. forward seemed to figure out the NBA game in 2011-12, making dramatic increases in both his 3-point shooting percentage and overall shooting percentage. He also rebounded at a much higher rate than he did last season. The Bucks have been patient with Ilyasova, and it paid off with a break-out season for the fourth-year player from Turkey.
2010-11 PER: 14.6
2011-12 PER: 21.7 (+7.1)
Cousins is an exceptionally talented big man, who can play both power forward and center. When coming out of college, NBA teams wondered if his fabulous skill-set would be overshadowed by his rumored lack of motivation and perceived negative attitude. Cousins had a nice rookie campaign, but blossomed even more in 2011-12, his second season in the league. Like Ersan Ilyasova, Cousins played only a little more per contest this year, but his game took a massive jump. He is now scoring and rebounding at an All-Star level, and has been able to cut down on his turnovers at the same time. The sky's the limit for this University of Kentucky product!
As a side note, the player with the worst PER differential (1500+ minutes played) this season was 6-time All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire. Pundits questioned whether he could co-exist with Carmelo Anthony in New York, and then the phenomenon of "Linsanity" unexpectedly hit The Big Apple. Stoudemire has clearly yet to figure out how to be effective playing in an offense with other star-caliber performers.