Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Does DeMar DeRozan Have a Case for Most Improved Player?

Examining the evolution of DeMar DeRozan and the MIP race.

DeMar DeRozan has made a pretty serious leap this season. At 24 years old and in his fifth go-‘round of the league, DeRozan not only made his first NBA All-Star team, but he’s been the top scorer on what is officially the first playoff team he’s ever played for.

DeRozan is not the Raptors’ best player, as much as the 22.8 points stand out more than any other player’s statistics on the team. Kyle Lowry is this team’s best player, acting as the engine on both ends of the floor and the avatar for the entire team’s story and attitude this season. If you’re an advanced stats fan, you can make the case that Amir Johnson is right there with Lowry, though his contributions are obviously less superficial (screen setting, help defense, etc).

But not being the best player on the team doesn’t mean DeRozan hasn’t been incredibly important to the Raptors’ unlikely rise. After all, the trade of Rudy Gay left DeRozan as the offensive alpha and one of the dozen most relied upon offensive players in the NBA. DeRozan has answered that call, improving marginally in several areas and improving significantly in one particular area.

Marginal Improvements
Shot mix and getting to the line – Simply by adjusting the type of shots he’s taken, DeRozan has improved his true shooting percentage this season despite his field goal percentage actually decreasing. Even though his 29.9 percent mark from long range leaves plenty to be desired, it’s still a shot that is worth 0.9 points on average, something long twos would have to fall at a 45 percent clip to do. More importantly, DeRozan has bullied his way to the rim, leading to a career-high 7.9 free throw attempts per game, good for seventh in the NBA. Considering the mid-range heavy game he plays, that’s incredibly impressive, and it speaks to the work he’s done to get stronger (he’s also getting blocked far less often than in years past and producing more And-1s).

Rebounding – DeRozan still isn’t an elite rebounder for a wing – he ranks 26th in rebound rate among qualified guards and guard-forwards this season, behind teammates Lowry and Terrence Ross – but it’s an area he’s improved on for the second straight season. He showed great potential as a rookie and while he hasn’t quite got back to that level yet, the additional half-rebound a game he’s pulling down isn’t nothing.

Steals and blocks – DeRozan has made slight gains in both steal rate and block rate, speaking to his modest improvements as a defender.

Defense – DeRozan is probably still, at best, an average defender, but it’s an area he’s clearly done a great deal of work. An analysis of his defensive improvements and shortcomings would require its own post, but Synergy data shows that DeRozan is on the right path, particularly as an isolation defender, where he somehow ranks first in the NBA this season. That should be all you need to make you take these Synergy defensive classifications with a grain of salt, but his improvement in isolation situations and guarding pick-and-roll ball handlers is clear, as his ability to chase players on the move. Some of this has to do with the help around him (hi, Amir) and drawing the lower-usage wing assignment in most cases, but there are real improvements underneath all of that, too.

Play Type2011-12 PPP2012-13 PPP2013-14 PPP2011-12 Rank2012-13 Rank2013-14 Rank
P&R Ball Handler0.810.70.731264558
Off Screen0.910.80.82915647
Hand Off1.360.790.62n/a3813

Turnovers – Ball control has always stuck out as an area where DeRozan was fairly effective but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. His handle is one of the biggest criticisms of his game, but he somehow rarely coughs the ball up despite having it in his hands plenty. You may look and see his raw turnovers up to 2.2 a game, a career-high, but this loses site of the fact that his usage rate has also increased a great deal. Overall, DeRozan turns the ball over on just 9.4 percent of the possessions he uses, representing not just a career-low but the 21st-lowest mark in the entire NBA. Among players who use at least a league-average portion of their team’s possessions, only nine players turn the ball over less than DeRozan. That’s an incredibly valuable trait to have in your primary scorer.

The Key Improvement
The biggest improvement to DeRozan’s game has been, without question, his playmaking ability. 16 players averaged 18-3.5-2.5 like DeRozan did last season; this year he’s up to 22-4-4, joined by only James Harden, Steph Curry, Kevin Love, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Those are random cut-off points, sure, but there are very few players in the NBA who score, rebound and facilitate like DeRozan has.

And this was largely unexpected. In each year of his career, DeRozan had taken small steps forward in assist rate, from 4.9 percent as a rookie to 12 percent last season. This year, that number exploded to 19 percent, a mark that sits him just outside the top-50 in the league, with primarily point guards, superstars and Josh McRoberts ahead of him. He’s still not an elite playmaker, but he’s gone from being appreciably below-average to being comfortably above-average from the wing. Think his 22.8 points a game are nice? He’s also generating an additional 10 per game via assists, per Basketball Reference’s advanced play-by-play logs.

How impressive is a jump from 12 percent to 19 percent in terms of assist rate? Since 2000-01, there have been 235 player seasons where a qualified player had an assist rate between 11 percent and 13 percent. Only 27 of those also had a season with an assist rate higher than 18 percent, with most declining to the 12-percent range rather than improving from it; Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson, James Harden, Kevin Love and Josh Smith are the only other players to have made the jump in a single season. Players simply don’t make that kind of a playmaking improvement in one year.

Does He Have a Chance?
Well yes, sure he does. Unfortunately, there are some other players who have made a significant jump this season as well, some of whom either started from an even lesser-known place or have had their breakout become a key storyline of the season, or both.

To try and find (and compare) MIP candidates, I developed a really simply formula called Improvement Metric that just uses box score stats. It won’t include much defense or team context, but since voters almost surely look at box score averages to help guide their vote, it can give us an idea of who they may look at and how they stack up.


Put more simply, we summed all of the counting stats, subtracted turnovers and field goal attempts as proxy for efficiency and then put it on a per-minute basis. Scores were compared between years, showing a percentage improvement.

Running that simple formula, here are the 2013-14 leaders by “IM” or “additional statistical contribution.” (Note: players had to qualify in both 2012-13 and 2013-14, and Anthony Davis was left out due to a discrepancy between BRef’s qualification standard and’s.)

Player12-13 Score13-14 ScoreIPUsg Inc
Marco Belinelli6.5610.76164.00.4
Markieff Morris10.7714.73136.83.5
Bismack Biyombo12.4016.85135.9-0.5
DeMar DeRozan8.7311.72134.23.9
Lance Stephenson9.4912.68133.64.2
D.J. Augustin8.2711.03133.36.8
Draymond Green10.2113.54132.60.9
Randy Foye6.969.18131.80.2
DeAndre Jordan16.3120.99128.7-3.8
Terrence Ross6.147.85127.8-0.8
Brandon Knight8.1110.36127.74
DeMarcus Cousins17.7022.28125.84.2
Arron Afflalo7.909.93125.70.7
Jodie Meeks7.279.03124.22.3
Damian Lillard10.2612.70123.81.1
Rudy Gay9.9612.28123.30.5
Joe Johnson7.268.94123.20.4
Jamal Crawford8.119.98123.11.2
Ty Lawson12.6615.54122.70.4
P.J. Tucker10.1212.35122.11.5
Stephen Curry13.8516.62119.91.7
Isaiah Thomas11.2413.47119.93.4
Wesley Matthews8.6910.35119.10.4
Kyle Singler7.599.00118.6-1.6
Nicolas Batum12.2514.48118.2-1.7
Robin Lopez13.2915.56117.0-6.2
Mario Chalmers10.1711.84116.41.2
Marcus Morris9.4510.96116.01
Jae Crowder8.9510.25114.6-1.7

Plenty of names on the list make sense. Markieff Morris and Lance Stephenson have had some MIP love thrown their way; DeAndre Jordan, Terrence Ross, Brandon Knight, DeMarcus Cousins and Damian Lillard are improving with experience; and Marco Belinelli, D.J. Augustin and Randy Foye are having solid bounce-back seasons. There’s also seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, who improved from being a six-time All-Star. Bismack Biyombo seems out of place, and a couple of names are missing, so it’s not perfect by any means, but it seems a fair proxy to start with.

The Likely Candidates (in no particular order)
Anthony Davis – He’ll probably win, having transitioned from impressive rookie to superstar. Personally, I hate giving the award to sophomores since this kind of progression is expected, but this represents a pretty extreme case.

Goran Dragic – His scoring average has jumped 5.8 points without much of a minutes increase, he’s getting to the line more and hitting more threes and his PER has exploded, plus he’s leading a surprise team to a potential playoff spot. If Davis is No. 1, Dragic is probably 1B publicly.

Lance Stephenson – The most highly-publicized case of a breakout player having a major impact early this season, it’s certainly possible that the negativity around the Pacers of late will hurt his case.

Gerald Green – He’s proof that I need to loosen the qualification requirements in the future, and he’s firmly in the top-five in buzz for the award. He kind of did this in 2011-12, too, but over just 31 games, so this year has been a real statement given where he was in 2012-13 and before 2011.

Isaiah Thomas – As great as he’s been, his actual performance didn’t change nearly as much as his workload did. He’s improved, to be sure, but he was always pretty good and struggles to stand out given his competition here.

Markieff Morris – He’s probably the winner using that IP formula, and he’s been a core piece of the aforementioned rise of the Suns. However, any chance he had to win the award will probably be cannibalized by the two teammates on this list.

DeAndre Jordan – He’s gone from being a valuable piece to perhaps the best rebounder in the NBA (he’s neck-and-neck with Andre Drummond) and has been able to see a rise in minutes for the first time since 2010-11 thanks to a steady foul rate and improved play. Still can’t hit a damn free throw, though.

Draymond Green – Green’s impact on the Warriors may be too below-the-surface to get him the appropriate love here (he’s also a sophomore), but rest assured his leap has made a big difference as Harrison Barnes backslid and David Lee missed time.

Kyle Lowry – You thought I’d slight my guy without a mention? Like with some others, the minor issue here is that Lowry has always been pretty good, and the jump from pretty good to very good is less noticeable. Ast%, PER, TS%, FG%, 3FG%, they’re all up, and the turnover rate is way down. Looking at things in the aggregate, Lowry probably has a really solid case – no player in the NBA has made a bigger jump by BRef’s Win Shares metric than Lowry this year, nearly doubling his 2012-13 total (5.6) with 10.8 this year.

DeMar DeRozan– Of course, this article was about DeRozan, not Lowry. It’s possible that, like with the Suns, they may cannibalize votes from each other. Given the names and resumes on this list, it’s unlikely that DeRozan has a shot at the award – his improvements may be too marginal in many areas rather than extreme in a single area. Still, even if DeRozan doesn’t become the first Raptors player to win an individual award since Vince Carter was the Rookie of the Year in 1998-99, that shouldn’t negate the fact that DeRozan has taken a big step forward this season. He’s a key reason this team has gotten where it has and a great deal will be placed on his much-improved shoulders come playoff time.

Season3FG%FTA/gmPPGPERTS%Usg%Rb%Ast%TO%WSWS/48minTeam +/- Effect