This season, it seems like a lot of the NBA awards are settled with a month to go. If not there being a considerable favorite, the fields are at least narrow enough, for the most part, that you can find some consensus on the awards that usually spark the most debate. The impact of this appears to be that the award most argued is Most Improved Player, which in the best of times is an ambiguously defined award where the criteria can seem to vary from year to year.
It’s a fun group this year in contention as well, which certainly makes the debate more interesting. De’Aaron Fox has made an impressive leap from a frustrating rookie season to becoming a player who looks to be on a path to stardom. D’Angelo Russell, who loudly proclaimed that he was going to win the award this week, has made impressive strides offensively and is likely leading a Brooklyn team to the playoffs this year, after becoming a first-time All-Star. As well, Paul George, who likely won’t truly gain consideration for the award, probably should be in the conversation, going from a recognized established star in the league to a true superstar, a candidate for both MVP as well as Defensive Player of the Year, improving his game in nearly every manner possible in a truly impressive season.
There is also, of course, the Raptor in the conversation. Pascal Siakam has taken a truly impressive leap this season. Going from a rookie squeezed out of the rotation midseason to a valuable bench contributor in his second year was considerable growth for Siakam, and last season he was an important cog in the bench mob that helped the team to their impressive record, but his game was mostly still just flashes of what could be there.
Even this season, the expectations for Siakam coming into the year were mostly that he would be a defensive stalwart in the starting lineup, which he’s lived up to, and he would mostly be used in spot situations offensively when the other starters needed assistance, but mostly relegated to a secondary role supporting Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and the rest of the team. Siakam, over the course of the season, has completely shattered those expectations offensively. He’s not only done the things that were known, terrorizing teams in transition and creating with his passing off the dribble, he’s also consistently added new wrinkles, whether that’s becoming a deadly shooter from the corners, where he’s shooting 46% on the season, or learning recently to deal with double teams thrown his way. As teams have started to send help at him, becoming aware of how much trouble he can create in single coverage with his quickness and length, he’s been forced to adapt to that in-season, find ways to see the help coming and make the correct decision to take advantage, and he’s shown signs recently of seeing those reads and reacting correctly.
It’s not just that he’s a better complimentary player, either, although he certainly is that, with the threat he poses opening up offensive space for Lowry and Leonard to work. Siakam has been dominant more and more frequently himself, setting new career highs several times this season, culminating(at least so far) in a 44-point outburst in a victory over the Washington Wizards where Siakam took over. He frequently has stretches where he looks like the best player on the floor, including the third quarter on Tuesday night, when he outscored the Houston Rockets by himself, where the reigning MVP was playing on the other team, and Siakam still was the most dominant guy over that stretch.
Siakam’s age gets a lot of attention for a player still learning the ropes, with a lot of speculation that he might not have the development left of other players currently on the rise, but Pascal started playing basketball relatively late in life, and in addition to that, he’s only logged just over 4,500 NBA minutes thus far in his career, both indicators that he might still be a late bloomer, with room to grow into his game. At this point, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it at least, with the meteoric rise he’s had over the past few seasons.
That being said, Fox and Russell each have a compelling case as well. They’re each players who have shown real growth in their games in ways that would certainly garner consideration for MIP based on previous winners. There’s one other argument though, that I think deserves consideration.
Both of those young players has grown into being a player that they were drafted to be. At the time of their drafts, if you asked an optimistic scout what Fox or Russell would be as a player, a few years into their career, the answer they would’ve given would’ve been something similar to the player that they’ve been this season. This is their expected development path. That doesn’t take away from the growth they’ve shown, and doesn’t make it less impressive, it’s a hard road in the NBA. But them becoming these players was a known quantity. Pascal Siakam is something entirely different. When the Raptors drafted him at the end of the first round, it was seen by a fair number of pundits as a reach at even that point in the draft. After his rookie season he was seen as an unknown quantity as someone the Raptors would need to step up and be a bench contributor in his second season. Even this season, when the optimism was present, he was largely expected to grow into being a valuable role player. Instead, he’s developed into a real NBA star.
By Player-Impact Plus-Minus, at this point in the season, Siakam ranks 13th in the entire league at this point, and ahead of each and every one of his teammates. The numbers would say he’s been the single most impactful Raptor this season, and the eye test could be used to make that case as well. Defensively he’s been dominant, guarding matchups from point guards to centers, and offensively he’s shown the quickness to take advantage of players who can match his length, and the ability to use his size well enough to score against quicker, smaller guys.
If Fox or Russell wins the award this summer, it won’t necessarily be wrong, it would be recognizing real growth in a talented young NBA player, something that should be celebrated without question. But if the goal of the award is to recognize the beauty in the unintended, to recognize that players can sometimes break those molds and surprise us, then there is only one right answer here.