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Looking Ahead: NBA Awards and Team Success (Part 2)

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

While we bask in the afterglow of Malcolm Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year win and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s designation as the league’s Most Improved Player, let’s set our gaze on the future to see what these awards might mean for the Milwaukee Bucks.

We brought up the question about if we thought individual (non-MVP level) awards had any correlation to changes in team success (read: W/L record) in following season. My initial hypothesis:

Before doing any research, my initial hypotheses were “not really” for MIP and “almost definitely not” for ROY. Rookies are generally bad (by definition), and since the best rookies are often high draft picks (which most often go to struggling teams) chances are that ROY winners don’t see an immediate improvement in the seasons following their award. MIP winners are more nebulous, since literally every player is technically eligible for it, and the specific criteria applied year to year seems to go subtle adjustments as well.

The results? Here’s a summary (all data courtesy of basketball-reference):

There were also some interesting data points I found while putting this together. In no particular order, here are some of the ones that stood out to me:

  • Award winners get moved around pretty regularly! Of these 32 players, four of them were traded within the 3-year timeframe of their award, and six of the MIP winners switched teams in free agency within that same timeframe.
  • The average ROY winner was 20.4 years old, far younger than Brogdon (24.5 years).
  • An average ROY per-game statline was 17.6 points / 6.3 rebounds / 4.0 assists / 1.1 steals / 0.7 blocks with shooting splits of 0.458/0.281/0.761. In other words, the average ROY was a step up from the early 90’s version of Sean Elliot.
  • The average MIP winner was 23.5 years old and had played 3.8 seasons. Giannis is a year younger (22.5 years), but has played the same amount of time (4 seasons).
  • An average MIP per-game statline was 19.4 points / 6.6 rebounds / 3.8 assists / 1.2 steals / 0.7 blocks with shooting splits of 0.462/0.345/0.800. Basically, an average MIP was on par with the 2004-05 version of Tayshaun Prince.
  • Award winners stick around. These players don’t seem to drop out of the league, at least not without warning. Since 2000-01, every ROY winner was on an NBA roster two seasons after winning the award, and only 3 MIP players missed time in the two years following their own (Paul George and Desmond Mason both missed the second season after being named MIP due to injury, and Aaron Brooks missed his second post-award season due to playing in China after the 2011 lockout.)
  • Context matters. Tons of these players had either lots of help, or not very much at all. For example, Boris Diaw won Most Improved Player in 2005-06, and spent all of his time on the Suns with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion, and those teams averaged 56+ wins during this study’s timeframe. On the other hand, Kevin Love won the same award in 2010-11 with Ricky Rubio as his only notable teammate, and those Wolves teams won less than 25 games (on average).

Now, for the main course. Do award winners happen to be on teams that win more games? Here’s what I found.

ROY

The average record for a Rookie of the Year recipient was 29.3-51.7, after accounting for the shortened 2011 season. This is no surprise, given how frequently the award is given to top-5 picks, which generally belong to the worst teams who need more than one player to get demonstrably better. The 2002-03 Suns (44-38 with ROY Amar’e Stoudemmire) were the best team with a ROY winner, followed closely by the 2000-01 Orlando Magic (43-39 with Mike Miller and MIP Tracy McGrady).

Going from Year 1 to Year 2 for teams with the reigning ROY resulted in a +4.31 bump in total wins, bringing their average record to 33.6-47.4. Most teams in this situation made minor improvements; only the 2003-04 Suns fell off a cliff after Stoudemire’s win, and only Damian Lillard’s Trailblazers (+21 wins in 2013-14) and Andrew WigginsTimberwolves (+13 wins in 2015-16) improved their records by double digits.

Where the real kicker lies is from Year 2 to Year 3 when you have a still-improving Rookie of the Year on your team. Teams that met this criteria improved to an average record of 45.4-35.7, which is an increase of +11.8 total wins. Eight teams improved their record by double digits in this study, led by the aforementioned Amar’e Stoudemire (whose Suns fell off a cliff in his second season but quickly bounced back), Kevin Durant (went from +3 wins in his second season to +27 in his third), and Pau Gasol back in his Memphis days (going from +5 wins in Year 2 to +22 wins in Year 3).

Using this logic (which nobody should ever do, given what I’m about to say), the Bucks’ preference for Michael Carter-Williams makes a little bit more sense in hindsight, based on what we knew at the time. Young players improve by leaps and bounds, and ROY winners are some of the likeliest candidates for helping teams get over the hump. Things...didn’t turn out that way for MCW, unfortunately. Let’s just say that I’m happy with Tony Snell.

I can also safely say that Malcolm Brogdon’s prospects with the Bucks are bright, independent of his win over Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Assuming that he stays in Milwaukee and considering the general trajectory of the team, it’s reasonable to raise the Bucks’ expectations as a result.

MIP

The average record for a Most Improved Player recipient was 41.9-38.9, over ten games’ better than ROY. Since MIPs should (in theory) help boost their team’s performance due to their own continued development, this is not a surprise. The best team with an MIP winner was the previously-mentioned 2005-06 Phoenix Suns (with Boris Diaw at 54-28), followed by the 2007-08 Orlando Magic (with Hedo Turkoglu at 52-30) and the 2015-16 Chicago Bulls (with Jimmy Butler at 50-32).

As it turns out, teams with the reigning MIP experienced virtually no change to their record in following seasons; on average, team records declined by -0.63 games (average record: 41.2-40.1) in Year 2, and -0.92 games (average record: 40.3-41.7) in Year 3. A large part of this is how often MIPs change teams shortly after earning the award, and how those players fail to live up to their inflated expectations (Bobby Simmons, anyone?)

The funny thing (to me, at least) is that most of the players on the MIP list are “bad” players. Aaron Brooks might be towards the bottom of the rankings, and he’s still a competent NBA guard. Without going down a rabbit hole for each player’s story, it’s tough to parse out exactly what went wrong for these players’ teams after winning MIP.

What is clear is that the floor is higher for teams that can deploy an MIP winner, and that does matter on some level. While Paul George and Jimmy Butler can claim “elite player” status, many of the players on the MIP list fall more into the “role player” category. For the Bucks, it’s safe to assume that Giannis is the exception to that rule, and that bodes well for their chances (regardless of his list of accolades).


Did these numbers surprise you, or were you proven correct? Does Brogdon’s ROY or Giannis’ MIP really mean anything to the team, or to you? Does the data tell any other stories that I didn’t cover? Let us know in the comments!