Is Kevin Martin the Most Improved?

Posted on March 29, 2007 by

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If we compare player performance in the basketball, baseball, and football we see that over time, NBA players are the most consistent. Football players tend to be quite inconsistent.

Although NBA players tend to be relatively consistent across time, player performance can change. And each year the NBA has an award that theoretically rewards the player who made the largest positive leap in performance.

According to Kelly Dwyer at Sports Illustrated.com, the favorite for Most Improved player in the NBA this year is Kevin Martin. In 2005-06, Martin averaged 10.8 points per game. This year his per-game scoring average has leaped to 20.5. Of course, Martin has also seen his minutes increase from 26.5 per game to 35.4. So part of the increase in scoring is tied to his increase in minutes. Still, when we look at Martin’s per-minute scoring production, we see that he has improved from 0.407 points-per-minute (or 19.6 points per 48 minutes) to 0.579 (or 27.8 points per 48 minutes).

This leap in per-minute scoring, though, is not tied to increases in shooting efficiency. In 2005-06, Martin’s point-per-shot [(PTS-FTM)/FGA] was 1.08 and his free throw percentage was 85%. In 2006-07 he has also scored 1.08 points per field goal attempt and is converting 85% of his free throws.

So why is Martin scoring more? The key is shot attempts. In 2005-06, Martin attempted 0.286 field goal attempts per minute (or 13.7 shots per 48 minutes). This year his per-minute field goal attempts stands at 0.380 (or 18.3 shots per 48 minutes). Martin has also seen an increase in free throw attempts.

Of course, production is about more than scoring. When we turn to the non-scoring aspects of performance we see very little change in Martin’s per-minute totals. Certainly it is the case that Martin is a more productive player overall. His Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] has risen from 0.161 to 0.226. But this improvement is only because this very efficient scorer is simply taking more shots per minute.

Well, if Martin is not “Most Improved”, who is? I have not looked at every player, but I suspect that we need to look no further than David Lee. In 2005-06, Lee posted a WP48 of 0.197. So like Martin, he was above average. This year, though, Lee has improved dramatically with a WP48 of 0.395.

Like Martin, Lee scored more per-minute without offering a significantly improved level of efficiency. Although increased scoring is part of Lee’s improvement, the biggest story can be seen in his rebounding numbers. Per-minute, Lee grabbed 0.268 rebounds in 2005-06. This year he grabbed 0.348 boards per-minute.

When we see a side-by-side comparison of Martin and Lee, it appears that this is an easy choice. Both players were good in 2005-06. Both players were better in 2006-07. But Lee has improved more than Martin. Martin has simply increased his shot attempts, which makes sense given that he is a very efficient scorer. Lee has both increased his shot attempts and taken a substantial leap forward as a rebounder.

Table One: Kevin Martin vs. David Lee

Of course there is one issue. Lee has only played in 56 games. Consequently, his Wins Produced has only increased by 9.4. If Martin can continue to play 35 minutes a night over the remaining games in the schedule, and his WP48 for the season can rise to 0.264, Martin should be able to match Lee’s increase in wins. Unfortunately, Martin would have to post a 0.486 WP48 over the remaining 12 games to make such a leap, and that seems unlikely.

Bloomberg Again

Tomorrow I will be on a guest on Bloomberg on the Economy, which is hosted by Kathleen Hays. Kathleen and I will be discussing the economics of the NCAA Final Four.

– DJ