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2011 WNBA Mid-Season Awards:Top 5 Most Improved Player Candidates

The WNBA Most Improved Player award is one of the toughest to figure out because true improvement is hard to define.

Ideally, you'd want some way to determine and compare whether players' basketball ability had improved rather than just reading their basic stat line and picking the one with the biggest differential; points, rebounds, assists, etc. can improve due to increased minutes or a trade to a new team that better suits them without the player actually improving at all. Similarly, per 40 stats can improve, but there's no way to know if a player will match those numbers if given 40 minutes (and in most cases they wouldn't over the course of a season.

Yet unfortunately, we also can't stick every player in the league in one big gym every year with a panel of judges to figure out who has actually gotten better in a year's time. So instead, we have to use the best of what we have and fortunately a metric called valuable contributions ratio (VCR) exists that's perfect for the task.

Identifying candidates for Most Improved Player

VCR is described in brief here and in more detail here, but basically it is a metric that measures a player's overall valuable contributions to the team (duh) while on the floor. It's not only useful to determine potential for rookies who may still be earning minutes in the eyes of a coaching staff, but also for free agent value - players with an average VCR relative to league (or their style of play) are probably playing optimal minutes, players with an above average VCR could probably remain efficient with more minutes, and players with a below average VCR generally played too many minutes.

So essentially, the best way to identify candidates for the Most Improved Player award is to find those players who defy VCR or suddenly become more efficient in the minutes they're given. But while figuring out who has the biggest VCR increase is great for identifying the top candidates, it's doesn't necessarily point to who has actually improved most.

Criteria for the Most Improved Player

This year, almost every single one of the top candidates has something that might cast a shadow of doubt over whether they've actually improved or have somehow gamed their numbers. Whether it be a new coach, getting an opportunity to fill in for an injured player, or being traded to a new team, you could in theory disregard almost every single one of the top candidates.

So after looking at VCR differentials, this criteria created last season helps to sort out improvement in a bit more detail, but perhaps the most important thing to look at is how exactly a player improved. Some players made minor improvements across the board that led to an increased VCR for various reasons, but didn't actually improve that much. Some players quite clearly improved because their role on the team changed drastically.

But the most improved players this year rose to the top because it's quite obvious that they have improved even if you account for the circumstances.

So the top 15 most improved players are as follows:

Name 2010 Games Mins Diff ValPct Diff VCR Diff MEV Diff Biggest improvement
1 Vaughn, Kia 30 +22.4 +16.96 + 0.82 + 12.08 + 19.62 TS%
2 Robinson, Ashley 30 +8.7 + 6.48 + 0.43 + 3.42 +14.34 TS%
3 Carson, Essence 34 +13.5 + 8.8 + 0.39 + 7.67 +5.33 TS%
4 Miller, Coco 27 +10.6 + 5.49 + 0.43 + 4.45 - 8.03 tov ratio
5 Price, Armintie 34 + 5.1 + 5.28 + 0.32 + 3.24 +10.05 TS%
6 Toliver, Kristi 34 + 4.7 + 5.45 + 0.30 + 4.97 + 7.73 ast ratio
7 Jackson, Tiffany 34 + 18.8 + 14.09 + 0.32 + 5.49 + 3.29 TS%
8 Lawson, Kara 34 + 2 + 3.44 + 0.26 + 2.43 +18.76 FT rate
9 Ajavon, Matee 34 + 16.3 + 9.57 + 0.27 + 6.03 +5.51 TS%
10 Davenport, Jessica 33 + 9.2 + 7.91 + 0.16 + 5.72 -4.12 tov rate
11 Hollingsworth, Quanitra 25 + 9.3 + 6.61 + 0.60 + 4.74 +12.05 TS%
12 Cash, Swin 34 + 2.5 + 7.42 + 0.37 + 2.91 +5.86 FT rate
13 Bird, Sue. 33 + 3.2 + 7.66 + 0.31 + 1.79 +3.64 FT rate
14 Hodges, Roneeka 34 - 13.6 -3.16 + 0.31 -1.23 +12.37 TS%
15 McCoughtry, Angel 34 - 3.9 -.70 + 0.22 -1.9 +1.79 treb%

Top 15 candidates for 2011 WNBA Most Improved Player (stats as of 8/1/11). Click here for explanations of these numbers.

Since it seems that the top candidates are clear, a brief explanation of the case for each of them.

1. Kia Vaughn, C, New York Liberty

Vaughn's league-high improvement could be discounted for at least two reasons. First, with Taj MacWilliams-Franklin and Janel McCarville leaving the team, someone had to step up and Vaughn quite clearly got a huge bump in minutes. Second, the Liberty have a new coach and a new system so the change in her situation could well just be better suited for her skill set.

However, those factors don't account for a nearly 20% increase in shooting efficiency, which is the largest reason why Vaughn went from an almost insignificant contributor to a key player for the Liberty. She is simply a better, more aggressive player and that's confirmed by watching her.

2. Ashley Robinson, C, Seattle Storm

A-Rob's improvement could also be attributed to an opportunity due to another player's absence - it would not be hard to establish that the reason she has moved into the starting lineup just before the All-Star break is 2010 MVP Lauren Jackson's injury. That is almost certainly why Storm teammates Sue Bird and Swin Cash are on this list - both have stepped up in Jackson's absence to take on more responsibility for the team's offense, which led to an increase in VCR.

But Bird and Cash are All-Stars - they're supposed to step up. A-Rob's increased statistics are more about actual improvement.

And really, it's not even about stats for Robinson - anybody that has watched her over the years can tell that she is playing with a lot more confidence this season. It's not just that she's scoring more, but that she's making more aggressive moves in the paint, moving more decisively without the ball, and even showing a willingness to dribble the ball more around the perimeter and even drive to make plays.

It's the intangibles that have undeniably increased for Robinson that make her as good a candidate as Vaughn, who has the stronger numbers.

3. Essence Carson, Wing, New York Liberty

Carson has had about as up and down a four year career as one could imagine playing for three coaches on one team and moving from starter to bench to the edge of the rotation to All-Star reserve as a bench player. So similar to Vaughn, the change in coaching could be considered the reason for her improvement as much as anything else.

But her career-high 40% three point shooting that has made her a more efficient scorer isn't necessarily about opportunity - Carson is just a more confident and aggressive scorer this year and has made her into one of the more well-rounded perimeter players in the league.

4. Coco Miller, G, Atlanta Dream

Miller might be the player on this list with the least caveats and that on its own might give her an outside chance for this award. But the doesn't mean her improved VCR is without caveat - in addition to the lineup being in seemingly constant flux, Miller did start for the Dream last year during their run to the 2010 WNBA Finals. Nevertheless, her improved turnover ratio this season is impressive and she has also been one of the better reserve guards in the league this season. During the Dream's five games in July, Miller shot 57.1% and only committed two turnovers.

Nevertheless, what might keep Miller out of the running for this award is simply that this isn't necessarily a "career-best" or "breakout" year like it is for some of the other players on this list even if her one year impressive.

5. Armintie Price, G, Atlanta Dream

Armintie Price still hasn't made a three pointer since her rookie year in 2007, but her vastly improved shooting efficiency is what got her on this list. Price has always been outstanding at using her athleticism to get to the rim and get herself to the free throw line, but this year she's just making more field goal attempts as well.

If she could make more than a career-high 61% of her free throw attempts, she'd easily be in double figures in scoring for the first time in her six year career.