Most Improved Player of the Year: C.J. McCollum

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I really wanted to do it.

I really wanted to snub convention completely and devote my entire Most Improved Player ballot to three All-Stars who made such significant jumps in overall excellence from where they were a year ago that I almost talked myself into ignoring the fact that this category isn't supposed to be about All-Stars.


Then my conscience made me look at the actual MIP ballot.

According to the fine print:

This award is designed to honor an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons. It is not intended to be given to a player who has made a "comeback."

So ...

Steph Curry has indeed gone from great to otherworldly this season, increasing his scoring average (plus-6.1 PPG) more than any other reigning MVP while becoming a 50/40/90 player for the first time and ringing up a ridiculous 388 3-pointers entering the final two games left on the schedule. Which is a mere 102 more 3s than Steph sank last season.

Steph's teammate Draymond Green, meanwhile, had just one triple-double entering this season ... before uncorking 13 of them so far in 2015-16. Green also has essentially doubled his assist average from 3.7 per game to 7.5 and, on top of his improved shooting, is bidding to become just the eighth player in league history to average at least 14 points, nine rebounds and seven assists per game for an entire season, which hasn't happened since Grant Hill did so as a Detroit Piston in 1996-97.

Kawhi Leonard, furthermore, has lived in the league's top five in 3-point shooting all season after shooting a mere 34.9 percent from deep last season. Leonard's long-range prowess is the standout step up in a transformation that has made him the most important player for a 65-win Spurs team that still employs Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili alongside marquee newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge. It also just might set him up to be the first Defensive Player of the Year that this league has ever seen who also ranked as a 40-percent shooter from deep.

The problem, of course, is that none of those three -- for all the superlatives that apply -- can fairly be classified as an up-and-comer. This is the season both Green and Leonard made their respective All-Star debuts, but let's face it: They were plenty good before this season arrived.

Mr. C.J. McCollum, when you factor in the actually guidelines of this award, is thus the most sensible choice.

Among players to appear in at least 10 games in each of the past two seasons, no one can touch McCollum's points-per-game spike from 6.8 to his current 20.9. But that's merely what's obvious. Less attention has been paid to the fact that he has also progressed as a distributor (1.0 APG last season to 4.2 this season) while also hiking his free-throw percentage from an eyesore (.699) to a strength (.825).

Damian Lillard and coach Terry Stotts justifiably hoard a good chunk of the kudos that the Portland Cinderellas have been getting all season, but McCollum's emergence as a legitimately dangerous backcourt partner to Lillard has triggered Portland's success as much as anything. Especially when you remember that he was dismissed as a bust in some corners after a (mostly) rough first two seasons in the league.

Stein's ballot: 1. McCollum; 2. Green; 3. Curry

October prediction: McCollum