The MVP discussion is in full swing, and you could make sound arguments for Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But what about the Most Improved Player? It's a much less discussed topic because it carries less esteem, and also because the criteria are almost as subjective as MVP. Do you award it to a player who has gone from being out of the league altogether to a starting center on a playoff contender? Or do you give it to a role player who is making the most out of his opportunity at extended minutes? Or is improvement best defined by a good player who makes the leap and becomes a great player?
Instead of recognizing one player as the most improved in any season, maybe it's better if there were all-most improved first and second teams.
Here are the five players who would comprise my most improved first team this season. Note: I was tempted to include Anthony Davis on this list, but he finished third in voting for Most Improved Player last season, and belongs more in the MVP discussion.
Jimmy Butler, Bulls
He's currently out with a sprained elbow. But in 55 games this season, Butler is averaging career highs in minutes played (he leads the league at 38.9 minutes per game), points (20.1 points, his previous career high: 13.1 last year), rebounds and assists per game. After a very strong first two months of the season, Butler was even getting some MVP chatter. He slowed down in January, shooting just 41.7 percent from the field, but he has established himself as an above average two-way wing player in the league. Also, you know you've reached another level when Mark Wahlberg is toasting you on Instagram after you hit a preseason game-winner.
Butler is set to hit restricted free agency this summer and won't turn 26 until September, so if the Bulls view him as a cornerstone player, they would be wise to pony up close to max-level money for Butler, or risk having to match a similar offer sheet from another team. Given the uncertainty as to whether Derrick Rose will ever return to being an elite player, it would be a smart move for the Bulls to lock up Butler for what should be his prime years.
Draymond Green, Warriors
Green has gone from a 13.4 minutes per game player in his rookie season to a starter playing 32.2 minutes per game on the best team in the Western Conference. His 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game are all career highs, and he's capable of defending all five positions well.
Per NBA.com, the Warriors have a +16.1 net rating when Green is on the floor. During those 1,966 minutes, they're allowing just 95.4 points per 100 possessions. When Green is not on the floor, the Warriors allow 102.2 points per 100 possessions. Golden State leads the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 97.6 points per 100 possessions, so basically, it's really good at defense, and remarkably better when Green is on the floor.
Green will also become a restricted free agent this summer. He's been called the "heartbeat" of the team, and given the Warriors' success so far this season, and the fact that Green is only 25, it's hard to imagine Golden State not keeping Green even if it requires making a max-level offer. The Warriors may need to move some money around (see: David Lee), but he's too important not to keep around.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz
We still haven't reached a consensus on which nickname works best for Gobert. Whether it's The Stifle Tower, The French Rejection or, my personal favorite, The Gobert Report. But one thing we can agree on: Gobert has been a huge reason why Utah has become one of the best defensive teams in the league during the second half of this season.
Through four games in March, Gobert is averaging 9.5 points and 16.5 rebounds per game. His minutes per game have gone up as the season has gone along, and a trade deadline deal that sent Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City opened things up for the Gobert-Derrick Favors front court to develop in Utah.
Since the All-Star break, the Jazz are allowing just 92.0 points per 100 possessions when Gobert is on the floor. With his rim protection during this period, they have basically transformed into an elite-level defense. Utah won't make the playoffs this season, but in Gobert, it might have found a star center who can play a key part in getting the Jazz back into the conversation in the West sooner rather than later.
Hassan Whiteside, Heat
Whiteside's emergence with the Heat is even more remarkable when you consider he played in 111 total NBA minutes prior to this season. Through 34 games, the 25-year-old center has averaged 11.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. This type of out-of-nowhere production from someone who wasn't even in the league the last two seasons is unprecedented. But the shine has started to wear off, and the same maturity issues that have kept Whiteside from making it in the NBA have begun to show up recently.
Last week, Whiteside got into a wrestling match with Alex Len after completing a dunk and was fined $15,000 by the league for his actions. He was benched in a loss at Washington last Friday, and on Monday, he blindsided Kelly Olynyk with a cheap shot and was ejected. Afterward, Dwyane Wade had some harsh words for his young center, essentially telling him to grow up and stop being so selfish.
And he might. The Heat have strong leaders in the locker room, starting with Wade and veteran Udonis Haslem. So there might be an infrastructure to help Whiteside finally overcome these issues. But if he doesn't, it would be a shame, because he clearly has the physical tools to be a productive NBA player for years to come.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
I struggled with whether to include The Greek Freak on this list, not because he hasn't improved in year two, but because it was somewhat expected, which removes the surprise element, and also because I'm pretty sure there will be a bigger leap in year three and beyond.
But it's hard to ignore how Giannis has increased his scoring (from 6.8 points to 12.0 points), rebounding (from 4.4 rebounds to 6.7 rebounds) and improved his shooting percentage from 41.4 percent in his rookie season to 48.9 percent this year. He's doing this while still developing on both ends of the floor and not having a reliable jumper on the offensive end. He's working on that aspect of his game, and if it ever comes together, anything is really possible.
On Monday, Giannis set a career high with 29 points in a loss to the Pelicans. He's doing this while just scratching the surface of what he's capable of. He's improved so much in a year, and it still feels like he's just learning to get comfortable with the game of basketball. That's scary.