The remainder of the NBA regular season is somewhat meaningless for the Toronto Raptors, but Wednesday night’s game was both a referendum on how much they should fear the Brooklyn Nets as a possible first-round opponent (the answer is not that much) and who should win the NBA’s most improved player award.
Russell had 27 points Wednesday night but it took him 25 shots to get there, and in the final minute of the game he badly missed a three-pointer and had the ball stolen away from him.
Conversely, the best player on the floor was Siakam, with 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on the way to a team-best plus-21. After missing his first five shots, Siakam was 11-for-21 from the floor, which is a sign of his growth – if he missed his first five shots a year ago he wouldn’t have had the confidence to attempt a sixth.
A day after his 25th birthday, having played basketball for less than a decade, Siakam turned the game against the Nets into his own personal showcase as to why he should win most improved player.
The award should be Siakam’s based solely on the simple definition of the word for which it is given out. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the verb “improve” means “to enhance in value or quality : make better.”
The player who, by definition, has improved the most is Siakam.
The most improved aspect of his game was on full display Wednesday, as Siakam shot 3-for-7 from three-point range. Three-point shooting for Siakam has improved more than any part of Russell’s game. As a rookie, Siakam shot 14.3 per cent from long distance. This season, Siakam has increased that to 35.8 per cent. He’s also shooting 40 per cent from the corners. At one point last year, he was shooting 19.2 per cent from three and went entire months without hitting one. But he kept working and kept shooting.
The amount of assisted baskets he scores has gone down more than 15 per cent this season, meaning Siakam is doing more to get his own buckets and not just feasting off of the prosperity of playing with better players as a full-time starter.
Spicy P’s 16 double-doubles is a vast improvement on the zero he collected last season. This season, he’s put up five 30-point games – again, a huge improvement from last season when he had none.
This season Siakam is averaging a career high in points, rebounds, field goal percentage and three-pointers made. And even though his minutes, shots and offensive usage has gone up, his effort and intensity on defence hasn’t gone down.
Russell’s numbers are nice, and he would be the winner if you handed out the award based on narrative. The infuriating debate argued by Richard Jefferson and Tracy McGrady on ESPN’s “The Jump” underlines the point that the award is often handed out for reasons other than who actually improved the most. Thankfully, Zach Lowe was there to add some logic to the discourse.
Even if the award was given to the player who was more “valuable,” as it is often argued, Siakam would still have a strong case as the one constant on the second-best team in the NBA.
Siakam profiles like previous winners of the award. Just like Victor Oladipo, who was named MIP in 2018, or former winners Tracy McGrady, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Siakam’s year-over-year improvement is an obvious precursor to his inevitable superstardom.
This season isn’t just a two-horse race, with Zach LaVine, Julius Randle, De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and even Paul George all being worthy candidates. But nobody has added to their NBA canvas more than Siakam.
Siakam is averaging 10 more points than he did last year at 17 points per game along with 6.9 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists per game. Russell, meanwhile, is averaging six more points per game, scoring 21 points a night with 3.8 rebounds per game and 6.9 assists.
And Siakam improves upon his numbers when Lowry and Leonard aren’t playing, averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds without the Raptors’ all-stars in the lineup.
In the last seven games when Leonard has not been in lineup, Siakam has averaged 25.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 56.7 per cent field-goal percentage and 44.8 three-point percentage. Most importantly, the team is 5-2 in those seven contests.
The data and the eye test back Siakam, but the votes aren’t always based on those factors and often human emotion becomes part of the equation.
Russell defines the terrible personnel decisions recently made by the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s the face of a re-birth of basketball in Brooklyn, as the Nets are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
What headline does Siakam embody? That he represents that Raptors 905 is the most proficient minor-league team in sports? That drafting and internally developing is the greatest strength of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster? That Basketball Without Borders is a breeding ground for NBA talent? None of that makes for captivating talking points, but the award should be won on the floor not in the media.
Russell is settling into the player he was expected to be more so than radically improving. Let’s not forget he was the second pick in the 2015 draft by the Lakers and started 48 games as a rookie. He put up solid numbers across the board, averaging 13.2 points, 3.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in his rookie year. In his second season, Russell’s stats improved, as he averaged 15.6 points, 4.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
He’s been a pretty good player – if anything, his improvement has been more off the floor than on it. Russell has always been able to play, but his issue was maturity.
When you watch Russell play you see a slightly more refined version of the same player. When you watch Siakam play you see a totally different player. Not even from who he was last year, but from who he was on opening night this year. This season he’s improved his career high in scoring six times, and it currently stands at 44.
The Raptors are all in on the promotion to get Siakam the award, creating “Spicy P” hot sauce with his stats on the side to remind voters how hot Siakam has been.
The gesture is cute but now still just 25 after he started playing organized basketball at 18, the improvement in his game – a game that he’s still learning – is obvious. Siakam may not have the greatest narrative or the greatest amount of exposure but he has demonstrated the greatest amount of improvement, and there is no sign it’s about to stop.