Last year, both Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray were in the running for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, although the honor was [rightfully] given to Ja Morant. Morant led the Grizzlies to the second-best record in the NBA and established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate. Murray became a fringe All-Star and Johnson was an efficient all-around player, but Morant made a real case.
Unless former Spur Dejounte Murray can take a massive leap, he will be out of contention for the award next season. Keldon Johnson winning is a long shot, but he has the 13th-best odds in the league at +3000. In order to do so, he will need a career year.
Keldon Johnson will need a career year to win MIP
Entering year four of his career, Johnson has shown steady improvement in each campaign. Last year, he averaged a cool 17 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and shot a shocking 40% from deep, all as an undersized power forward.
With the addition of Jeremy Sochan, the hopeful emergence of Zach Collins, and the continued excellence of Jakob Poeltl, Johnson should be able to move to his more natural position: small forward. In that role, Johnson will be considered an elite rebounder, an excellent defender, and a bonafide secondary scoring option. In my mind, he could even lead the Spurs in scoring. After all, someone has to do it. If Johnson puts up 22 points on solid shooting, plays with physicality, and doesn’t flounder on defense, he should be a legitimate frontrunner for the MIP award next season.
The only issue? Since 2010, all but four MIP winners were on playoff teams, and they were often the best player on that team. Will Johnson be the best player on the Spurs? Perhaps, but Vassell and Poeltl both could make solid cases. On top of that, there is absolutely no way that the Spurs will make the postseason. They probably won’t even make the play-in tournament.
The Spurs won't be good enough for individual success
Let’s pretend that the Spurs manage to outplay themselves and win enough games to be in the play-in hunt when the All-Star break rolls around. Naturally, Johnson would have been playing out of his mind to get them that far. At this point, he would be a frontrunner to win the award. It is also at this point that Popovich would find some excuse to rest Johnson as the tank commences.
This presents a catch-22 for Johnson. If he doesn’t play exceptional basketball, someone else will win the award. If he does, then he won’t get to play a full season, as Big Body gets in the way of the ultimate goal of this team: to be as bad as possible. By nature of the tank, Johnson will be eliminated from contending for this award, despite his best efforts.