Ian Mahinmi only earned three of 130 third-place votes for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, but there is little doubt he would win a fictitious Most Improved Pacer award by a landslide.
The career back-up turned starter averaged career-highs in points (9.3), rebounds (7.1), and blocks (1.1) during the 2015-16 regular season.
After serving as Roy Hibbert's understudy for three seasons, the fourth-year Pacer proved he could anchor a defense as well as his once highly esteemed predecessor. Even when limited by a sprained lower back in the post-season, the Toronto Raptors finished just 34.7 percent of their field goals attempted at the rim against Mahinmi. Among centers who averaged at least 20 minutes per game, Mahinmi posted the third-best defensive real plus-minus (4.12), trailing only Golden State's Andrew Bogut (5.29) and San Antonio's Tim Duncan (5.08).
Mahinmi's dual-ability to use his size to alter shots in the restricted area as well as his mobility to help-and-recover, aided the Pacers in maintaining their identity as a team that prides itself on defense. On the year, Indiana posted the NBA's third-best defensive rating, behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks.
How did Ian Mahinmi impress:
Turnover Ratio: During the 2014-15 season, Mahinmi committed 16.9 turnovers per 100 of his own possessions. This season? That number fell to 13.3. Why? Because he worked on his ability to catch the ball.
"His hands, he's worked on them hands this summer. I can say that," Paul George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner prior to the team's first preseason game. "Now we have that option to get all the way to the basket and if help comes, he has that momentum and that forceful crash to the basket where he's dunking those. It's been working so far for us."
Take this play against the Houston Rockets for example, Paul George was intent on driving the ball hard to the rack before Dwight Howard met him on the way there. Having already left his feet with nowhere to go, Indiana's franchise star was forced to toss a last-ditch pass over his right shoulder. Mahinmi not only handled the pass, he converted the lay-up.
Rather than losing possession, Mahinmi thrived as the roll-man this season. Having scored 1.13 points per possession(PPP) when crashing hard toward the rim, Indiana's starting center ranked among the top ten of the league when compared to those with at least 130 possessions.
Passing: Mahinmi's improved hands helped him do more than make difficult catches, they transformed him into a capable passer.
Here, the threat of Mahinmi rolling to the rim caused both Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas to collapse on him in the lane. Recognizing that he had drawn the attention of two defenders, Indiana's center made the catch, pivoted, and found Myles Turner in the corner for the long two.
On the year, Mahinmi's assist percentage doubled to nine percent, up from 4.5 last season.
How did Ian Mahinmi disappoint:
Shooting: Finding something to criticize about the 29-year-old's career-season almost seems like splitting hairs at this point, but if there were one area where he could still improve it would be his shooting touch. For a second consecutive season, the Frenchman failed to shoot above 60 percent from the free throw line. Still, his 58.7 percent conversion rate this season does represent a considerable improvement over last's seasons mark (30.4%). By April, Mahinmi had gotten this number up over 70 percent. If he can hold steady at that rate next season, Ma-hack-mi will forever become a relic of the past.
What's next for Ian Mahinmi?
After being eliminated from the playoffs by the Toronto Raptors Sunday night, Mahinmi told Fox Sports Indiana's Jeremiah Johnson "we have a bright future here." His usage of the pronoun "we" seems to indicate that the 29-year-old has some interest in continuing his career with the Indiana Pacers. However, with Larry Bird still intent on improving the team's offense and tempo, Mahinmi's return to the team seems less than certain.
In order to put more points on the board, signing a versatile wing or stretch-four could become the team's top priority. If Bird ties up cap space trying to bring his small-ball vision to fruition, then Myles Turner, who shot 15 percent better from mid-range than Mahinmi and boasts the ability to both protect the rim and stretch the floor, could get fast-tracked into being the team's new starting center, despite some of his defensive shortcomings.
Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Ian Mahinmi's improved play has earned his keep. If not here, then definitely elsewhere.