With the end of the regular season almost upon us, the NBA media have started rolling out their predictions/cases for end of season awards, including, of course, Rookie of the Year. Yesterday, both Marc Stein of ESPN
and David Aldridge of NBA.com
went on the record to state that Damian Lillard should and will win Rookie of the Year honors (Stein even said Lillard should be a unanimous selection). Ben Golliver at SI.com
did the same this morning, laying out a more analytical case for Lillard.
And then there's Zach Lowe, the gold standard for NBA blogger/journalists, who makes a strong case for Lillard
while rebutting arguments for players such as Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond winning the award, a case some of the more strident folks in the basketball analytics movement have suggested.
A few pundits have laid out the case for Davis over Lillard, citing Davis's superior efficiency stats and somewhat correctly (at least on the surface) painting Lillard as a "meh" efficiency guy piling up numbers simply because he's getting a ton of minutes on a bad team.
But that's sort of the point: Lillard has put up solid offensive numbers while taking on a giant burden for a team with no bench, a limited starting center, and two solid wing players both hamstrung by injuries during the latter stages of the season. And Lillard is the engine, or at least the co-engine, in creating looks for himself and his teammates; Davis is mostly an off-ball threat who needs people to find him at the right times for lob dunks and short jumpers off pin-down screens.
That's not a knock on Davis. Getting clean looks on those types of shots requires advanced footwork and a nimble sense of timing; Davis got better synchronizing his cuts to the rim on pick-and-rolls as the season progressed, and he and Eric Gordon never really had enough time to develop a deep pick-and-roll chemistry. But it's easier to put up solid efficiency numbers in Davis's role than in Lillard's, and it absolutely matters that Lillard has played about 1,250 more minutes than Davis — the equivalent of nearly three dozen games for a player who averages about 35 minutes per game. I mean, with a minutes gap like that, we're not really even talking about comparable players anymore. Maintaining above-average production, especially on a diet of difficult 3-point shots, is a huge accomplishment for a rookie thrust, right away, into so much.
Lowe goes on to note that Lillard's defense is still a work in progress, but also points out that such is the case for Davis as well. He also writes that while he thinks Davis will eventually be the better player, Lillard has been the better rookie, which is a point you wouldn't figure one would have to mention when discussing the Rookie of the Year award, but that doesn't necessarily seem to be the case.
There's basically no debate that Lillard will win the award (the few who have argued that he shouldn't still freely admit that he will), but there does seems to be a notion in some circles that playing every game,
and a lot of minutes in those games, has no intrinsic value as it
relates to winning Rookie of the Year. Same goes with a rookie's role on
his team. I think Lowe does a great job of rebutting those arguments.
Oh, Lowe also lists JJ Hickson as third in his Most Improved Player award voting behind Larry Sanders and Greivis Vasquez and tied with Jrue Holiday ...
Hickson has excised the team-killing parts of his game and focused on the good stuff — defensive rebounding, rolling hard to the rim on pick-and-rolls, scoring off cuts, and breaking out that midrange jumper only when wide, wide, wide-open. Hickson still can't really pass and struggles with positioning on defense, but he has worked hard on the right parts of his game. Let's hope that keeps up after he signs a new contract this summer.