The NBA intentionally gives its awards vague titles to promote debate. The MVP award has existed for over 60 years and no consensus has ever formed on the definition of “value.” The other awards are worse. What exactly does “Rookie of the Year” mean? Does it mean the best rookie of a given year? The one that provided the most value? Or the one that will be remembered as that year’s most iconic rookie?
By that latter definition, for instance, Zion Williamson is an entirely justifiable choice as a Rookie of the Year finalist just as Joel Embiid would have been a justifiable choice as the 2017 winner. No rookie, save perhaps Ja Morant, was nearly as memorable or exciting as Williamson was. If the question is which rookie provided the most value, it is Morant by a mile. He was the best player on a possible playoff team.
But the one constant here is the word “rookie,” and with those words come expectations. Typically, rookies aren’t supposed to contribute to winning. They are supposed to post empty numbers that suggest that one day, they might. This is how Tyreke Evans beat Stephen Curry in 2010, and how Michael Carter-Williams beat Victor Oladipo in 2014. Both were entirely justifiable statistical decisions at the time, but a modicum of critical thought in either case could have pointed us in the right direction. We should have known that Curry was better than Evans. We should have known that Oladipo was better than Carter-Williams. We let counting stats get in the way of measuring impact because rookies aren’t supposed to actually impact winning.
One rookie who did impact winning this season? Brandon Clarke. Few first-year players have ever looked less like a rookie than Memphis’ astonishingly versatile big man. In some cases, that statement was literal. Clarke, by virtue of his 64.9 effective field goal percentage, was the most efficient rookie in NBA history to take at least eight shots per game. He is the first rookie ever to shoot over 60 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc on any meaningful sample. He is second on the Grizzlies in rebounding rate among those who have spent the entire season with Memphis, holds up well by almost any defensive metric, and most importantly, he made the team materially better when he was on the court. Memphis outscored opponents by 0.5 points per 100 possessions when he played and was outscored by 1.3 points possession with him on it.
The same cannot be said for Miami Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn, who, by virtue of being named a Rookie of the Year finalist, earned more votes than Clarke and will likely finish in third place in the voting, which was done by media members.
. This is by no means a slight against Nunn. He did exactly what a rookie is supposed to do. He put up numbers. Finishing third among rookies in scoring and fourth in assists is nothing to scoff at.
But most value metrics paint those numbers as the totality of Nunn’s contributions. His VORP, Box Plus-Minus and Real Plus-Minus are all negative, while Clarke’s are all positive. Dunn is seventh on his (fairly thin) team in Win Shares. Clarke is second. But most importantly, the Heat play better with Nunn off the floor, beating opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions when he sits compared to only 1.7 when he plays. Those numbers are juiced by his place in Miami’s stellar starting lineup. Miami’s starting five outscores opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, but remove Jimmy Butler and Nunn’s net rating drops to neutral, whereas the removal of any other starter drops Nunn into negative territory.
It makes sense. A young ball-handler couldn’t ask for a better ecosystem than sharing the floor with an All-Star scorer (Butler), two of the league’s best shooters like Duncan Robinson and Meyers Leonard (42.9 percent from 3!) and one of the most versatile big men in Bam Adebayo. Putting up numbers with defensive attention focused elsewhere, even on a winning team, isn’t inherently impressive. Being not only a participant but an active driver of that winning means more.
It’s a concept we tend to grasp with veterans. The scoring champion doesn’t win MVP every year. Players like Adebayo and Draymond Green make All-Star teams without gaudy numbers. But the lower standards with which we treat rookies almost punishes the few who surpass them. Clarke was a better NBA player than Nunn this season. Apparently, he just wasn’t a better rookie.