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April 10, 2018

Ben Simmons deserves to call himself Rookie of the Year, because he's in a class by himself

Outside of the brilliant opening stretch that thrust his name into the national spotlight, Ben Simmons has had to deal with detractors and skeptics tearing down his rookie season all year. First it was Kyle Kuzma, the surprise success story burning down the nets for the Lakers. Then it was Jayson Tatum, the two-way rookie succeeding as a role player in the middle of Boston's hot start.

Nowadays, there are really only two guys left fighting for top rookie honors. There is Simmons, the do-it-all force putting up numbers we haven't seen since Magic Johnson, and Donovan Mitchell, the No. 1 scoring option for a surprise playoff team in Utah. The question remains: Who should be the Rookie of the Year?

While Simmons has tried to avoid most questions about individual numbers and achievements all year, instead focusing his answers on team success, he offered up a response to ESPN's Chris Haynes that drew attention following a year filled with quotes that rarely offered much of anything.

"Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent," said Simmons. "I think I have been playing solid all year. If you look at the numbers, you'll see. People that know the game know."

He followed this up with an answer, according to Haynes, about which other rookies have caught his attention during his first season.

"None," said Simmons. "I want to be where the greats are. So for me, I watch the guys like [Kevin Durant], [LeBron James], [Steph] Curry, Russell [Westbrook], guys like that. That's where I want to be. I think for me, that's what I love to watch."

These comments made some waves on social media on Monday, prompting a lot of debate about humility and respect for opponents and all sorts of other nonsense buzzwords. Part of that reaction, truthfully, stems from the idea that this Rookie of the Year race is somehow close, and that Simmons should show reverence for a player others feel is at least nipping at his heels, if not in a dead heat with him.

In truth, there is little-to-no evidence that suggests Mitchell is in Simmons' weight class as a player, and given the gap between the two, the outrage over Simmons' declarations is downright comical.

The scoring gap

In the interest of fairness, we can start in Mitchell's strongest category. No one should diminish the burden he has shouldered as a rookie guard, which is a big factor in Utah's relevance following the departure of Gordon Hayward.

As advanced metrics have taken off over the last decade, fans and the media have slowly begun to discredit players viewed as "volume scorers," treasuring efficiency above all else. But a lot of context gets lost if you throw out the burden of creation altogether. Sixers fans have seen first hand how tough it can be when you have to rely so heavily on one or two guys to create most of your offense, a problem only recently alleviated by bench upgrades.

So while a lot of people in the Philadelphia area have tried to downplay Mitchell's scoring by pointing out how many more shot attempts he has than Simmons, I think that's the wrong approach. Mitchell does things on offense Simmons simply can't, or at least doesn't. The lack of three-point shooting remains a long-term concern for Simmons and limits lineup construction around him to a certain degree. There is an intangible value to being a go-to scorer that we can't track with numbers.

The 4.5 extra points Mitchell accumulates per game matter, as does the shot distribution that gets him there. However, if the case for Mitchell rests solely on providing plus-offensive value in comparison to Simmons, it falls apart fairly quickly under scrutiny, even if we throw out Simmons' 11-point gap in field-goal percentage.

All the advanced statistics that have been developed with regard to efficiency tend to reward players like Mitchell more than players like Simmons. True Shooting percentage (TS) factors in two-point shots, three-point shots, and free throws, while Effective Field Goal percentage (EFG) adjusts for the fact that three-point shots are inherently worth an extra point.

And yet despite Simmons being a poor free-throw shooter and a non-shooter from three, he bests Mitchell in both those categories by a decent margin. In fact, if you look at the vast majority of advanced offensive stats, Simmons is either better or competitive with Mitchell across the board.

Stat Leader (gap) 
 eFG%Simmons (4.1%)
 TS% Simmons (1.7%)
 Player Efficiency Rating Simmons (3.6)
 Offensive Win SharesSimmons (3.0)
 Offensive Real Plus-Minus Mitchell (0.2)

For disclaimer purposes: All-in-one stats do not necessarily mean one player is better than the other on one side of the ball. The problem for Mitchell is that he trails in almost every single one, and his one-category lead is by the slimmest of margins.

It's also a misrepresentation to suggest Mitchell carries a much higher burden than Simmons does, or at least a misunderstanding of what they do and how they play. Simmons is absolutely a catalyst for Philadelphia's offense, just in a very different way than Mitchell is. The Utah guard's primary strength is scoring, while Simmons does most of his damage as a passer.

Simmons' burden as a passer is much greater than the public seems to realize. The rookie hybrid averages over 74 passes per game, which leads the NBA by nine per game over his closest competitor, Nikola Jokic. Whether you're measuring by volume or by efficiency, Simmons is one of the most productive passers in the NBA — he's top-five in the league in assists per game, secondary assists, and potential assists, keeping company like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.

While Mitchell scoring 20+ a game on okay efficiency as a rookie is exceptional, he is not occupying the same airspace in his area of strength. Mitchell is 21st in the league in points per game, sandwiched between Karl-Anthony Towns and Khris Middleton. Nothing to sneeze at, but combined with the previously mentioned efficiency numbers, it takes some of the luster off of the separation he has from Simmons as a scorer.

The gap between Simmons and Mitchell as passers is at least as large — and I'd argue larger — than the gap between them as scorers. Both play on teams where their self-creation is necessary, and Simmons is able to do a lot of what Mitchell does as a scorer while lapping him as a passer — his assist percentage, which measures the ratio of field goals assisted by a player while they're on the floor, is nearly double Mitchell's in their time spent on the floor.

A charitable read would rule this close. Objectively, it doesn't appear that way.

Defense, as explained by positional versatility

With that side of the ball settled, we can turn to the area where Simmons is a prohibitive favorite. This is where the argument really looks silly under scrutiny, for reasons that are trackable or simply common sense.

Let's begin with the latter. To be an impactful defender as a 6'3" guard like Mitchell, you have to be in the very top echelon of all defenders at the position. Names like Patrick Beverly and Chris Paul are instructive here — they're a couple of the only players in the league who are legitimately impactful at the point of attack, thanks to a combination of instincts, tenacity, toughness, and preparation.

When a lot of your defense is being played on the perimeter, your success is inherently tied to the people behind you. How good is the communication on screens, and how good are you at getting through or around them once it's communicated? What's your recovery speed like when a pick-and-roll ballhandler gets around the corner? On switches, how do you cope with being matched up against larger players?

The last item is the most critical for our discussion. Simmons is a nightmare for opposing teams because he can't really be exploited on either side of a switch. He has guarded some of the league's elite point guards credibly, from Kyrie Irving to Russell Westbrook, and is just as effective if he ends up having to bang bodies with someone in the post. His combination of size and speed is breathtaking, and throughout the season he has been unafraid to take on big challenges as the moment dictated it.

While Mitchell's large wingspan gives him a bit of versatility, you can't ask him to guard people on the spectrum from Westbrook to LeBron. But that's exactly what Simmons has done this year, even switching back and forth on single possessions between star guards and wings when the moment dictated it.

The positional data available for matchups confirms this fact. Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu compiled all the data here if you want to toy around with it yourself, but Simmons' defensive assignments have been almost perfectly split this season: 21.1 percent at point guard, 20 percent at shooting guard, 29.3 percent at small forward, and 22.8 percent at power forward. Those numbers are completely abnormal, and not even versatile defenders like Draymond Green or LeBron can claim that sort of split. Mitchell's splits are of a more normal variety, with point guard (28.6 percent) and shooting guard (42.5 percent) seeing the bulk of his energy.

Versatility is only as valuable as your aptitude; it wouldn't matter that you split your time between positions if you defended some or all of them poorly. And while we absolutely must take defensive metrics with a grain of salt — they are notoriously noisy — Simmons dominates Mitchell by an even greater margin on the defensive side of the metrics.

 StatLeader (margin) 
 Defensive Box Plus-MinusSimmons (3.9)
 Defensive Real Plus-Minus Simmons (1.6)

This is all without considering rebounding, one of the biggest points of separation between Mitchell and Simmons. Simmons more than doubles his smaller counterpart in that regard, averaging 8.1 per game to Mitchell's 3.7. In fact, Simmons' average on the defensive end alone (6.3) is nearly double Mitchell's total output, which is no small margin of victory. Think of it this way — that's nearly three more possessions per game that Simmons ends for his opponent than Mitchell.

Basketball is a sport where the goal hangs 10 feet in the air. Mitchell can't control his genetics any more than the average person can, and in time he may grow into an impact-level defender at the positions he's responsible for. But he's not currently, and Simmons' versatility is once again far superior to his fellow rookie on this front.

Artificial gatekeeping

So, you might ask, if Simmons is better on defense and better on offense, why is it that we're still having this discussion? There are no special teams in basketball, so Mitchell certainly isn't giving you any added value as a punt returner.

This is where two of the most prominent arguments made against Simmons emerge: "He's not a real rookie!" and "He's not even the best player on his team!"

That these are the points used to sway voters or public opinion to Mitchell's side is telling. If the strongest case for Mitchell rests on disqualifying Simmons, you have effectively admitted Mitchell cannot beat him on merit as a player. When the first words out of your mouth are an attempt to tear down eligibility the NBA has made clear, you have already lost the argument.

And the eligibility is as clear as it gets: if you are playing your first NBA minutes, you are a rookie for that season, whether you play 25 or 2500 minutes. Your rookie time does not start until you have played in an NBA game.

There is certainly an argument to be made about how much Simmons has benefitted from being able to study and train with an NBA team for a year vs. playing another year in college, as Mitchell had to do. Brett Brown addressed this specific phenomenon in late March, and acknowledged the benefit while downplaying it as a decisive factor for award purposes:

There's nothing like playing basketball versus sitting in a classroom. So how much of an advantage? I don't know. But to make the argument that [Mitchell] might deserve it more than Ben because of that, I do not buy into that. Donovan Mitchell, he's had a hell of a year, but it's not to the standards that Ben has had. Look at the impact he's had on a team that won 26 games and is now, you know, looking at a playoff position ten games out, we knew this and now we want more. Look at the impact Ben Simmons has had on the game. In my eyes, it speaks volumes and confirms what I said: he's the stone cold rookie of the year.

If anything, Simmons' trajectory tracks right along with other "true rookies" he's being compared to. After hitting a December wall, he improved by simply playing more basketball and adjusting to what the league was throwing at him along the way. 

The best player argument also doesn't do any favors for Mitchell, who is at best the second-best player on his team, just like Simmons. Both guys have been large parts of their team's second-half surges, but the big men on both clubs are the straws that stir the drink. Simmons and Mitchell remain on the positive side of the ledger when their starting center sits, and both only slightly.

If anything, Simmons has proven over this Embiid-less stretch to close the year that he is plenty capable of leading the team on his own. Philadelphia's quicker, high-flying style in his absence is powered by Simmons, 

If the NBA ever decides to change how they designate rookies, we can have a very different conversation. Until then, this line of reasoning has no bearing on the real world or how we should discuss top honors for the year.

A final word

Ultimately, none of this stuff really matters. That's the honest truth, and when you ask either one of these guys about what matters to them in the grand scheme of things, it's winning championships and being the best player they can possibly be long-term. Winning a rookie award or not will have no impact on this.

And saying Mitchell isn't as good as Simmons is right now is not a knock on Mitchell. After he fell in the draft past guards who have been nowhere close to as good as he is, Mitchell's success has made him one of the best stories in basktball this year. I get it — it's easier to get swept up in the underdog's tale than to applaud the behemoth who has been the best player in his class dating back years.

But Simmons is absolutely correct, regardless of the implications on his humility, to carry himself as if he should not be focused on first-year players. It is reflexive to yell, "Who cares about a stupid award?" when you're not the one putting the sweat equity into producing and winning and thriving at a job. 

Simmons' current averages in the major stat categories — 16 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists per game on 54 percent shooting — have only been matched for a season four times in NBA history. The players who have done it? LeBron James twice, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson. None of them did it in their rookie seasons.

Ultimately, these are the standards Simmons is measured by. He has been exceptional by every definition of the word and has earned the right to focus on comparisons to players who shift the league with their impact, rather than rookies who stand out only when compared to players their age.

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