There is a very important distinction we can make in how NBA awards are titled.
The most important award is, obviously, Most Valuable Player. As much as the specific parameters of that award are up for debate, the name itself at least offers the guideline that we should be trying to find the player who is most valuable.
Apply this to the Rookie of the Year award. A player who plays 31 games is almost never going to be as valuable as a player who plays, say, 75. Even if the former is a superstar and the latter is a role player. But look at the title of the award. It is not Most Valuable Rookie. It is Rookie of the Year.
This implies that the award’s criteria was meant to be much broader. If not, why wouldn’t Most Valuable Player just be Player of the Year (as it is in college basketball)? The fact that the league, intentionally or not, has set less specific parameters for this award than the others indicates to me that they were preparing for this exact sort of situation. One in which an obvious winner existed but some circumstance made their candidacy debatable.
Consider Steve Kerr last year. He won Coach of the Year despite missing Golden State’s first 39 games last season. But the Warriors won 73 games largely based on the infrastructure that he built. And on an even simpler note, they won 73 games. They were so good that no coach was ever going to be as memorable or historically important to that specific season as Kerr.
Let’s apply that logic to Embiid. I am genuinely not sure if he is the most valuable rookie or not. Malcolm Brogdon beats him in Win Shares, 4.1 to 1.9, but Embiid comes out ahead by ESPN’s Estimated Wins Added metric (though both lose to New York’s Willy Hernangómez). Brogdon scored 140 more points… but that margin is small enough to assume that the replacement-level Sixers who took Embiid’s minutes probably closed it with some interest. Brogdon played pretty good defense. But the value of pretty good point guard defense is dwarfed by a Defensive Player of the Year-level center, which Embiid was.
If the award itself were Most Valuable Rookie, I would spend more time trying to figure out which of the two actually provided more value. But as that is not the award’s official title, I can fall back on the idea that despite the analytics revolution we currently exist within, basketball is not close to the sort of quantitative measures of value that exist in baseball. A stat like Baseball’s Wins Above Replacement can’t exist in a sport like basketball, where everyone’s role is too different and there are too many things a player can do that aren’t measured by statistics. Value will always be, to a certain extent, subjective.
So too is a player’s memorability or importance, but I imagine the basketball-viewing public is so overwhelmingly unanimous on that front that the answer might as well be fact. Joel Embiid was the best rookie this season when he was on the court. When you think back on the rookies of the 2016-17 season, your mind will go to Embiid first. He was the rookie that mattered most this season, even if he didn’t technically provide the most value. Just as Steve Kerr was the coach that mattered most last season, even if he wasn’t on the bench for the entire season.
I would rather reward 31 games of greatness than 82 games of mediocrity. I don’t want to look back on this award a decade from now and think about how the class of rookies was so bad that the winner was a role player for a No. 6 seed. I want to remember that Embiid was so overwhelmingly good that he deserved to win despite playing only 31 games.
I don’t know what the minimum threshold for this award should be. A part of me wants to say that Embiid cut it about as close as he could have. But, I probably would have voted for him had he played 10 fewer games. Maybe even 15. I knew, just as the rest of you did, that Embiid was the best rookie right from the moment he stepped on the court. In the first game he played, he scored 20 points with seven rebounds and two blocks. No other rookie did that until April 11th. Marquese Chriss did so in 40 minutes. Embiid played 23 on opening night.
That says everything that needs to be said about this race. Joel Embiid is the Rookie of the Year.
The Rest of My Ballot…
2. Malcolm Brogdon: This was made clear above, but he beats Dario Šarić and Buddy Hield by virtue of playing on a playoff team. That doesn’t make him a better player, but it limits what he can do on the court. The Bucks actually want to win games, and he plays a role in that. The Sixers and Pelicans/Kings did not, and could therefore let their rookies experiment to their heart’s content. That naturally leads to some stat padding. Brogdon could’ve put up bigger stats on a worse team. I’m not so sure Šarić or Hield could have played the specific role Brogdon did for Milwaukee.
3. Buddy Hield: In the aggregate, Šarić and Hield are probably even. Hield gets the edge for me due to his late-season improvement in Sacramento. Scoring 15 efficient points per game on a horrific team like the Kings is a fairly impressive feat. And no team expects players to plateau as rookies. You want them to improve, and Hield showed more improvement to me than Šarić did. That gives him the tiebreaker.
4. Dario Šarić: That being said, I’m more optimistic about Šarić’s future than Hield’s. He’s a year younger, had to assimilate into a new country and has a far less easily defined role than Buddy does. It will take longer for his team to learn how to properly utilize him, and that artificially deflated his rookie numbers. That matters in Rookie of the Year voting. It shouldn’t when projecting them long-term.
5. Jaylen Brown: Beats Willy Hernangómez through the same logic described in Brogdon’s runner-up finish. Any rookie can put up numbers with enough opportunity, but not many can fill a vital role on a No. 1 seed. Brown’s defense is going to be of actual use to the Celtics in the playoffs. At this point, Hernangómez probably has no individual skill that the same could be said of if he were on a playoff team.