Michael Carter-Williams is your Rookie of the Year and fie on anyone who tries to tell me otherwise

Michael Carter-Williams is your Rookie of the Year and fie on anyone who tries to tell me otherwise
April 16, 2014, 10:59 am

It's hard to remember the last argument that made me as defensive, territorial and generally homer-ish as this year's Rookie of the Year debate. As far as I'm concerned, there's only one option for this award, and has only been one since the very first week of the season; that of course being Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Debating this race to me is like debating the best Nas album--really, you're just arguing for who's coming in second to Illmatic.

That's not to say that there aren't arguments to be made for other candidates: There are, and people have made them, smart people at that. And that's not to say that those arguments aren't credible: They are, based on coherent principles and logically presented statistics.

They exist, but I don't want to read them. Even glancing at them in passing gets my blood boiling, and reading them in greater detail makes me want to to do whatever the internet equivalent of covering my ears with my hands and yelling LA LA LA I CAN'T HEEEAAAAARRRR YOOOOUUUU is. It takes some personal restraint not to leave angry comments and make sniping tweets and hurl baseless, insulting accusations of prejudice and ignorance at the writer.

Objective? Hardly, though I do feel like my level of emotional investment in the matter isn't without some sort of relevance to the debate. I'd wager I watched more of Michael Carter-Williams' rookie season--especially if you count the Summer League and preseason--than 99.5% of NBA fans out there, and maybe every one of the league folks who actually get a vote for this award. If I watched that much of him and still feel it in my bones (and have since the first game of the regular season, without pause) that Michael Carter-Williams is unquestionably the Rookie of the Year, I do kinda feel like that means something.

Maybe not. But luckily, I don't think I need to include my own personal emotional reflexes when discussing MCW's Rookie of the Year argument to make a pretty convincing case. Let's break said case down in full here and hopefully that will basically be that.

1. MCW leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals--per game and total.

For at least 75% of voters and other NBA fans, they could probably stop reading there and have heard more than enough to cast their vote. I mean, read that sentence again, because it's pretty incredible, and I probably don't need to tell you that it's never even come close to happening before.

The argument against MCW here is that a lot of his counting stats are inflated by playing more minutes than other rookies, and by the Sixers playing at a faster pace, getting him a number of extra possessions to accrue stats with. Still, even if you go by percentages--the approximate number of times per 100 possessions a player will notch a stat, which we'll use a bunch in this article to deflect such pace and PT-related quibbles--for assists and steals, MCW ranks 2nd for assists among rookies who have played at least 1000 minutes and fourth in steals, and of those players above him, only Victor Oladipo has notched even half the playing time he has.

He's not in the discussion for rebound percentage, but that's because he's a point guard, and it's pretty ridiculous he's in any rebounding discussions at all. Still, among guards this season--rookie or no, point or no--who have played 1000 minutes this season, only Indiana's Lance Stephenson and OKC's Russell Westbrook have a higher rebounding percentage than MCW's 9.8, and Lance is the only one who beats MCW's 6.2 a game.

That first historical sentence may not be enough to justify why Michael Carter-Williams should win the ROY, but it's certainly enough to explain he will win it. If you're not yet convinced about should, though, let's keep going.

2. Only two players in the NBA averaged 16 points, six boards and six assists this season: LeBron James and Michael Carter-Williams.

Again, this has a lot to do with minutes and pace, but still, it's not like MCW is the only player in the league getting minutes playing for a fast team. And it's not like his numbers are a per-36-minute mirage: Michael only plays 34.5 minutes a game, and if you change the equation to make it players who average 17 points, six rebounds and six assists per 36, the only players you're throwing in with MCW and LBJ are Russell Westbrook and Tyreke Evans. Philly's lightning-quick pace does buy MCW a handful of extra possessions, but he's not playing an entire extra quarter a game; the numbers he puts together are still extremely impressive.

Besides, any time you can be mentioned on a list of two alongside the NBA's reigning MVP and consensus best player (if not MVP this season), you pretty much have to shout it out, somewhat regardless of context. Michael Carter-Williams has obviously not been anywhere near the player LeBron James is this season, but the variety of ways he can impact a game on the court is similar, and that's tremendous.

3. He's done what he's done for a team with barely any veterans, a rookie head coach and a GM that traded away half his rotation teammates a couple months through the season.

Many will point out how terrible the Sixers have been this season as a strike against MCW's ROY case. I say it makes it even more impressive. It's hard to be a successful point guard on a team of non-shooters, non-finishers, and especially since the trade of Evan Turner, non-creators. Imagine how many more assists he could have a game if he was playing for a team like the Rockets, with their endless reserves of three-point bombers and post threats. Imagine how much higher his shooting percentages could have been if he had other creators to play off of and to draw attention away from him.

Meanwhile, even if the Sixers finish the season at 18-64, that's still twice as many wins as some thought the Sixers would have this season, and more than all but five of the 17 members of the Sixers Prediction League anticipated. It's hard to argue that MCW isn't the biggest reason why that is--the Sixers were terrible by design this season, but his rookie breakout was the one thing that not even Sam Hinkie could have properly anticipated, busting the team out to a 3-0 start and threatening to keep them verging on respectability all the way through the New Year.

Finally, it's worth repeating that MCW missed 12 games this season--all coming when Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were still on the roster--and the team went 1-11 in those games. So with him in the lineup, they're 17-52 this season, which is more like the win pace of a 22 or 23-win team. In other words: If you think the Sixers are unwatchably bad this season, you still can't even imagine how much worse it could've been if Hinkie hadn't taken Michael Carter-Williams in the draft last summer.

4. He's saved his best for the end.

This doesn't really mean a ton in the overall context of overall ROY voting, but it's worth mentioning to combat some narrative-based arguments--particularly those levied by ESPN's Bill Simmons, who essentially argued that the Sixers' tanking was ruining Michael Carter-Williams, and once stated during an on-air NBA broadcast that he didn't think he could vote for MCW because the Sixers "were going to lose 36 consecutive games."

Obviously, the Sixers didn't end up losing 36 consecutive games--they did lose an NBA-record-tying 26 straight, but they have gone 3-6 since with a -4.7 average scoring differential (compared to -10.8 for the whole season), and Michael Carter-Williams' strong end-of-season play is the main reason why. Over those nine games, MCW has averaged 18.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG and 6.7 APG on 53% shooting, getting to the line six times and turning it over about twice a contest. That's an absolutely incredible end to the season, as good as nearly any point guard in the league is having, and way better than he's been so far this season, even in his headline-grabbing November and December.

The tanking didn't ruin Michael Carter-Williams, didn't even taint him. It slowed him down, sure, especially as he hit the rookie wall a little bit at the same time that Sam Hinkie decided that the team would be better served playing out the string without either their leading scorer or best big man (and only reliable outside shooter). His stats were so unexpectedly good to start the season that it would've been almost impossible for him to keep it up all year, and when regression hit in the New Year, it was no surprise that it hit hard.

But he's come out stronger on the other side, and rather than just going through the motions as the Sixers finished out their meaningless season, he's still working with Brett Brown to improve his game, going more to his floater and his pull-up elbow jumper and smartly removing the three-pointer from his arsenal entirely--he hasn't even shot one in two weeks, after barely making a quarter of his first 203 of the season. You can see him growing in confidence and assuming more of a leadership role, improving his chemistry with the likes of Thaddeus Young and Henry Sims and even Hollis Thompson, and it gets you so excited to see what he can do next year with (presumably) some actual NBA-caliber teammates.

Yeah, it's an intangible-related argument, but MCW defeating conventional wisdom and continuing to grow and improve through one of the most difficult situations a first-year point guard could possibly be asked to lead through is one of the most impressive things about his rookie season to me.

5. There's nobody else.

Going back to item #1 up there, about that oft-cited stat concerning MCW leading all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals: The most obvious parallel in recent sports award voting I can think of is in baseball, when Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera won the 2012 Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting average, homers and RBIs. But though the conventional stats obviously pointed to Cabrera for that year's MVP, the deeper stats made a pretty convincing argument for the Angels' Mike Trout, who had a much better year on the basepaths and on defense, and very possibly had a much stronger all-around case for the award. The MVP still went to Cabrera, and his season was so incredible that it was (mostly) hard for anyone to complain that much, but had Trout won, it would have been tough for an attentive baseball fan to argue against that, either.

There is no Mike Trout in this Rookie of the Year race.

In fact, across the board, this is the worst rookie class in recent memory, and possibly in a dead heat with the infamous '00-'01 class for the worst in NBA history. Of the top ten picks in last year's draft, only two can present an even quasi-credible Rookie of the Year argument, and neither of them would have even merited a runner-up mention in most half-decent ROY races. Michael Carter-Williams will (and probably should) coast on the dominance of his superficial numbers, because it's basically the only way that any kind of dominance could be ascribed to any of the rookies this season.

But for argument's sake, we'll discuss the other nominees one-by-one. First, though, let's be fair and address the remainder of the argument against MCW winning, which aside from deflating his counting stats by adjusting for his extra minutes and the team's rapid pace, is mostly keyed around his D and his shooting. His defense has indeed been sloppy, as he doesn't have a great understanding of rotations and general team defense yet (at least somewhat a result of him playing in Syracuse's zone the past three years), and his lack of strength can hurt him at times. The Sixers' defensive rating is two points worse with him on the court than off, which isn't great for a guy who should have all the tools--quickness, awareness, length--to be a plus-defender at some point in his NBA career.

The shooting numbers are also somewhat damning, as MCW has shot just 40.6% from the field on the season, which is pretty low for a guy who averages about 15 shots and only gets to the line about five times a game. His shot chart shows that he's below average shooting from pretty much anywhere on the floor, with only long twos from the baseline--where he's been bizarrely effective, but gets very few looks from--ranking as above-average. And he's been worst of all from deep, where as previously mentioned, he's hit just 25.6% of his many three-point attempts, ranking his overall shooting season as one of the worst in recent memory.

Lastly, it should probably be mentioned that Michael's turned the ball over a ton--3.5 times a game, one of the league's highest rates, though if we're going to deflate all his other stats for pace and minutes, we should probably go a little easy on that number too. What's more, for someone who handles the ball as much as MCW does, it's not all that unusual or meaningful to have that high a turnover rate--it's just a little higher than that of LeBron James, who also averages fewer assists per 36, and certainly nobody faults LeBron too much as a distributor or playmaker for that.

Anyway, with all that mind, here are the players that represent MCW's toughest competition.

Victor Oladipo (PG/SG), Orlando Magic. The only one of the upper-echelon draft picks last year to even come close to expectations in his rookie season, Oladipo managed fairly decent numbers in his first year for the Magic--13.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.1 APG--in fewer minutes than MCW, for a marginally better team. The legitimately venerable Zach Lowe of Grantland gave Oladipo his top vote for ROY, citing his superior defensive numbers (the Magic have allowed six fewer points per 100 possessions w/ Victor on the floor), his better shooting and the fact that he's played in ten games more than Carter-Williams as his primary reasons for giving the #2 overall pick the nod.

Lowe is correct that the defensive numbers certainly favor Oladipo, but what he leaves out is that on the other end of the ball, the On/Off numbers favor MCW by an even wider margin. According to Basketball-Reference, the Sixers' defensive rating is two points worse when he's off the court than on, but their offensive rating is 6.3 points better. With Oladipo, their defensive rating is 5.1 points better when he's on the court, but their offensive rating 4.2 points worse. Going by their strict on/off net rating, MCW's +4.2 easily beats Oladipo's +1.0, and while it's quite as simple as that, it's also not as simple as Lowe's "Oladipo would be MCW offensively with more minutes/possessions, and he's better on defense" argument either.

Meanwhile, Oladipo's shooting is better than MCW's, but not much. His 46% effective field goal percentage beats MCW's 43%, but neither is all that good for a guard, and if you look at Oladipo's shot chart, it's nearly as ugly as Carter-Williams'. Meanwhile, the difference is shooting is more than made up for on offense by MCW's superior playmaking--MCW's assist percentage of 30.4% is well ahead of Oladipo's 22.0%, while his sky-high turnover percentage (16.9%) is still lesser than that of the notoriously loose-handled Oladipo (19.2%).

And while it's not inconsiderable that Oladipo has played in ten more games than MCW, let's also remember that games played is a volume stat, and Oladipo doesn't want to meet MCW on the battlefield when it comes to comparing those. Even with the ten extra games, Oladipo has only played about 90 minutes more total than Carter-Williams, and he still has fewer points, rebounds, assists and steals than his Philly counterpart. He's played more games, sure, but he's played fewer minutes and had a roundly lesser impact on those games, so do those ten extra outings really move the needle that much? I tend to believe not.

Lowe also ignores the disparity in rebounding between the two players, which is considerable. Oladipo's not a bad rebounder for a guard, averaging a little less than five boards per 36 minutes, with a 7.5% total rebound percentage. But in this respect, he's soundly beaten by Carter-Williams, who averages 6.5 rebounds per 36, with a TRB% of 9.8, elite numbers for any guard, as previously outlined. It's not like if Oladipo played at a Sixers-y pace and got MCW's minutes, he'd average the same numbers on the boards--Carter-Williams is just a more effective rebounder, straight up.

And finally...it's a little subjective, but can we consider degree of responsibility here? Oladipo was brought along as a bench player under Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo, two respected, quality, long-time NBA vets, and allowed to develop at his own pace until he was able to shoulder more of a load for the team. MCW was thrust into the starting role from opening night, with Tony Wroten--a player two years younger than he--as his veteran mentor, and asked to keep the team afloat as most of its vets were shed with nothing but spare parts, draft picks and cap space coming in return.

Orlando won a couple more games (23 entering tonight), but it's impossible for me to believe that Victor Oladipo had as much of an impact on the wins the Magic did have than MCW did on those of the Sixers. Carter-Williams out-volumed Oladipo and really, out-efficiencied him too--his PER is nearly two points higher on the season--and though Victor's defense was undoubtedly superior, it wasn't superior enough to make up for the gap between the two on offense and general impact. Take Oladipo away from the Magic this season and they still win at least 18 or 19 games, take MCW from the Sixers and I don't see how they crack double digits.

Trey Burke (PG), Utah Jazz. If you're making arguments strictly on admittedly slippery "He helped them win games" evidence, then MCW's primary competition for ROY honors is probably Burke. Without Burke for the first month of the season, the Jazz were an absolute mess, going 1-11 in their first twelve games while he recovered from a broken finger. With Burke, they've merely been respectably bad, going 23-46, a decently impressive turnaround that probably has a lot to do with not having to play Jamaal Tinsley or John Lucas III--two of the worst point guards in the league--as it does with Burke's solid production at the position.

Beyond win-loss record, though, there's not a ton of numerical evidence to support Burke having a case over MCW. Burke does have a much lower turnover percentage while keeping a comparable (though still slightly lower) assist percentage to MCW, but in terms of rebounding (just 5.2%), steals (1.0%), and overall scoring (14.2 per 36), MCW has the edge and it's not even close. And Burke has no real advantage over MCW in terms of shooting, either--just 38% from the field and 33% from three, with a higher overall eFG% than Carter-Williams but a lower TS%, so that's basically a wash. He also never gets to the line, with only 92 made free throws on the whole season (compared to 255 for MCW), and his PER is much worse, over three points lower than Michael's.

There is a kind of intangible sense that Burke has been the most clutch of the rookies, hitting a number of big shots at the end of games for the Jazz. But even with that, if you go behind the numbers, there's not really a ton of difference between him and MCW. Going by the most conventional clutch definition--within five points, five minutes or less to go--MCW averages 2.1 points a game on 44% shooting, where Burke averages two points a game on 50% shooting. Burke shoots better from three and and the line, but he gets to the line less frequently and has a worse overall plus-minus. It's a pretty flimsy thing to base an ROY argument on.

On the whole, the Jazz offense has been much better with Trey on the floor (+8.1 in offensive rating), but on defense, his lack of foot speed and undersized nature makes him even more of a liability than MCW (-4.6 in defenseive rating). There's really just no stat-based argument to Burke having been better this season than Carter-Williams, only a marginally superior winning percentage that has nearly as much to do with Burke's teammates (and the fact that none of them were shipped away for peanuts at the deadline) as it does with Burke himself. Unless you're a Jazz fan, I don't see how you could give him your ROY vote in good conscience.

Mason Plumlee (C), Brooklyn Nets.

The tide in ROY discussions has turned some in the last few weeks in support of Plumlee, who advanced stats like PER and Win Shares favor over the likes of Carter-Williams, Oladipo and Burke. He's hyper-efficient from the field, with a staggering 66% FG rate, he has pretty good rebound, steal and block rates, and he measures out as a net plus for the Nets on both sides of the ball. He's played a considerable part in Brooklyn becoming one of the East's most dominant teams in the season's second half, especially as he's had to help fill in for an injured Kevin Garnett, and he's the only one of the rookies in discussion whose season will be extending into the postseason.

Sounds like a pretty solid resume, right? So what's the hold up? Well, he's only played about 18 minutes a game (and about 1200 minutes total) across 68 games this year--barely half the minutes of Carter-Williams or Oladipo. It's hard to argue that a player had the most impactful season among his rookie class when he wasn't even on the court for the great majority of his team's playing time. You can say that volume isn't everything and you're certainly right about that, but do you really want to give your ROY to a guy averaging just over seven points and four rebounds a game, with good-but-not-elite defense, where he was only getting minutes in garbage time for a good deal of the season? It's certainly never happened before, and it'd be a pretty radical argument to suggest that it should happen now.

Maybe if Plumlee had been given big minutes and rotation responsibility from the first month of the season, he'd have the counting numbers as well and be a legitimate ROY favorite. Or maybe he'd get overexposed and hit the rookie wall and end up with mediocre volume stats and just slightly above-average efficiency. We don't know, and for the purposes of Rookie of the Year voting, we shouldn't really care all that much. Mason Plumlee's had a fine rookie season, one well beyond preseason expectation, and he has a very promising future in this league. But he's just not a credible candidate for this award.

(Oh, and by the way, if you're going to bring out Plumlee's breakout performance against the Heat last week, complete with that game-sealing block on LeBron James, let's not forget which rookie posted a 22/13/6/9 in an upset victory over LeBron and the defending champs. IN HIS FIRST-EVER NBA GAME.)

And that's about it. If you want to make an argument for the Knicks' Tim Hardaway Jr., Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo or Minny's late-surging Gorgui Dieng, have fun with that, but I've already spent nearly 4000 words on this article and don't want to take another 500 bringing up those players' negligible cases just to thoroughly discount them.

Anyway, if you've read this far and still feel you have a strong argument against MCW winning this thing, then more power to you, and hell, you might even have a point or two. But I'm probably not gonna wanna hear it, and I'm definitely not going to be swayed. Michael Carter-Williams redeemed and validated what should have been the most unwatchable Sixers season of the 21st century, and my head, heart and eyes are united in their stand that there is absolutely no way this guy wasn't the best, most important rookie to play this season. Just sayin'.

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