In most situations, a late-February game between two lottery-bound clubs from the NBA's worst conference would not qualify as appointment television. However, the individual matchup between rookie guards Victor Oladipo and Michael Carter-Williams in Wednesday's Orlando Magic/Philadelphia 76ers tilt makes it such, especially if their last showdown is any indication: the duo dropped triple-doubles against one another, the first time in NBA history two rookies popped off for triple-doubles in the same game. That the game was a real corker--Philly won by a single point in double-overtime--only added to the fun.
The occasion of their rematch marks a fine time to discuss the Rookie of the Year award, an honor which one of the two players will receive sometime in April; with apologies to and due respect for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trey Burke, and Tim Hardaway Jr., no one else stands a realistic shot of taking it home. In another rebuilding season for the Magic, the team's fans have directed their attention toward their team's future, yes, but also toward this race for an individual accolade. Oladipo's recent strong play--he posted a near triple-double and made history while single-handedly rallying Orlando past the New York Knicks on Friday, and then tallied an efficient 26 points against the Washington Wizards on Tuesday--coupled with the Sixers' plummet to new nadirs with each successive game, have only increased the interest in this topic.
I fear the brighter spotlight on Oladipo's Rookie-of-the-Year chances may have clouded the Orlando faithful's ability to simply appreciate his play, as well as that of his top rookie rival. And so I offer this editorial.
Through Tuesday's games, Carter-Williams holds significant edges over Oladipo in several statistical categories. And while it's certainly true that a player's posting better numbers doesn't always indicate his superiority, as I will soon demonstrate, it's also true that many year-end awards, including Rookie of the Year, favor players with impressive statistical résumés. Put another way, the Rookie of the Year award often goes to the most rookie, who is not always the very best one.
Consider the 2009/10 season, the one in which Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James as the only players to ever average at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game as rookies. Conventional wisdom held that he would win the award with ease. But after the All-Star Break, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors elevated his game, averaging 22.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists to Evans' 19.7, 4.4, and 5.9. Curry looked like a completely new player--he averaged just 14.8 points per game before the Break--and as a result mounted a serious challenge to Evans' Rookie of the Year bid.
Evans, as we know, won the award, and deservedly so. The reason lies in the honor's very name: it's called "Rookie of the Year," not "Rookie of the Last Few Months." The vote came closer than anyone might have predicted a few months hence, with Evans earning 67 first-place votes and 491 total voting points to Curry's 43 and 391, but Evans took home the hardware.
And Curry, as we know, proved to be the better player over the long run. He earned his first All-Star selection in February and, assuming good health, looks like a decent bet to break Ray Allen's all-time record for career three-pointers. Meanwhile, Evans has regressed from his rookie form, perhaps due to the Kings' internal dysfunction during his time there, the unrealistic expectations his Rookie of the Year win generated--he gobbled so many possessions for a Sacramento team hellbent on helping him achieve those rarified numbers that he did so almost as a matter of course--or some combination of those factors. At present, he comes off the bench for a disappointing New Orleans Pelicans squad that, according to both the New York Daily News and Sports Illustrated, is already open to trading him less than a year after inking him to a lucrative contract.
I offer this comparison not to suggest Oladipo is bound for Curry-like greatness or Carter-Williams for an Evans-like decline. Rather, I draw the parallel between the two races to make this point: as much as Orlando fans have every right to hope Oladipo's growth over the course of the season will propel him to a Rookie of the Year victory over Philly's new franchise anchor, the likelihood of his doing so is slim, and that's totally fine.
We watch this sport for the chance to witness athletic excellence and its attendant aesthetic beauty. When Oladipo dishes through-the-leg passes in transition, soars past overmatched defenders, or denies opponents' tries at the rim, it doesn't matter what sort of hardware he has, or doesn't have, at home: what matters is that those plays even happened at all.
I don't wish to discourage anyone from enjoying the thrill of watching these two men vie for top rookie honors. A Rookie-of-the-Year victory would stand as a point of personal pride for either player, in addition to one of civic pride for his city and his team's fans. Invest yourself in their play in the season's last quarter and they will, in all likelihood, reward you for it. But the award which either Oladipo or Carter-Williams will earn at season's end won't define either player's career. In five seasons, when both these players hit the primes of their careers--and does it not give you a jolt to know that they won't reach their peaks until then?--we'll hardly recall this award race.
What we'll recall is how they played, and the feelings their play stirred in us.