Dime Roundtable: ‘Dreaming’ Up The NBA Rookie Of The Year For Flip Saunders

Andrew Wiggins, Flip Saunders
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After watching Andrew Wiggins put on his own personal dunk show but otherwise labor in yet another lopsided Minnesota Timberwolves loss, coach Flip Saunders threw glowing support behind his star youngster for Rookie of the Year consideration – while indirectly condemning other candidates in the process.

“Anyone that throws anything else out, they’re dreaming,” Saunders told the Pioneer Press. “He is the most dominant rookie. He’s playing in a situation where because we’ve been so undermanned, he is the guy.”

What’s the harm in dreaming, though? So the Dime staff decided to discuss the prospects of Wiggins and the other Rookie of the Year candidates in our latest of edition of the Dime Roundtable.

Jack Winter: Wiggins may very well be the most deserving first-year player of postseason hardware, but he certainly has legitimate competition for the award. Right?

Martin Rickman: I’m wide awake, and I do see competition for Wiggins. First off, what’s the criteria for Rookie of the Year these days? Is it counting stats? If so, then yeah, Wiggins is probably the guy. But if you’re looking for legitimate improvement over the course of the year, there are other guys out there. Simply being undermanned and playing on a bad team doesn’t automatically give you the award.

Take the case of Nikola Mirotic, who has gotten better as the year goes on and is currently one of the most important players on the third best team in the East. Or if you want another player who is getting better seemingly by the second and is fully committed on the defensive end of the floor, you can take Nerlens Noel. Plus you get the added benefit of him playing on an “undermanned” team as well. Am I crazy for thinking it isn’t as simple as Wiggins or bust here?

Spencer Lund: It’s easy to give it to Wiggins, and the definition of “most valuable” seems to slant towards whatever narrative sweaty-browed beat writers are hoping to tell when they cast their vote. Statistically speaking, there’s no one in Andrew’s orbit, but there’s an argument to be made Mirotic is playing in more games that matter, at least in terms of playoff seeding. There are also other rookies — Elfrid Payton is certainly one — who should be in the discussion despite playing for a team, like Wiggins, that isn’t competing for anything but ping pong balls.

So how do we weigh all those different factors, and which ones are most important to you personally? For me, most valuable, is akin to WARP or WAR stats in baseball. If you plugged the mean average rookie into the same role Wiggins, Mirotic, Noel and Payton reside in, who is performing the furthest above that level in terms of helping their team win? It would be nice to avoid win share data, but there’s a marked divergence among all the candidates that almost forces us to burrow down into more empirical benchmarks to offer up differentiations where all the players are on an even plane, despite their differing roles.

JW: The replacement-level angle supports Mirotic’s viability as Rookie of the Year. The Bulls have been decimated by injuries all of March – Derrick Rose is still sidelined while Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson missed significant time – but the sweet-shooting forward has kept them afloat regardless. Mirotic is playing his best basketball of the season as a primary option when it matters most for his contending team, something few rookies have ever been able to say. But Wiggins has been far, far better than an average first-year player for the lowly ‘Wolves, too. And not only is the 20 year-old Minny’s top offensive option, but he also routinely checks the opposition’s most threatening perimeter player.

Then that begs the question of consistency, and it’s one that’s answered in Wiggins’ favor with respect to Mirotic specifically. It seems long ago now, but Chicago’s star rookie shot 34 percent from the field and averaged just 16 minutes per game over January and February. Wiggins has stayed on an unwavering trajectory since the lights came on in late December, and another wildly rangy and athletic rookie has enjoyed a similar trend while coming on like gangbusters of late a la Mirotic: Nerlens Noel. If Wiggins really isn’t Rookie of the Year, I’m inclined to believe the Sixers’ disruption-extraordinaire should be.

MR: So for you, Jack, it’s between Noel and Wiggins? What’s your case for supporting Noel? Are you just as big a fan of rebounding and defense and the sheer joy that is saying the words “Nerlens Noel” as I am? Or are you seeing something else?

JW: What I’m seeing is Noel continuing to make history with regard to blocks and steals while developing his offensive game more quickly than anyone anticipated. He was drafted as a Tyson Chandler-style dive man that would catch lobs and finish with authority at the rim. The past few weeks have ensured that Noel’s future is far brighter than that from an offensive perspective – he won’t ever be a primary option, but still looks like a guy who could be able to score for himself and make plays for others. In terms of two-way impact over the past month, I’m not sure any rookie’s has meant more to his team than Noel’s.

SL: Noel seems to have found his niche, which is remarkable considering his one-year convalescence and a Sixers team in the throes of Hinkie hedging for the future. Defensively, he’s going to be in consideration for DPOY for years to come (knock on wood that knee holds up), but I’m reluctant to award ROY for upside, even though Wiggins might have the highest ceiling of any player in this discussion. For instance, in 2013 most thought Anthony Davis would walk away with the award after he went No. 1, and retroactively, I’m sure some voters would change their ballot to Brow instead of Damian Lillard. But Damian took the league by storm and — teamed with Aldridge, Batum and Wesley Matthews — immediately vaulted the Blazers into an already-crowded Western Conference playoff picture that ultimately fizzled as the starters wore down (they didn’t end up making the real season, but that should discount his affect on the team).

That’s not the case at all with Wiggins, but his production mirrors Dame’s without the playoff contention that buttressed Lillard’s case. So, how much of Wiggins’ numbers do we attribute to a severely undermanned T-Wolves squad whose biggest moments have included LaVine’s leaps during all-star weekend and KG’s surprise return at the trade deadline. I’m stuck between Noel and Wiggins, basically — having already decided Mirotic and Payton aren’t at that tier. It’s not like Noel is on a playoff contender either, but he’s gotten less time than Wiggins and it took him a couple months just to up to speed after the college injury.

How much credence do we give a guy if his team was never in contention to play beyond April 15th? And does it really matter since our top two choices are both in the same boat?

MR: So are we trying to talk ourselves into Mirotic by saying he’s helping a contender? Or are we saying that if Noel or Wiggins were on a contender they’d easily be doing the same thing – if not better? Is there anyone we’re missing who kind of hits that sweet spot? And why am I asking so many questions? I really do think it’s these four and then everybody else. It’s not like Marcus Smart is blowing people away even with the Celtics’ now in the playoff hunt (and currently in the eight seed). Smart shot just under 33 percent in March. I can see the argument with Mirotic, even if he’s not a typical rookie and is 24 with all that Euroleague experience.

But if I had to pick one guy – it’s Noel and Wiggins, and I probably still lean Wiggins. So maybe we’ve all been dreaming all along, and all of this wasn’t real. You win again, Flip. Are you guys leaning the same way?

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JW: First off, we probably shouldn’t be congratulating Flip here – he stumbled ass backwards into what looks like a franchise talent by virtue of the Cleveland Cavaliers getting a third number one pick in four seasons and LeBron James shocking the basketball world by deciding to return home. It’s commendable that Saunders has Wiggins’ back, and perhaps the Timberwolves’ czar deserves credit for force-feeding the rookie touches and defensive assignments that other coaches might not have. But come on. Wiggins is arguably the most promising young wing since Kevin Durant, the rare player whose imminent stardom has more to do with nature than nurture – a now widely held opinion at which many scoffed before his rookie campaign began.

I’ve been flying the Wiggins flag since before his freshman season at Kansas, and am comfortable admitting that I didn’t see this kind of development coming so soon. Where he is now compared to late October is night and day; just imagine the heights to which he’ll ascend this time next year and this time five years from now. The sky really does seem the limit for Wiggins, a belief that broadly emerged three months ago and has only been further cemented in the interim.

Combined with his undeniably consistent production over that timeframe, shouldn’t that near consensus be enough to make him a lock for top of this class? With apologies to Noel, a hat tip to Mirotic, and a head nod to Elfrid Payton, Rookie of the Year belongs to Wiggins.

SL: It pains me to default to the standard statistics line of thought, but Noel still plays for the Sixers and Payton for the Magic. Mirotic came on strong in February and March, when they needed him the most, but — like the MVP chase — one-half of a season doesn’t win you the award, and while his shooting stroke and length bring me great joy, he shot well under the Jason Kidd line in January and February this year (he was actually under the 35 percent mark).

Nikola Mirotic
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Then again, Mirotic is sporting a rather robust 18.0 player efficiency rating and Noel is at 14.9 (just below the league average). Jordan Clarkson is at 15.9. Here’s all the rookie candidates separated by PER. Notice who is second to last? Wiggins.

In fact, if — or more likely, when — Wiggins takes Rookie of the Year, and his PER is still at 13.3, it would be the lowest for a ROY winner since Mike Miller sported a 13.2 in the 2000-2001 season. So we can talk about Wiggins’ shooting, his defensive acumen, and his ability to create offense off the dribble, but calling him a stats Rookie of the Year isn’t very accurate.

A player’s PER isn’t everything, but Wiggins’ fluidity on the court and his still-escalating athleticism makes the eye test a necessary component for evaluating his ROY bonafides. He can find pockets in the defense to rise up for a shot, and he’ll sometimes hit a difficult leaner when he’s well defended. PER favors big men, so all things are relatively close between our two front-runners. Then again, watching Noel in the post, or even as the roll man, can dredge up memories of Mark Eaton or Keon Clark. Noel will get better on offense, he already has, but he’ll never be a go-to scorer in the post and that’s totally fine. The NBA doesn’t use back-to-basket players anymore, except in Memphis, and Noel is lean and athletic enough to develop the slashing game of a Josh Smith (sans three-pointers).

This was supposed to be my conclusion and pick and turned into a hyperlinked mess. I’m going with Wiggins like most people will. His PER gives me a long pause, but just watching him seals it for me. Just watching him play is the biggest argument in his favor. Yes, you hope statistics match what you’re seeing, and in some cases they don’t (he’s a lot less efficient then I thought, but I’ve only been paying attention after the new year). Still, he’s been the best rookie this year and will likely be the best when we look back in five years. But this year is all that counts, and he gets my vote.

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There is no right answer this year for Rookie of the Year or for the rest of the NBA awards. A good case can be made for Noel or Wiggins, and just because we all agree Wiggins probably should — and will — win the award, doesn’t necessarily make it the right one. Because there is no right answer. This is a subjective exercise, so we caution commenters to remember this is still just a game. Some name NBA writers have a tendency to fall in love with their own analysis and they become so entrenched in their own view, they leave little to no wiggle room for contrasting opinions. This is wrong. It’s a debate, and in every debate there are other sides to the coin. Let’s try and remember that. You are all beautiful people and your opinion matters no matter if you write for one of the big boy media companies, or you’re just a person who loves hoops but maybe doesn’t have a Twitter account.