Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons are currently locked in one of the most contentious Rookie of the Year battles in NBA history. Fans on both sides of the aisle have treated it as a sort of basketball holy war. Your choice reflects your sensibilities as a fan. Do you prefer Simmons’ all-around game or Mitchell’s one area of absolute dominance? This is a question that will be debated decades after the fact, and the answer to it in no way reflects what either player might one day become.
The question of Rookie of the Year, though, is not meant to answer which player will be better later. And for the 2017-18 season, Mitchell should not be compared to Simmons. He should be compared to Hall of Famers.
The answer to why that is relates to workload. Simmons is the point guard for the 76ers and plays an enormous role in their success. He is a planet revolving around Joel Embiid’s sun. His usage rate of 22.5% is 79th in the NBA among players who have been on the floor for at least 1,000 minutes, per Basketball Reference. The player directly above him is Marcus Morris. Mitchell’s 29% ranks 21st in the NBA. The three players ranked directly above him are Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis.
Rookies playing such a critical role in a team’s offense is rare, and them doing so successfully is even rarer. Case in point: Dennis Smith has a nearly identical 28.9% usage rate, but he produces -.025 Win Shares per 48 minutes. Basketball-Reference estimates that over the entire season he has cost the Mavericks a full win. But Mitchell is the complete opposite. Of the seven rookies who have ever posted a usage rate of at least 29%, he is ranked second in Win Shares per 48 minutes at .087. You’ve probably heard of the one player who tops him. His name is Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s rookie season remains the gold standard in NBA history, but it’s worth noting that his team actually finished below .500 at 38-44. That is through no fault of his own, as Jordan finished second only to Larry Bird in scoring even as a rookie. But his team never realistically had a chance to make any noise in the playoffs due to his poor teammates. Mitchell, on the other hand, is leading a team that is quietly becoming a juggernaut.
Rudy Gobert missed two extended stretches earlier in the season, and by the time he returned, the Jazz appeared to be out of the playoff race. They were 18-26 and had just gone 4-11 in without him. But since he has returned, the Jazz have arguably been the NBA’s second-best team. Their 23-6 record trails only the Toronto Raptors (24-6) and Houston Rockets (29-2). Their net rating of +9.9 is ahead of Toronto’s +9.6 for second place (once again behind Houston). But if we shrink the sample size, the Jazz actually have a stretch ahead of the Rockets. Over the last month, their net rating is +10.7. Cut that to just March and it becomes +12.6.
Simmons defenders will point to this as a reason to ignore Mitchell. The Jazz need Gobert to be effective. There is an obvious rebuttal. Gobert’s value comes primarily on defense, and Embiid is one of the few players who could arguably claim to be better than him on that end of the floor. Embiid is a far better offensive player than Gobert, and that makes life far easier for Simmons. Individual offense is far more important than individual defense, and that is where Mitchell shines. For the Jazz, Gobert is the planet that revolves around Mitchell’s sun.
As far as playoff teams go, you’d be hard pressed to find any rookie who has ever mattered more to their team on that end of the floor, particularly when it counts. In NBA-defined clutch situations (score within five points with five minutes or less remaining), Mitchell has an absolutely staggering 43.6% usage rate. Forget about rookies, that is fifth in the entire NBA. The players ranked ahead of him? Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Not a bad list for a rookie to be on. Simmons, by the way, is at 19.4%, fifth on his team and 124th in the NBA.
There’s no shame in that. Simmons is a rookie, and rookies aren’t supposed to carry offenses down the stretch of games for playoff teams. But Mitchell is doing it to an absolutely ridiculous degree. Last season’s rookie leader was Jamal Murray at 27.4%, and he was on a non-playoff team. The only rookie in the last 20 seasons more responsible for his team’s crunch time offense was Kyrie Irving at 46.8%. His team picked fourth in the following draft. So clearly, that arrangement didn’t exactly work out for them.
But among playoff teams? The list of rookies even in Mitchell’s stratosphere is extremely rare. Carmelo Anthony at 27.1% is an example many would look to, but he didn’t even lead his team. Andre Miller did at 27.5%. Ben Gordon at 32.5% is one of the great lost rookie seasons in NBA history, but another Chicago Bull is a far more fun exercise in Mitchell’s potential. Derrick Rose fell in the same general rookie pool as players like Anthony and Gordon at 29.4%, but his third season is the more interesting one for these purposes.
Rose led a defense-first Bulls team to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as the team’s only significant threat to score in crunch time. He used 45.8% of Chicago’s clutch possessions that season, a number very similar to Mitchell. Here are Rose’s regular season scoring statistics from that season.
25.0 points per game, 44.5 field goal percentage, 33.2 three-point percentage, 85.8 free throw percentage, 48.5 effective field goal percentage, 55.0 true shooting percentage.
And here are Mitchell’s stats this season:
20.5 points, 43.5 field goal percentage, 33.5 three-point percentage, 82.3 free throw percentage, 50.4 effective field goal percentage, 54.0 true shooting percentage.
The percentages are nearly identical. They were similarly vital to their defense-first team’s offense. The only meaningful difference as scorers between Rose and Mitchell those seasons were two extra field goal attempts and three extra free throw tries per game. In his third season, Rose had a slightly bigger role than Mitchell does as a rookie.
Read the following sentence slowly for dramatic effect.
Derrick Rose won MVP that year.
Mitchell, as a rookie, is doing a very convincing imitation of a season that garnered an MVP award. It therefore stands to reason that he should be compared more to MVP-caliber players than other rookies. And if you dig through history to find the last rookie to mean this much to a team this good, we land on another league MVP.
If we treat Utah’s winning percentage since Gobert returned as sustainable (a fair bet considering their injury-riddled schedule the rest of the way), the Jazz will win 48 games this season. The last to have a usage rate over 25% on a team that won at least that many games was Tim Duncan.
Did Duncan mean as much to the Spurs offensively as Mitchell does to the Jazz during his rookie season? No. You’d be hard pressed to find any rookie in league history who did, particularly in crunch time. Where Duncan makes up the difference is on defense. He was, amazingly, voted Second-Team All-Defense that season. Simmons is a far better defensive player than Mitchell, but he is not close to rookie Duncan. No rookie ever is. Like Mitchell, Duncan was a wholly unique rookie in NBA history.
That is the level of player Mitchell has earned comparison to this season. Rookies aren’t supposed to impact teams this much. To find one who did for a team with real playoff ambitions, you have to go back to Duncan. Barring something catastrophic down the stretch, that should lock up the Rookie of the Year award for Mitchell.