With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we're taking a closer look at each award race. We've already hit on the Sixth Man award, Most Improved, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year. Here, Ben Golliver examines the race for Rookie of the Year.
Damian Lillard is the landslide choice for the 2013 Rookie of the Year award, and the easiest way to sum up the race is that the Blazers guard was a man among boys.
That characterization, in part, nods to the fact that Lillard, 22, had a headstart of multiple years on his closest competition by virtue of spending four years at Weber State. The three players generally regarded as the strongest challengers to Lillard -- Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- were one-and-done players who entered the league as raw teenagers. Proclaiming Lillard the man this season says nothing about the future of the younger members of this class; Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes, among others, look like very useful pros at worst and potential All-Stars at best.
Before we dig in, here's how the top candidates stack up numbers-wise as the season nears its conclusion on Wednesday.
Lillard's age and the rebuilding conditions in Portland made him a popular dark horse preseason Rookie of the Year pick, but his durability is what eventually helped him surpass Davis. While nine 2012 picks have played at least 75 games this season, none comes close to matching the load that Lillard has carried in Portland. In fact, it's possible that Lillard will finish the season as the league's leader in minutes played (he currently ranks No. 2 overall behind only Kevin Durant).
The playing time issue has been a much-discussed factor, primarily because Anthony Davis has dealt with a host of minor injuries that limited him to 64 appearances this season. But this isn't simply a Lillard vs. Davis discussion; this is a Lillard vs. the rest of his class discussion.
Here's a chart of the minutes played by the 30 first-round picks of the 2012 draft. Lillard stands more than 1,000 minutes above his nearest competition, Barnes. The visual really reinforces a simple fact: No rookie was more indispensable and reliable to his team this season.
The temptation for coaches, even a first-year coach like Terry Stotts, to ease a player into the lineup or fall back on a veteran hand in tight situations is always there. Circumstances certainly favored Lillard in this regard. Portland's depth overall was atrocious this season and its point guard depth was particularly pathetic. As Lillard maintained an above-average Player Efficiency Rating all season, his primary backups, Ronnie Price and Nolan Smith, hovered in the league's bottom 10 percent. Even a trade deadline move to acquire Eric Maynor, an upgrade over Price and Smith, was viewed primarily as a way to make Lillard's life easier during his huge minutes, not as a way to lessen his playing time.
Averaging 19.1 points per game, Lillard is Portland's second leading scorer behind LaMarcus Aldridge, and his ability to create a shot, knock down shots from range and find success in pick-and-roll situations has been important as fellow starters Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have succumbed to injuries down the stretch and their replacements are, by and large, extremely limited offensive players.
Combine Lillard's huge minutes, perfect durability and 15.8 shots per game and you get the chart below, which again shows him as leaps and bounds above the rest of his class when it comes to filling it up. Even Davis, Beal and Dion Waiters, all capable offensive players as rookies, simply couldn't hold a candle to Lillard's overall production. While a chart like this doesn't reflect efficiency, it does underline again how much greater Lillard's impact was compared to the rest of his class.
The (few) arguments against Lillard have centered on the fact that Davis (and Drummond) have produced better PER numbers on the season. While true, that's a bit misleading given the major discrepancy in minutes. The most difficult thing to do in the NBA is to maintain peak efficiency over the course of monster minutes. We generally regard LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant as among the league's most valuable players; they are among just a handful of players who are capable of sustaining big PER numbers while playing 35+ minutes a night.
There are a host of veterans who post better PER numbers than Lillard in smaller minutes: Ed Davis, Marreese Speights, Chris Copeland, Ramon Sessions. Even Blazers forward/center J.J. Hickson, who GM Neil Olshey went out of his way to say wouldn't be back next season because of his defensive limitations, has a better PER than Lillard. Does that put Davis and Drummond in elite company by default or perhaps suggest that an argument based solely on PER and not total contributions could very easily lead to the wrong conclusion?
Here's how the 14 lottery picks from 2012 stack up on a PER basis. Note that Lillard ranks first among guards and is more efficient than the two other lottery picks (Barnes and Kidd-Gilchrist) that played at least 2,000 minutes.
The clincher here is what these candidates' respective teams look like when their rookies are on the court compared to when they sit.
Via NBA.com/stats, here's how Lillard stacks up to some of the other top rookies. The top chart shows the rookies' team performance from an offensive and defensive efficiency standpoint when they are not in the game. The bottom chart shows the same numbers when the rookies are playing. By comparing the two, we get a nice look at impact:
In Lillard's case, the effect of his stepping off the court is comical. Portland's offensive efficiency plummets from 105.6 to 92.9, a drop of 12.7 points per 100 possessions. That fall takes Portland from above-average to way, way, way below the worst in the NBA. No wonder Stotts runs this guy into the ground. Meanwhile, Davis, Beal and Barnes have a minimal impact on their team's offensive output. Both Kidd-Gilchrist (+2.7) and Waiters (+4.9) kick their team's attack up a notch, but again both do so in smaller roles.
Defensively, we see what you would expect from rookies: struggles. Lillard, Davis, Beal and Waiters all produce worse defensive rating while on the court (remember, higher is better on offense and worse on defense). In Waiters' case, he makes Cleveland's defense dramatically worse (-4.4). Barnes, likely aided by playing most of his minutes in the starting unit of a playoff-bound team, has minimal impact either way; Kidd-Gilchrist, drafted first and foremost for his tenacity on defense, leads the group with a +2.0 impact.
Taking all that data together, we are left to conclude that none of the top candidates can match Lillard's impact on offense while his defensive struggles, which shouldn't be glossed over, aren't drastically out of line with the performance of the other top candidates. The biggest takeaway from the comparison is this: Lillard makes his team leaps and bounds better on offense when he's on the court compared to when he's off, and that impact greatly exceeds the drag he creates on the other end. Even though the effect is exaggerated by how truly awful Portland's reserve point guard corps is, Lillard has still managed to head up an above-average offense (Portland currently ranks No. 13 overall in offensive efficiency) despite his team's depth and talent deficiencies. That's no small task, and there's no other player in the class who can say that. Through Year 1, then, Lillard is the only rookie deserving of a solid A, although Davis, Beal, Drummond, Kidd-Gilchrist and Barnes can all look back on their first seasons with pride. Expecting one or more of those players to eventually pass Lillard to emerge as the top talent of this class is completely reasonable; upside, though, isn't one of the criteria in Rookie of the Year voting. Based on the merits, this award is Lillard's in a walk. He hasn't swept all five Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards to date by accident.