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Why the Nets' Mason Plumlee deserved to win NBA Rookie of the Year

Mason PlumleeMason Plumlee's game-winning block of LeBron James was the rookie's highlight of 2014. (McClatchy-Tribune/Getty Images)

The NBA announced Monday that Michael Carter-Williams has won the 2013-14 Rookie of The Year award. At first blush, Carter-Williams’ claim to the honor seems difficult to argue. He led all rookies in points, rebounds and assists and was one of the lone bright spots in the 76ers’ otherwise dismal season.

Carter-Williams was the obvious frontrunner for the honor, so it came as no surprise he earned 104 out of 124 possible first-place votes. But a closer look at the rest of the rookie pool suggests Carter-Williams might not have been such a runaway victor. In fact, you can make a case that Nets forward Mason Plumlee, who finished a distant fourth in voting, should have claimed the hardware.

Selected No. 22 overall in last year’s Draft, Plumlee played just three minutes combined in the Nets’ first three games as he sat behind established veterans Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez. Over the course of the season, Plumlee’s services became more valuable, as both big men missed significant time with injuries.

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Lopez suffered a broken foot in December that forced him to miss the rest of the season and Garnett sat out a 19-game stretch in March and April with a back injury. While Garnett rehabilitated, Plumlee filled his spot in the starting lineup and the Nets posted a 14-5 record. Although Garnett reclaimed his starting spot when he returned, Plumlee played 30 minutes in the Nets’ penultimate regular season game, an 11-point loss to the Knicks in which he scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

If Plumlee’s role as a reserve who was briefly turned into a starter because of extenuating circumstances doesn’t strike you as Rookie of the Year material, indulge in a statistical breakdown that should at least make you more willing to entertain the idea.

Plumlee led all rookies in Player Efficiency Rating (19.0), Win Shares (4.7) and, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann notes, PIE (11.4  percent). The Nets were also a better offensive team when Plumlee was on the floor, averaging 106.0 points per possessions, up from their season average of 104.4.

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The former Duke Blue Devil was part of the Nets’ most potent offensive lineup, which was composed of: Shaun Livingston, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Plumlee. That unit averaged 113.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked in the league’s top 10 among lineups that logged more than 125 minutes this season.

Plumlee also led the Nets in field goal percentage (65.9 percent) and was an effective finisher around the basket, converting 68.7 percent of his attempts from eight feet and in. He also posted a tidy offensive rating of 106.0, second highest among teammates who averaged at least 10 minutes per game, while using 17.2 percent of available possessions. Here's a look at his shooting chart from the 2013-14 season:

Shotchart_1398685012843

Perhaps the most compelling argument for Plumlee lies not in his statistical feats, but in the context surrounding them. Plumlee helped turn around a star-studded team that at various points before the New Year (10-21 on Jan. 1) appeared close to both firing its head coach and falling out of the playoff race.

With Lopez, one of the league’s top centers, out for the season, the Nets were in need of frontcourt depth, and Plumlee rose to the occasion. Moreover, he capably stepped into the starting lineup when an injury sidelined Garnett, the Nets’ defensive anchor. Plumlee played an important role for one of the top threats to the Heat in the Eastern Conference.

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... Speaking of Miami, Plumlee’s Rookie of the Year Moment came against the two-time defending champs. Plumlee stuffed none other than LeBron James at the rim with less than five seconds remaining to preserve the Nets’ one-point win at American Airlines Arena in April. Do not be fooled by the “PLUMS” nickname on the back of Plumlee’s uniform; That was a tremendous display of athleticism, timing and power, to say nothing of the peculiarity of James not getting the “superstar” call in a pivotal sequence.

Historically, ROY voters have tended to disregard win-loss record. The last 10 winners have played for teams who averaged 29.5 wins, none of which posted a winning record. Considering the way the draft is structured, it makes sense the most valuable rookies would play for sub-.500 teams.

But that doesn’t mean first-year players on winning teams don’t deserve consideration. In fact, we would argue that, in a vacuum, rookies on playoff-bound teams are even more valuable. This line of thinking runs against recent precedent, but it’s intuitive and, in this author’s humble opinion, enhances Plumlee’s case.

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Carter-Williams, meanwhile, played on a team that endured a 26-game losing streak, finished with 19 wins (just four more than the league-worst Bucks) and, for a spell, occupied the 31st spot in SI.com’s Power Rankings. He led all rookies in points (16.7), assists (6.3), rebounds (6.2) and steals (1.9) per game, but those numbers must be framed with an understanding of the 76ers’ composition and style of play.

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, Carter-Williams was able to post such gaudy statistics in large part because the 76ers stripped their roster of talent and featured a cast of replacement level players. To understand the depth of Philadelphia’s ineptitude, consider that only one of its players, forward Thaddeus Young, registered one of the league’s top 100 PERs. (Carter-Williams ranked 121st, at 15.59)

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*Images from NBA.com.

The team’s dearth of talent enabled Carter-Williams to average 15.1 shot attempts per game and use 25.6 percent of available possessions, both of which ranked second among current 76ers who played in at least four games.

Another factor helping Carter-Williams was the 76ers’ pace. The team averaged 101.6 possessions per 48 minutes, the most since the Golden State Warriors in 2009-10, and took 7,150 shots, second most in the league this season. With more possessions and field goal attempts came more opportunities for Carter-Williams -- opportunities not afforded to rookies, like Plumlee, who play for slower-paced squads (The Nets averaged 93.7 possessions per 48 minutes, good for No. 25 in the league).

Of course, arguing on Plumlee’s behalf requires a consideration of his shortcomings. His vanity statistics – 7.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks per game – do not impress. Plumlee also logged just 18.2 minutes per game, though that figure increased to 18.9 after Lopez was lost for the season and surged to 21.1 during Garnett’s absence.

So while Carter-Williams represents a strong candidate for ROY, Plumlee has a bigger case than the casual NBA fan realizes. We give the Nets rookie the nod on account of him helping a playoff team realize its goals rather than helping a building team take the first step in a massive transition.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

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