If I had to go out on a limb, I’d say that Ben Simmons is the Rookie of the Year front-runner in Philadelphia while Salt Lake City is leaning toward Donovan Mitchell.
Both fan bases seem totally baffled by the idea that their opinions could ever be disputed, but I think we know that Sixer fans didn’t watch many Jazz games and Jazz fans, like Mitt Romney, probably didn’t watch a lot of Sixer games.
So we could defer to the opinions of national people, but how much attention do you think a guy like Reggie Miller or Kevin McHale really paid to both players over the course of a full season?
This whole thing is ultimately a wash, in my mind, because Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT players. Simmons is a 6’10” converted point guard with a pass-first mentality who plays in an up-tempo and mobile system. Mitchell is a stone cold killer, the leading scorer on a top-five Western Conference playoff team.
That’s why the raw statistics are ultimately useless when you add a bit of context, but we’re gonna go down that rabbit hole anyway for the sake of the article, so here’s how these guys stack up against each other:
The nice thing about Simmons and Mitchell is that they both averaged very similar minutes this season – 33.4 per game for Mitchell and 33.7 for Simmons. Per-game numbers are going to look almost exactly the same as per-36 extrapolations.
Ben is obviously averaging more rebounds and more assists and shoots at a higher percentage because he rarely tries anything outside of the paint. Mitchell was a 43.7% shooter in the regular season and hit at 34% from three, averaging 10.2 two-point attempts per game and 7 from deep. Simmons didn’t shoot three pointers and his free-throw percentage was very poor compared to Mitchell’s. As a primary ball handler, Ben turned the ball over more frequently, but his assist-to-turnover ratio was, obviously, significantly higher.
On the other end, Simmons averaged more blocks and steals and finished with a 102 defensive rating. Mitchell logged a 105. Ben’s offensive rating was also better, with a 111 compared to Mitchell’s 103.
A big reason for that discrepancy is because Mitchell just requires more shots to hit his averages. He needed 17.2 average field goal attempts and 3.8 free throw attempts to average 20.5 points. Simmons needed 12.3 field goal tries and 2.4 foul shots to average 15.8 points, and that was without even trying three pointers. So even though Mitchell is more of a pure scorer, his efficiency is lacking, which is why the advanced stats like true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, and player efficiency rating all favor Simmons:
Among qualified shooting guards, Mitchell only had the 17th-best field goal percentage, finishing below guys like Buddy Hield, Courtney Lee, and Evan Fournier.
For comparison, look at a guy like Klay Thompson, who played 0.9 more minutes than Mitchell, shot the same amount of three pointers, and averaged almost the same exact point total, but did it with one less field goal attempt and 2.5 fewer free throws per game:
There was a little bit of Allen Iverson to Mitchell’s situation, where Utah was fine with him putting up 17+ shots per game. He had a 29% usage rate on that team, which is wild for a rookie. Simmons was a facilitator and involved a lot of his teammates while Utah needed Mitchell to be the primary scorer. Even though Simmons always had the ball in his hands, he wasn’t asked to carry the late-game scoring burden in the same way Mitchell was.
That sort of leads us into the whole issue of who played on the better team. Was one guy surrounded by better players?
I don’t think so.
Utah was missing Rudy Gobert early, struggled for a bit, then Mitchell found his feet and they went on a tear, putting together win streaks of 11 and 9 to finish 48-34 in what was probably the tougher conference. Philly similarly struggled out of the gates, going 14-18 through the hardest part of their schedule, then transformed into a different team after the All-Star break and finished by winning 16 in a row.
In a vacuum, both teams have elite defensive anchors in Gobert and Joel Embiid, both of whom are top-ten NBA centers. Gobert doesn’t have Embiid’s offensive chops, but he finished the season strong and is now averaging a playoff double-double. Both teams played chunks of the season without their big men, and both Mitchell and Simmons continued to perform at a high level without those guys on the floor.
Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite point guard and never has been. Joe Ingles can shoot the ball as a small forward. Dario Saric and Derrick Favors are different types of power forwards, so it’s hard to make a comparison there. I think you’d look at both squads and see that the biggest takeaway is that they were exceptional defensively, finishing #2 and #3 in DEFRTG after 82 regular season games. The Sixers liked to sling the ball around and play fast while Utah had the 25th lowest PACE in the league, so the style difference is apparent.
When you look at the talent on each team, I guess you could say the Sixers are better, but Simmons is surrounded by guys with a lot less NBA experience than Mitchell. Saric, Embiid, and Robert Covington don’t have half as many games under their belts as Rubio, Gobert, Favors, or Jae Crowder. Philly’s veterans are JJ Redick and a pair of bench players who were added in February. To that point, I think you’d have to be impressed that Simmons is orchestrating an offense that features two second-year guys and a Process-era success story.
Ben certainly benefited from being able to dish off to a variety of high-level perimeter scorers, but it’s not like Utah is chopped liver; they’re a damn good squad. If either one of these guys did what they did on the Suns or Nets, then the “better team” angle might be legit, but I really do believe that both teams are pretty good and I don’t see too much to pull from this storyline.
Here are a couple of other narratives being tossed around relating to ROTY:
What is a rookie?
Of course you’ve heard this thing about Donovan Mitchell being a “true rookie” while Ben Simmons sat out injured last year. Some people slap Ben with the “redshirt” label and feel like he had an advantage this season because he was familiar with the NBA game and the NBA environment even though he didn’t actually play last year.
Here’s Mitchell’s take on the redshirt thing:
“So, let’s say you have an exam to take on June 1 and you have a whole year to study for that exam, you’re going to get a pretty good grade on it, aren’t you?” Mitchell said. “But some people may not have all that time to prepare for that exam. So, that’s how I look at it and I hope that puts it in perspective for people.”
Simmons has brushed that off in the past.
Brett Brown is on the record with this:
I don’t have too much to add beyond that. Blake Griffin won ROTY in this “redshirt” fashion, and I don’t recall a ton of bitching about that, although Twitter and social media were not as “robust” back then. There’s a portion of people out there who felt like Simmons could or should have played last year, but that the Sixers were being extra cautious and simply looking ahead to this season.
Simmons and Mitchell are both 21 years old and were born about 50 days apart. Both were in the same class coming out high school. Ben was injured last year while Mitchell played an extra season at Louisville. Who really has the advantage here? I could see that argument being made.
If you want to slap an asterisk on the ROTY entry on Wikipedia, I think that’s justified, but it doesn’t hold a lot of tangible weight, in my mind.
Triple-doubles and double-doubles don’t always tell the story
I see people roll out all these arbitrary stats, like “Ben Simmons is the first player to do blah blah blah since Oscar Robertson did blah blah blah back in 1961.”
I’m not a fan of that stuff because I can easily just find a bunch of parameters I like and keep tweaking them until it fits my narrative. I can say, “well Joel Embiid is the first non-American right-handed Sixer since Manute Bol to average 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks while a Republican is in the Oval Office.”
Philly fans see those types of tweets and go crazy, like, “wow that’s an incredible piece of information,” when it’s really just fudging a bunch of criteria instead.
To that end, I think triple-doubles and double-doubles often lack nuance. For instance, Ben Simmons had 10 rebounds in game five against Miami. One was on the offensive glass and 9 were on the defensive end.
A portion of Ben’s rebounds are usually uncontested snags where he then quickly starts moving up the court, stuff like this:
There’s no statistical value in that.
That’s an uncontested defensive rebound with no opponent within 10 feet of Simmons, yet it counts just the same as a tough offensive rebound in traffic. This was one of 10 boards that got him over the hump for a double-double, and then you’ve got Sixer fans saying, “well Simmons is averaging a double-double when Mitchell doesn’t do anything besides shoot.”
It’s similar in the sense that…
…sometimes assists don’t check out, either
We’ve all seen a ton of amazing passes from Simmons this year. You could put together a 20-minute highlight reel of needle-threading if you really wanted to.
Sometimes he also gets the benefit of the doubt on his assist totals, when a guy takes a dribble or two and pulls up, or Simmons simply just dumps the ball off to a wing player for a catch and shoot:
Same thing there. The discrepancy is between some of the amazing passes he throws versus those gimmes is significant.
Take that play there and compare it to this:
My God, that Ben Simmons pass pic.twitter.com/QCMpMqv5Xc
— Good Takes NBA (@GoodTakesNBAPod) April 19, 2018
You see how one might carry more weight than the other, yea?
It does, of course, go both ways, and you can apply these same things to Mitchell, too. Difference is, we aren’t using rebounds and assists as main part of the argument as to why he’s a better player. There’s just a lot more nuance in Ben’s game, stuff that requires you to pay closer attention. It’s very easy for the casual NBA fan to say, “wow what an amazing three pointer in the 4th quarter!” versus watching how a rookie ball handler runs an offense or picks out passes or positions himself for offensive rebounds. Ben’s game has more layers to it.
As an exercise, say that each rebound, assist, and point counts for one “unit” of production in an NBA game. Considering what I wrote above, look at these three statistical lines:
- 30 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists
- 20 points, 0 rebounds, 10 assists
- 10 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists
Option three looks the most balanced, right? Even contributions across the board, yea? But what if 4 of those rebounds are uncontested on the defensive end? What if two of the assists are just dumping the ball off for a catch and shoot?
That’s why the raw numbers are weird, because you just can’t take rebounds and assists at face value. Raw point scoring is much less nuanced. It’s more about what I mentioned above, the efficiency with which a scorer reaches his totals. If a guy scores 10 of his 30 points from the foul line, of course that’s worth noting, but the ball is going in the basket either way. Rebounds, to me, have the least amount of importance in a Simmons/Mitchell argument. One guy is a point guard and the other is a shooting guard and they’re playing completely different roles for completely different teams.
Of course, the fact that Ben can rebound the way he does shows how much more well-rounded and expansive his game is, but it’s more of an eye test thing and less about just data mining for triple-double and double-double narratives.
One area where I think Simmons has a clear advantage is that he was performing at a high level from day one. He started 81 games and really didn’t have many clunkers at all. The Memphis loss stands out to me (6, 3, 7, four turnovers and five fouls). His numbers dropped a bit in December when he went through a deferential month where he wasn’t putting up as many shot attempts as he did in the two months prior. Otherwise, he showed incredible regularity throughout the year.
Mitchell started the season on the bench but ended up finishing with 79 appearances and 71 starts. He was a little slow to begin and threw up some rough lines, notably a 3-21 effort at home against an Embiid-less Philly and a 4-17 shooting night in Milwaukee. However, six of his ten single-digit scoring outputs took place in October and November. He finished the regular season with 24 straight double-digit scoring games.
So they both were excellent for LARGE chunks of the season, certainly light years ahead of anything Malcolm Brogdon did last year. But if we’re paying close attention, Simmons technically did what he did from day one while Mitchell needed a little bit of time to get rolling.
There really is no verdict. You just have to decide which type of player has more value. Do you rate dagger-dropping two-guard as more valuable than a unique and well-rounded point guard?
I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer to that, but if you’re making me pick one guy over the other for an ultimately meaningless award, I’d probably have Simmons as 1A and Mitchell as 1B. I think Donovan Mitchell is a LOT better than most Sixers fans give him credit for, but I feel like there’s at least one Mitchell in every draft. I see a smooth scorer who is going to be a perennial All-Star for years to come. But when I look at Simmons, I see a freak athlete with a wildly unique skill set who reminds me of Magic Johnson. I see “eye test” type of stuff that makes me believe his ceiling is much higher than Mitchell’s ceiling. It’s not off-base to view Simmons a potential LeBron James type if he develops a jump shot.
That said, I don’t know what typical national media person thinks. I get the sense that there is a bit of an anti-Process crowd out there that might lean towards Mitchell out of spite, but I’m really not sure. That’s just a hunch. One thing that should help Simmons’ case is that Salt Lake City ain’t exactly a massive media market. If Donovan Mitchell played for the Knicks or Lakers, he’d be getting 10 times the coverage and plaudits he’s currently receiving.
At the end of the day, both of these guys are gonna be elite ballers for years. We’re talking about two different players in two different systems playing two different positions. One guy is asked to score and the other is asked to facilitate, and both are exceptional in their respective roles. If you wanna stand firmly on one side of the debate, knock yourself out, but it’s also acceptable to straddle the fence.