According to a report earlier this week in the East Valley Tribune, Phoenix Suns forward Amare Stoudemire will be named the NBA's Rookie of the Year. Reporter Mike Tulumello, who contacted voters as to their picks - and, not to jump on this guy, but isn't that lame? Totally kills the drama, in my opinion - found that 49 of the 91 voters who responded picked Stoudemire first, 31 Yao Ming, and 11 Caron Butler.
If true, and it has yet to be confirmed, this is an excellent story. Stoudemire will become the first of the past decade's spate of high school-to-NBAers to win the Rookie of the Year award. It was clear before the draft, through his summer-league play, and into the regular season that Stoudemire is a special player and has a bright future before him. None of the recent high schoolers has had a better rookie season than Stoudemire, who started 72 games and helped his Suns to the eighth seed in the West's playoffs.
There's only one problem with the story, and that's that Stoudemire doesn't really deserve the award. Not with Yao Ming in the running, that is. The Rockets' ad slogan all season has been "Something Big", playing off Yao's height, and this is certainly something big. A big mistake.
On the surface, Yao and Amare couldn't have had much closer seasons statistically. Playing the same number of games, their scoring totals are separated by just two points, while Stoudemire holds a 0.6 rebound advantage.
When you start to dig a little deeper, however, the advantages swing in Yao's favor. Things like shooting 26 points better from the field and 150 points better from the line. That adds up to Yao having a significantly better true shooting percentage. He also scored more points per minute than Stoudemire, so it seems clear that Yao was a better scorer than Stoudemire. Yao and Stoudemire had identical turnover rates, but Yao's assist rate was nearly twice as high, making it pretty evident that he was a better passer. Offense, then, clearly goes to Yao.
On the other end of the court, Yao's defensive presence was surely greater than Stoudemire's. His block rate was nearly twice as high, and Stoudemire's advantage in steals cannot make up for it. Initial reports compared Stoudemire's defensive ability to that of Ben Wallace, and while Stoudemire was a good defender, he certainly wasn't on that level.
Rebounding is the only obvious Stoudemire advantage from the primary numbers, but since Yao played less minutes per game, his rebound rate is actually slightly better than Stoudemire's. In that case, however, their numbers are close enough that we can call it a draw.
Overall, Yao is clearly statistically superior. The main argument in Stoudemire's favor, then, is that his team is going to the playoffs and Yao's is not. But how much does that really mean? While making the playoffs is obviously the goal of any team, and huge from a perception standpoint, does it really mean much analytically? It wasn't like the Rockets were a last-place team, after all. Their 43-39 record was only one game behind the Suns' 44-38 finish, meaning winning just one more of their head-to-head battles - the one they lost, incidentally, was by one point, 88-87 in Phoenix in November - would have put the Rockets in the playoffs and left Phoenix at home. (Yes, I grant that the Suns did essentially tank their final two games, but those matchups, at Portland and Seattle, weren't gimmes anyway.) The eight playoff teams are a rather arbitrary distinction anyway; if there were six playoff teams, both Phoenix and Houston would be at home. If there were 10, both would be in. Should that much weight be put on the fact that it happens to be eight?
The other counterpoint against the "Stoudemire's team was better" argument is the fact that they did not join equal teams. It's tough to say just how good the Rockets were last season, since Steve Francis was injured so much and the team tanked down the stretch. What I can tell you with some degree of certainty as the Suns weren't as bad as you think they were. Phoenix's point differential last season was that of a 39-win team, but they finished with just 36 instead. If we think of the Suns as a 39-win team, they didn't improve as much this year as is commonly thought. Stoudemire himself probably isn't responsible for all of that improvement, as Shawn Marion has developed and Stephon Marbury had by most accounts a better year. Did Yao improve the Rockets by three games? Four? I don't think that's an reasonable number, given the difference between him and Kelvin Cato and Jason Collier, the Rockets' center duo down the stretch last year.
At the end of the day, the argument for Amare Stoudemire is there, and reasonable basketball fans could disagree about which of Yao or Stoudemire had the better rookie season. Butler? That's another issue altogether. 11 people paid to watch and know the game of basketball felt that Butler was the best rookie in the NBA, and at least eight others felt he was better than Yao (we can do that math because, according to the article, 19 ballots had Yao third. None, incidentally, had Stoudemire below second) but not Stoudemire.
The Stoudemire-Butler-Yao votes do seem out of place, given the relative closeness of the two big men's statistics. Still, I was more stunned to see Butler get 11 first-place votes. Yes, Butler had a fine rookie season and improved his game throughout the year. Then again, you could say those same things about a number of players, like Carlos Boozer or Drew Gooden, and neither of them got any RoY consideration.
It seems rather evident that what these voters must be basing their selections on is Butler's superior scoring average. This brings up a point I'd like to make. Lots of people tell me how statistics aren't valid after reading something I've written, but I've yet to see anyone who really wants to just base their opinions of anecdotal observation. No, what they mean is that they don't like my statistics. Instead, they're more apt to consider something like . . . well, points per game, which is an important statistic, but not that important by itself.
Butler did outscore Yao and Stoudemire both by nearly two points per game. However, as is evident from my numbers above, this is wholly because Butler played more minutes per game. On a per-minute basis, Butler's scoring is actually lowest of the three players. Most of the non-scoring statistics generally line up as you'd expect them to for the two big men and the smaller player. Butler is a much better passer and comes up with far more steals (steals are his best argument, statistically, and even they are not that important), while the other two dominate him in rebounding and shot-blocking.
The major difference, then, comes down to efficiency in scoring. In this category, Butler can't touch Yao and Stoudemire. His field goal percentage is 56 points lower than Stoudemire's and a whopping 82 points lower than Yao's. Because Butler is a better free-throw shooter and shoots more threes, he narrows the gap looking at true shooting percentage. That shows him only 28 points behind Stoudemire, but still 68 points behind Yao.
Butler played more minutes, and that certainly counts for something, but is it enough to make up for Yao's advantages? To me, certainly not. Butler would need a very convincing non-statistical argument to pass Yao up, and I don't see it. You can't argue he was on a superior team - the Heat was much worse. In fact, they were worse than last year, and while that's because of the loss of Alonzo Mourning, it makes it tough to talk about Butler improving the team.
My argument against Butler is not a criticism, and I'm not slighting Stoudemire either. All three players had excellent rookie seasons and will, barring injury, go on to fine careers. But the objective is to pick the best rookie, and in my mind all evidence points to Yao Ming.
What makes this year's results worse, to me, is that the voters made a major mistake with last year's Rookie of the Year as well. Pau Gasol won, as well he should have, but the second-best rookie, Memphis' Shane Battier, did not get any votes. Yet five days later, Battier finished second in voting for the All-Rookie team (which is done by coaches); 26 out of 28 coaches (they cannot vote for their own players) put Battier on the first team. Meanwhile, New Jersey's Richard Jefferson, who finished second in Rookie of the Y ear voting, was second-team All-Rookie. How little sense does that make?
There's a certain temptation to say, "It's just an award". I myself can't understand why baseball stat-types care so much about the Hall of Fame. Still, the awards of today are the history of tomorrow. 20, even ten years from now, nobody's going to know the story behind the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year voting. All people will know is that Stoudemire won the RoY award. I think we have an obligation to posterity to do the best job possible of selecting these awards, and it's clear to me a better job could be done with Rookie of the Year.