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Cade Cunningham likely to share rare history with Magic Johnson in Rookie of the Year race

Detroit Pistons rookie season in historic company

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Not since Grant Hill. Not since Michael Jordan. Not since Magic Johnson. The superlatives you can heap upon Cade Cunningham are numerous. He’s had a fantastic rookie season, and as he continued to produce, the names associated with his feats have gotten more impressive.

And yet ...

And yet, he will certainly not be named Rookie of the Year.

I long ago made peace with this fact. If I had a vote, I would have cast it for Cade. At the same time, I can acknowledge that the first overall pick from the Pistons started slow after missing training camp and preseason with injury and that the rookie campaigns of Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley are stellar.

If any one of these players had these same seasons in most of the past decade, they probably take home the hardware. As it stands, only one can win, two will lose, and one of those losers will almost certainly be Cade. That became doubly clear Monday when the NBA announced the Rookie of the Month awards and cade lost to Barnes despite playing his best stretch of basketball.

As has been documented previously, Cunningham’s March production (22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists) hadn’t been done by any rookie in a full month since Michael Jordan. But it still wasn’t good enough to beat out Barnes who averaged 17.1/7.6/4.3 in March.

Currently, Cunningham’s odds of winning Rookie of the Year stand at a healthy

Cunningham finished the season averaging 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. That is a rare feat for a rookie in the NBA. There have been 10 players in NBA history who have averaged 17/5/5, and eight have been named Rookie of the year at season’s end.

Those eight players: Oscar Robertson (1961), Alvan Adams (1976), Michael Jordan (1985), Grant Hill (1994), Steve Francis (2000), LeBron James (2004), Tyeke Evans (2010), and Luka Doncic (2019).

The only player not named Rookie of the Year was Magic Johnson. And Cade Cunningham will soon join him.

He’s no Magic Johnson, but that’s not bad company to be in, all things considered.

But the game is played differently now. The pace is faster. But even if you account for pace, Cunningham’s season will go down as uniquely great for those not to be named Rookie of the Year.

On a per 100 possessions basis, the only players to reach Cade’s thresholds of 26 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists per 100 possessions are two previous ROY winners — LaMelo Ball (2021) and Luka Doncic (2019).

How did we get here? It turns out that first impressions are a hard thing to shake off, and Cunningham has always been more of a closer. He surveys the landscape and lets the game come to him. His way of never getting rattled or sped up, and of delivering in clutch situations was never more true than during his rookie campaign.

But while he was busy surveying, Evan Mobley and his Cleveland Cavaliers shot out of the starting gate like a rocket. Mobley was the do-everything power forward on a surprise Cavs team that went from bottom-of-the-standings projections to a top-3 seed in the East.

When Mobley began to slow and the Cavs started to fall in the standings, Barnes was there to pick up the slack. He was the ... do-everything and play-every-position player for the resurgent Toronto Raptors. The Raps shook off last season’s Tampa Bay exile season and won 48 games.

Why did winning matter so much this season? Beats me. It had never really mattered before. Since Grant Hill, the last Piston to (co-)win Rookie of the Year in 1994, the average winning percentage of Rookie of the Year teams is 38%. Only five of the 29 players named ROY played on teams with winning records.

And for how important winning apparently is, it’s not likely to amount to much for the Cavs or the Raptors. The Cavs are +13000 to come out of the East and the Raps a robust +3000, per Draft Kings. Cleveland might not make it out of the play-in and therefore not even technically in the playoffs and Toronto has a tough first-round matchup with the Sixers. But at least they get a couple more games than Detroit’s Cunningham.

Is it efficiency? Probably a little bit as people (especially voters) are more locked into what quantifies “winning basketball.” Cade’s 50.4% true shooting percentage trails far behind Barnes (55.2%) and Mobley (54.9%). Of course, that discounts the fact that Cade was forced to carry an offense or that half his looks were self-created whereas Barnes and Mobley got the benefit of being the third, fourth or fifth option on most nights and had twice and three times as many of their baskets courtesy of an assist from a teammate compared to Cade.

Cunningham was asked about his case for Rookie of the Year in his end-of-season press conference, and he was diplomatic as always.

“I think I made a strong case for it. ... I had some big moments this year that show that I was the best rookie this year. And there were other guys this year that had big moments as well. ... I made my case strong and every night I went out I competed and tried to be the best me.”

On Twitter, he was a bit less diplomatic after the Rookie of the Month announcement:

Does any of this truly matter? Not particularly. Cunningham’s loss is more about a year stacked with great rookie performances than anything else. And if a vote was held today on the Rookie with the Brightest Future, Cunningham might win that (but might not).

One thing is certain, though. This truly was a special rookie season for Cade Cunningham and the Detroit Pistons. The best rookie season in Detroit since Grant Hill. And after more than a decade in the NBA wilderness, the Pistons showed that they have “That Dude” that can run a team, win games and lead them to the playoffs.

Now the offseason begins for Cade, for Troy Weaver, and for Dwane Casey. Cunningham needs help, and Detroit is well-positioned to provide it. They have another top lottery pick, Jerami Grant as a trade chip or valuable part of the offense, and the financial flexibility to add an impact offensive player to play alongside Cade.

For his part, Cunningham’s offseason plans — see family, eat plenty of calories, get stronger, and then get back at it.

“I’m trying to work, I’m not trying to just go spend some money or go places. I’m trying to lock in,” Cunningham said.

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