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The NBA's future East-West rivalry is here, and Ben Simmons is leading it
Thank goodness for Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell.
The 2017/18 season saw the rise of two of the most dynamic rookies to ever grace the NBA hardwood. It is difficult to remember a time when the question of Rookie of the Year was so hotly debated and polarising. Yet, here we are, after the closing ceremony of the 2017/18 NBA season with our answer. As Ben Simmons walked up to the stage to collect his award, acknowledging the journey that led to this moment, the question seemed to be answered. Yet, if anything, the announcement of Simmons as Rookie of the Year has created the stage for a basketball rivalry that could set the NBA on fire.
Two Rookies of the Year
In early June, Donovan Mitchell was awarded the NBA Players Association Rookie of the Year Award, beating rival Ben Simmons. A few weeks later, at the NBA Award Ceremony, the script was flipped. It was Simmons' turn to claim the award. Two Rookies of the Year, each claiming the title as their own. A prince in the Eastern Conference and another in the Western Conference.
Mitchell, the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, seemingly came from nowhere. After two solid years at Louisville, Mitchell was selected by the Denver Nuggets, who had a deal in place to sendhim to the Utah Jazz. A long and athletic defender with a consistent jumpshot, Mitchell was seen as a wise mid to late first round pick. Outside of Salt Lake City, Mitchell’s selection drew few headlines. Whilst many anticipated Mitchell to develop into a solid player, none expected anything historic from the young guard. Here was a player, who was going to have to fight for the world’s attention.
Before entering the draft, Simmons was already a headline machine. Simmons, who played at Montverde Academy in high school, was ranked 1st on ESPN’s 2015 player rankings. (It's worth noting that Mitchell, who was also in the class of 2015, was ranked 43rd). He was courted by nearly every major college basketball program in America, before finally committing to LSU. His short and somewhat underwhelming career at LSU set the basketball world abuzz. Speculation and theories on the trajectory of Simmons’ professional career became an industry in itself. After being selected with the 1st pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Simmons was deemed to be the league’s future superstar. Injury however prevented Simmons from playing the 2016/17 NBA season, and he made a delayed debut alongside the rookies of the 2017 draft.
No one saw it coming, but the stage was set for a battle of the rookies. In one corner was the prodigious Ben Simmons. In the other corner? The hungry underdog, Donovan Mitchell.
The underdog story
With Gordon Hayward departing to play for the Boston Celtics, few had expected the Jazz to make any noise during the regular season, let alone the playoffs. These doubters were soon to be proven wrong. Mitchell had a slow start to his career, as he had to get adjusted to the challenges of being an NBA player. In October, Mitchell averaged 9.3 points shooting 32.9%, 2.4 assists and 1.4 rebounds. He showed flashes of what was to come, and his status as the 13th pick seemed warranted.
November however, saw an explosion of improvement. Mitchell shot from mediocrity to potential star, averaging 18.1 points shooting 41.3%, 3.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds. From that point on, Mitchell maintained a consistent upward trajectory across almost all major statistical categories. By the season’s end, Mitchell had averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Mitchell even managed to break Damian Lillard’s record for the most 3-pointers made by a rookie with 187. On the back of his rapid ascendency, Mitchell managed to propel Utah to 5th place in the tough, superstar-riddled, Western Conference. In the media, Mitchell began to draw comparisons to some of the greatest slashing guards to ever play the sport. The games of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade could be eerily glimpsed in his aggressive playing style.
The heir apparent
Over in the Eastern Conference, Simmons began his career sprinting out of the blocks. Despite the weight of expectations from being the number one draft pick and taking a year off, Simmons did not disappoint. In his first game in the league, the point guard registered 18 points, 5 assists and 10 rebounds. From that point on, there was no looking back. Despite not being a scoring threat from beyond 10 feet and an unreliable jumpshot, the Australian continued to impress. With Simmons orchestrating the Philadelphia offense, the Sixers improved dramatically, and it was obvious, especially in the win column, rising from a 28-win total in the 2016/17 season, to an incredible 52-win, third-placed seed in the Eastern Conference.
While leading the Philadelphia 76ers back to the playoffs since 2012, Simmons put his name amongst legends. The young guard registered twelve triple-doubles for the season, the second-highest in league history. He also joined the ranks of Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to ever reach 1000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists. All of this was done without a single 3-point shot made. Simmons had a knack for filling the stat sheet, averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds across the season. He was quickly likened to some of the league’s greatest playmakers, a hybrid of Magic Johnson and LeBron James, threading pinpoint passes whilst dominating smaller opponents with his size and athleticism.
With two rookies of such high caliber, it became clear the contest for Rookie of the Year was a two-horse race, between Simmons and Mitchell.
Across the world, basketball fans pitched their tent in either camp Mitchell, or camp Simmons. Talk radio, chat shows, internet comment sections, living rooms and pubs were the battlefields of hot debate. Who is the better player? Who has the greater burden? Who has the most potential? Who is more important to their team? Who had the better playoff run? All were questions with compelling answers.
However, the most polarising question was the one surrounding Simmons’ status as a legitimate rookie.
After spending a full year on the sidelines, due to breaking a bone in his foot, many began to speculate whether or not Simmons fit the definition of rookie. From his critics, Simmons was bestowed the title of “redshirt rookie”, which became code for “not a true rookie”. Figures within the media, and players themselves, claimed that Simmons had an unfair advantage over his competition, due to the fact he had had a year to acclimatise to the rigours of NBA life.
Many claimed that Simmons, in effect, had already spent his rookie year as a redshirt, and should, therefore, be out of contention. The debate grabbed more headlines and took on a new frenzy when Mitchell wore a pre-game hoodie that was emblazoned with the dictionary definition of rookie, an obvious jab at Simmons.
This was in response to Simmons’ comment that “none” of the first-year players caught his eye. A back and forth between Simmons and Mitchell ensued, each itching to get the last word in. Mitchell managed to get one more blow in, arriving at the NBA Award Ceremony in a van with “Rookie?” painted on the side.
A question of semantics became one of the most argued points surrounding the Rookie of the Year award. Another layer of complexity had been added to one of the most hotly discussed matters in basketball.
It was Simmons who was became the official 2017/18 Rookie of the Year, but we are still left with two conflicting answers. That ambiguity has given birth to a potential rivalry, an old school East and West rivalry the league hasn’t seen for a long time. After a season that saw two rookies stamp their authority onto the league, Simmons versus Mitchell is now one of the NBA’s greatest attractions. Here, we have two young players with contrasting playing styles, each looking to gain the edge over the other.
In a sport plagued by the perceived ‘bought and paid for’ success of super teams, the Simmons vs. Mitchell rivalry offers fans something new, yet familiar. Fans want something with long-term intrigue, not the brief flash in the pan that is the free agent super team. With Simmons and Mitchell, we have a rivalry built from day one; a rivalry formed in the infant stages of their respective careers, with the potential to build to an ultimate crescendo over the years. Although it is clear that the two have mutual respect for one another, neither one is willing to concede supremacy to the other. At the peak of their feud, Simmons summarised the situation with Mitchell best.
“He’s a great player and if I wasn’t a rookie this year, he would have definitely had it.”
Basketball is about storylines, just as much as it is about competition and feats of athletic prowess. It is the stories, and the moments within sport that last forever. The Rookie of the Year rivalry of Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell is just the first chapter in a long story, with two young stars as the central characters.
Bring on the show.