Each and every NBA Rookie of the Year race comes back to opportunity.
Pursuits of the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy are not about wins and losses. They are, in most cases, not even about superior efficiency. They're about opportunity, about volume, about playing time and the stat lines into which that exposure translates—which, in the grand scheme of everything, doesn't bode well for those who begin their careers on good teams.
Superstar potential exists outside of the lottery (h/t San Antonio Spurs), that much we know. But the requisite exposure, the freedom that comes with being treated as an immediate asset, seldom does.
Expansive roles aren't even guaranteed inside the lottery. More than half the league makes the playoffs, and those odds invariably leave teams chasing postseason appearances despite being looped alongside rebuilding squads and blatant tank jobs—the Phoenix Suns of the last two years, for example.
Every so often, the right rookies—grandfathered into the right situations—come along and buck this stereotype. But they do so as exceptions, not as blueprints for future neophytes on playoff hopefuls and title contenders to follow.
The Best Are Reserved for the Worst
The Rookie of the Year selection process, much like the other yearly awards, is largely undefined. But, more so than those other distinctions, it can be diluted down to something less ambiguous: the best rookies being recognized for the best performances.
Only five Rookie of the Year winners during the three-point era (1979-80 onward) have ranked outside the top five of player efficiency rating among their peers (defined as fellow rookies who logged at least 1,000 total minutes that season). Derrick Rose, the 2008-09 recipient, checked in at 10th during his inaugural campaign, and that's the worst finish of any of the 38 winners (two ties) during that time.
Since the award is reserved exclusively for the best rookies, it's beyond reasonable to assume they were drafted early in the lottery. After all, the highest-rated prospects are supposed to be taken first.
And because the league's bottom-feeders have the best chances of landing a top pick, it's created a cycle where, by design, the most talented youngsters traditionally end up on the worst squads. As Stephen Shepherd underscored for Upside & Motor at the end of last season:
One of the major reasons there is such a lack of elite rookies in the postseason is the very same reason their team was able to draft them in the first place: their team was terrible. Until the system is fixed, bad teams are going to be rewarded with good players in the draft. And until those bad teams get better, the rookies are going to dominate the available minutes.
Past situations have gone against the grain. The Spurs, for instance, were able to tank after losing David Robinson for basically all of the 1996-97 crusade. They were rewarded with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, selected eventual Rookie of the Year Tim Duncan and went on to win 56 games the next season.
Even this, though, was still a matter of a high pick separating himself from the field—just like always:
Nearly 40 percent (15) of all Rookie of the Year winners since 1979-1980 have been selected with the first overall pick. More than 55 percent (21) were taken in the top two.
Just two Rookie of the Year gold medalists—Mark Jackson in 1987-88 and Michael Carter-Williams in 2013-14—have been drafted outside the top 10. Though Jackson's New York Knicks would make the playoffs, neither he nor Carter-Williams made his debut for an above-.500 team.
That tends to be the case in these discussions. Organizations that feature Rookie of the Year victors win, on average, just 40.8 percent of their contests, the equivalent of 33 or 34 victories over the course of an 82-game season.
That number is even lower this side of 1995, when the NBA's field of teams increased to 29 and then 30:
Not since Rose's Chicago Bulls in 2008-09 has a Rookie of the Year's team earned a playoff bid. Only 12 have made a postseason appearance overall, and seven of those occurrences came within an eleven-year span, between 1979 and 1990.
Opportunity Lies in Losing Situations
Does Andrew Wiggins earn Rookie of the Year honors last season if he doesn't lead the Minnesota Timberwolves in total minutes played? Or if, among players to appear in more than half of the team's games and top 1,000 minutes, he doesn't pace them in usage rate?
Better yet, does he win Rookie of the Year if he never gets traded to the Timberwolves and instead remains with the Cleveland Cavaliers?
“I think it was the best move for me,” Wiggins said last February of being shipped to Minnesota, per the Sporting News' Joe Rodgers. “It gave me more room and put me in a position where I could grow up faster. In the league, that’s always what’s best for you.”
That steep learning curve—that opportunity—wouldn't be available to him in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers, even without Kevin Love, house two superstars in Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. The minutes wouldn't have been there, the shots wouldn't have been there, the chance to emerge as a primary option wouldn't have been there.
Losing teams are inherently more likely to tether their fates—their offense, their defense, their place in the standings—to newbies. It's just easier for them. They normally don't have any superstar egos to placate. If they do, and if they're not the Los Angeles Lakers, the young guns will usually be deemed just as, if not more important.
Playoff contenders either don't have the luxury of—or the impulse—to accommodate rookies. Of the sixteen teams to make the playoffs last season, just two—Boston Celtics, Marcus Smart; Brooklyn Nets, Bojan Bogdanovic—had NBA cubs rank in the top five of in-house minutes played. Chicago was the only postseason fixture to have a beginner play at least 1,000 minutes and rank in the top five of usage rate (Nikola Mirotic).
And yet, exactly half of the last 38 fledgling prizewinners posted their team's highest usage rate. Twenty-two led their club in minutes played. Eleven ranked first in both categories:
Meanwhile, in only five instances has the league's Rookie of the Year finished lower than third in team usage rate, and only three times has he ranked worse than third in total minutes. The winner has finished outside the top three in both departments just once.
Even when a rookie is obviously an integral part of a good team's future, the commitment to playing him enough to become a Rookie of the Year candidate is just too great.
Kawhi Leonard—an NBA Finals MVP—played the equivalent of 1,918 minutes as a rookie during the lockout-truncated 2011-12 season. His usage rate (14.5), relative to San Antonio players who would have logged 1,000 minutes over the course of an 82-game schedule, ranked eighth.
But since 1979-80, the average Rookie of the Year, after accounting for shortened seasons, has averaged 2,777 total minutes and a usage rate of roughly 24.6. The list of NBA freshmen—not just Rookie of the Year winners—to match those benchmarks while also appearing in the playoffs is limited to just five players: Larry Bird (1979-80), Michael Jordan (1984-85), Robinson (1989-90), Duncan (1997-98) and Carmelo Anthony (2003-04).
More generally, just two Rookie of the Year recipients have led their team in usage rate and minutes played while spearheading a postseason push in the process (Bird and Jordan), and it hasn't happened since 1984-85 (Jordan), roughly three decades ago.
Possible Trend-Busters in 2015-16
With the 2015-16 regular season still in its infancy, plenty can change.
Still, as of now, only one newcomer is on pace to reach the Rookie of the Year minutes (2,777) and usage rate (24.6) touchstones of years past: Jahlil Okafor. And his Philadelphia 76ers aren't sniffing the playoffs.
Of course, the approach to the game has changed. Even young players are put on minutes caps and given rest days, while not every Rookie of the Year enjoys a usage rate of almost 25.
In the interest of increasing the field, we turn to the bare minimums of each department. Patrick Ewing played the fewest minutes through an 82-game season of any Rookie of the Year since 1979-80, logging just 1,771 through 50 outings; Mark Jackson's 17.3 usage rate ranks as the lowest mark within that same field.
Five underclassmen are currently on track to hit those statistical minimums: Emmanuel Mudiay of the Denver Nuggets; Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks; D'Angelo Russell of the Lakers; Karl-Anthony Towns of the Timberwolves; and Okafor.
Porzingis is the only one of those five with a realistic chance at appearing in the playoffs, and the Knicks' reliance on him isn't nearly enough (right now) to pin him to the crop of favorites. He's in line to play under 2,000 total minutes, and with the exceptions of Vince Carter (1998-99) and Irving (2011-12), Ewing is the only Rookie of the Year winner to miss that 2,000-minute plateau. There's also a chance his early season usage dips, or even plummets, since he's playing alongside a patented superstar in Anthony.
Stanley Johnson of the Detroit Pistons and Justise Winslow are two other possibilities. They're top-10 prospects playing significant roles on potential playoff teams.
But while Johnson looks like he'll have the requisite usage, he'll struggle to crack 1,500 minutes with his present spot in the Pistons rotation. And though Winslow is a virtual lock to flirt with 2,000 total minutes, it'll take a small miracle for his usage rate to creep above 15.
A Good Player on a Bad Team's Game
Mudiay. Okafor. Towns. Those are the names to watch in this season's Rookie of the Year battle, if only because they've instantly become the most or second-most important players are their teams.
Others will sneak into the discussion, some of them on better, perhaps even playoff-bound factions. But much like Mirotic—last season's runner-up—was in 2014-15, those threats will be flat-out neutralized, generating little more than fringe consideration and obligatory mentions.
Because in the end, though they're not officially defined as such, Rookie of the Year awards are almost exclusively used to honor those who standout by capitalizing on the opportunity gifted to them from teams that don't.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise cited.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.