There are a plenty of reasons why the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans could’ve felt bitter about the way things played out in Orlando. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, all signs pointed to them hanging on to the No. 8 spot in the West and securing what we might all assume would’ve been the first of many playoff appearances to come for one of the league’s most exciting up-and-coming squads.
Of course, that’s not how things played out. To be fair, the Grizzlies had the same opportunity as everyone else in Orlando. The Bubble leveled the playing field, and a combination of bizarro occurrences conspired against them in their quest for the postseason — I mean, who could’ve possibly anticipated the Suns’ Cinderella run through the seeding games?
And the Grizzlies certainly earned their share of the blame. They lost four games in a row to start, digging themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of, despite finally rediscovering their swagger in the play-in game and giving the Blazers all they could handle before falling short.
Through all of this, rookie sensation Ja Morant took up the mantel as the new face of the franchise and staked his claim as one of the NBA’s brightest young stars. He was spectacular for Memphis this season, leading all rookies in both scoring (17.6) and assists (6.9) on better than 49 percent shooting and was one of the best clutch performers in the league, finishing sixth among all players in fourth quarter scoring at 7.3 points.
So it was little surprise that the fledgling point god ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, earning 99 out of a possible 100 first-place votes. That’s right: 99 out of 100. And don’t think for a minute that Morant didn’t take notice. In fact, he had a message for that lone dissenting voter on Friday, via Tim Bontemps of ESPN:
“I want to shoot a direct message to them and thank them for motivating me even more to do more on the floor and be better and do whatever I can to help my team in a basketball game,” Morant said. “So if anyone knows who that is, let me know.”
The other first-place vote getter? Zion Williamson. Zion, of course, was the Pelicans’ No. 1 overall pick in 2019 and entered the league as perhaps the most anticipated rookie since LeBron James. That anticipation, to be clear, was 100 percent justified. Zion is one of the most explosive athletes we’ve ever seen in the league. Even before he arrived in the NBA, his highlight package was already one for the ages, and even beyond all of the flash that the dunks and spectacular blocks provide, he is a really good, really smart basketball player.
But a truncated rookie season, due to injury, took him out of the running for ROY in most voters’ minds. And that’s taking into account his incredible run over the 19 games he played before the shutdown, during which he averaged 23.6 points on 58.9 percent shooting and showed tantalizing flashes of what we can expect from him as his career gets off the ground.
Yet as good as he was, most voters arrived at the (in my mind correct) estimation that Morant’s sustained greatness over the course of a grueling 82-game season that put his team in playoff positioning was more than enough to reward him with a first-place vote.
This is not to bash the lone media member who withheld their first-place vote. Zion’s 19-game run absolutely opened the debate about just how many games are necessary to constitute an adequate sample size for an award like this, although most voters clearly arrived at the same conclusion. It is easy to say that voters faced a similar conundrum in 2017 with the ROY race involving Malcolm Brogdon and Joel Embiid. Embiid had played 31 games before he was shut down with an injury, and during that stretch, he was the runaway favorite, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds on 46 percent from the field and 37 percent from behind the arc.
Compare that to Brogdon’s 10.2 points and 4.2 assists on 45 percent shooting and better than 40 percent from three. In this case, Embiid’s dominance was enough to earn him 23 first-place votes. While one of Embiid’s teammates at the time, Dario Saric, finished in second, Embiid got the second-most spots atop ballots. It is not a stretch to say that if Embiid played more, he would have won the award in a walk.
That second sentence, however, doesn’t necessarily apply here. Brogdon is a good player, but Morant’s Rookie of the Year case is much less murky, as his first year in the league was legitimately sensational. Due to the mix of Williamson’s absence for much of the year and just how good he was for a team that was in eighth place at the time award voting concluded, it is a bit surprising that he did not unanimously win this award, and he would have had one heck of a case for it even if Williamson played all season.
This opens another debate about whether awards voting should remain anonymous, or whether voters should have to own up to their decisions. I’m personally a believer in that. If you voted your conscience and feel strongly about it, great. I respect that, and I’d love to hear the rationale, even if I don’t agree with it.
But in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter much. Morant will always have his award, even if it has the tiniest bit of tarnish on it. In fact, we already know that it’s given him bulletin-board material for next season, which is a scary prospect for his opponents.