Magic Johnson didn’t win Rookie of the Year and somehow went on to have a fairly distinguished NBA career. He’s in good company. Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley all have pretty impressive trophy cases despite the absence of a Rookie of the Year award in the mix. There are plenty of others in the Hall of Fame without that particular distinction on their resume.
The Pistons would have been thrilled for Cade Cunningham to win Rookie of the Year, but let’s get this much straight: If the NBA allowed a do-over of the entire 2021 draft and gave the Pistons first pick again, nothing changes – except the degree of hand-wringing Troy Weaver, Dwane Casey and their inner circle put into the decision to take Cunningham over a loaded field of prospects.
They’d come to the decision much quicker today and feel even better about their future than they did last June after cogitating for a month on which potentially elite player to make the centerpiece of Weaver’s restoration, settling on Cunningham.
Toronto’s Scottie Barnes overtook Cleveland’s Evan Mobley over the final month with Mobley missing some time and the Raptors passing the Cavs in the standings to win the award with Cunningham third. Barnes surely benefited from being even better than anticipated when the Raptors, in a mild surprise, selected him with the fourth pick. Mobley was at least as good as advertised.
Both got considerable bounce from team success, something that’s not usually held against Rookie of the Year contenders but surely influences voters when there’s not an overwhelming consensus pick.
The fact Cunningham made it a horse race given the impediments he overcame speaks to the impression he made in a tour de force rookie season. It’s tough enough for a veteran to miss all of training camp and get dropped into the middle of an NBA season, tougher still for rookies and toughest of all for a rookie asked the carry the offensive burden thrust upon Cunningham. The Pistons asked him to be not only their primary playmaker but, in fact, to carry the scoring load.
And he had to do all of that in the face of the preseason ankle injury and the loss of Jerami Grant less than two months into the season – and just as Cunningham was finding his footing.
Mobley can be a transcendent defensive player and has come farther offensively than some thought he would in two or three seasons already. Barnes has the size and two-way sizzle to be a future All-Star staple. Jalen Green’s final month validated the faith of scouts who saw him as a future scoring leader. Franz Wagner, in another year, might have had a shot at winning the award.
Weaver kicked the tires on all of those guys during the run-up to last year’s draft and no doubt thought well of all or most of the top 10 picks in a crop many viewed as transformational. But nobody had the overall package Cunningham offered. Nobody stood out as the kind of player you’d trust to make something of nothing in the pressure cooker of a last possession in a playoff game somewhere down the road but Cunningham.
It was just two years ago that Cunningham and Barnes were teammates at Montverde Prep along with two other 2021 first-round picks, Moses Moody and Day’Ron Sharpe. Mobley, Green and Cunningham were teammates on United States junior national teams. Cunningham was the undisputed alpha male on every team he’s ever been a member.
That was a big part of Weaver’s calculation last summer. Remember on draft night when he called Cunningham a “human connector.”
“He came in and displayed that early on,” Weaver said upon reflection of Cunningham’s year. “Most of the time, young guys coming through the door, they want to stick their toe in. He jumped in and was ready to go with his leadership and connecting the group. He didn’t let his struggles early on dictate how he responded with the group. As things got better, you started to see not only his growth but the growth of the team because of those two special qualities he had, leadership and his connectability.”
The melding of two exceptionally rare skills – magnetic leadership that facilitates the maximizing of a collection of talent on a roster plus the ability to create offense that wrecks game plans, as Kevin Durant notably said about Cunningham as the season wound down – makes Cunningham the guy the Pistons would take again, 100 times out of 100, if the NBA offered another chance at picking first from the 2021 class. The Rookie of the Year award on top of that would’ve been nice. It doesn’t change an iota how the Pistons view Cunningham’s future, now inextricably linked to their own.