Last Friday night, Ben Simmons put forth the most phenomenal performance thus far of a career still in its infancy. In a primetime, nationally televised showcase, Simmons went toe-to-toe with the mentor he’s so frequently (and often unnecessarily) drawn comparisons too. He mixed dazzling open-court wizardry with calculated half-court efficiency, graceful distribution with brute force jams.
In a season littered with highlights, record chasing and the shattering of expectations this was his finest moment. With a potential 3-seed on the line and facing the 3 time defending Eastern Conference champions without the 7-foot running mate his name is so often linked to, Simmons took an offense already operating at the 4th quickest pace in the league and threw it into turbo drive en route to a 132 point total. He finished with a stat line of 27/15/13/4 on 70.5% shooting. He didn’t attempt a shot beyond 13 feet, and the Sixers defeated the Cavaliers 132-130, securing arguably what was likely their most important victory in over 15 years.
On Monday morning, ESPN released an interview in which Simmons was asked who he thought should win the NBA’s rookie of the year award. He responded, without hesitation or an inkling of consideration, “me. 100%”. Within minutes the relatively small, but undeniably vocal world of ‘Jazz twitter’ was enraged. For your average Utah fan the reaction was somewhere in the ballpark of ‘That cocky SOB from Australia, how dare he pretend to not realize the gravity of what Donovan Mitchell has done this season? What an arrogant jerk.’. To Sixers fans, that quote symbolized a cathartic ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the league that the fanbase has been dying to unleash since Malcom Brogdon swept past Joel Embiid and Dario Saric to steal last season’s rookie of the year award.
Two cities, two passionate fanbases, two incredibly talented rookies leading their clubs to unimaginable seasons in a ball-dominant space rarely occupied by the associations youngest competitors. And yet in spite of this overwhelming abundance of positivity surrounding the race, it has become one mired in negativity and detraction. “Simmons can’t shoot, and he’s not a real rookie” vs “Mitchell isn’t better at anything except scoring, and he’s not even as efficient at that” have become the dominating focal points of conversation. It’s a shame. Look at the two stories at play here, as far as NBA narratives go they’re as good as it gets.
On July 4th, 2017 Gordon Hayward penned an open letter to the basketball world, published through The Player’s Tribune, announcing that he would be leaving the Jazz to reunite with his college coach and play for the Boston Celtics. 7 seasons, 531 games, 16,698 minutes and 8,371 points made Hayward the best Jazz player since the dynamic duo of Stockton and Malone. 2090 words and a ‘thank you’ took him across the country to a bigger city and a bigger market where Hayward felt he had a better opportunity of reaching his stated goal of “winning a championship”. This isn’t an indictment of Hayward, and it never should be. The NBA is a business and the players driving that business lead complicated lives with varying interests, but none of that matters to your standard died in the wool Jazz fan from Salt Lake City. For that fan, the farewell letter was utterly crushing in a way that hits smaller market fans in a way that many could never truly comprehend. Fresh off of a 51 win season, the most promising core the Jazz had cultivated in years was seemingly finished. But it’s funny the way sports can seemingly follow a script at times. 12 days before Hayward’s abrupt departure the Jazz selected a 6’3 combo guard out of Louisville with the public hopes of adding some scoring pop, and the quiet effort to craft an insurance plan in the event that Hayward would jump town. 78 games, 2604 minutes, 1599 points and one charismatic dunk contest later and Donovan Mitchell has done the inconceivable. He’s simultaneously erased the sting of Hayward’s departure, thrown a franchise back on course and helped will the Jazz to what is currently the 3 seed in the Western Conference. No shit Jazz fan’s are so quick to jump to Mitchell’s defense at every turn he took that aforementioned crushing blow and made it utterly irrelevant in a matter of 10 months.
And then there’s Simmons, the cocksure Aussie who was virtually disregarded when his rookie peers were asked who they believed would win the Rookie of the Year award in the preseason. He was forgotten, disregarded and he noticed infamously informing a gaggle of reporters “they’ll remember”. Simmons took all the talk of losing culture, tanking, injury problems and inexperience and ferociously dunked it into an inferno of triple-doubles and jaw dropping assists. He’s never played or acted like a rookie because he never intended to. Simmons views himself as belonging amongst the games elites, and his play thus far has done nothing but validate that attitude. That is what lies behind his discarding of his fellow rookies in this week’s ESPN interview, he remains fully focused on the players at the top of the league paying no mind to the remaining mass around him. And it couldn’t endear him more to the Philadelphia fanbase. That between the legs juke around LeBron parried into a monster slam is reminiscent of Iverson’s cross over on Jordan. It was an invigorating moment for basketball in Philadelphia. Ben Simmons is the 6’10 FUCK. YOU. that every process truster is so immensely happy to heap upon the horde of fans, writers and analysts who condescendingly mocked and ridiculed an objectively intelligent and well planned rebuild.
These parallel narratives pile on to two special rookie seasons, and create one phenomenal story of two franchises who got counted out only to have their loftiest wishes granted on the backs of perfectly casted players. Throwing it all together should mark the story of the year, and Ben Simmons interview and Donovan Mitchell’s sweatshirt only make it more fun. On June 25th Ben Simmons is going to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. He’ll be deserving, the NBA’s rules qualify him as a rookie, and he has operated at a level all his own amongst first year players. The vote will not be particularly close, and here lies a final major problem. Forcing a debate that isn’t really merited is as much of a disservice to Mitchell as it is to Simmons, as it reduces a phenomenal season to a runner-up campaign. The majority of Jazz and Sixers fans will handle the voting outcome predictably. Those fake rookie and no-jumpshot remarks will once again come flying in from Salt Lake City, while a smug ‘I told you so. L.’ dismissal will be prevalent amongst the process faithful. And it’s disappointing because the arguments of both fanbases are rooted in a similar triumph. To fail to appreciate or enjoy phenomenal basketball over an award that Michael Carter-Williams and Malcom Brogdon have won in the last 5 years is, for lack of a better word, stupid.