Is Karl Malone an MVP without John Stockton? Does Steve Nash become Steve Nash without Mike D’Antoni and the ”seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns? Does Michael Jordan win six NBA titles without Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson?
The answer to all of those questions and many more throughout the annals of history is yes, no, and maybe. Certain players thrived alongside others and in certain systems. We can’t know what they would have done elsewhere, but we do know they benefited by being in the right place at the right time.
Boris Diaw needed Greg Popovich to become a championship contributor. The New York Knicks needed Pat Riley’s hard-nosed defense to reach the NBA finals. Draymond Green became an all-star because he had the right guys around him AND was the perfect fit for his team.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying “fit” matters in the NBA. Every single player in the NBA is an incredible talent. What separates the rotation players from the D-Leaguers is fit. And because of that, Rakeem Christmas has a chance at Rookie of the Year, despite his second-round draft position and incredible odds against him.
Hear me out before you decide I’m a crazy, biased, homer. Just look at these five points/facts/biased opinions/etc:
1. Christmas’s Stats were first round material
Had Christmas, who averaged 17.5 ppg, 9rpg, 2.5 bpg, done so as a freshman, sophomore, or maybe even junior, -and entered the draft following that season -he would have been a lottery pick. IN FACT, none of the 35 players drafted before Rakeem put up those numbers in more than one of those three categories, let alone all three. Christmas was the victim of a late bloom, senior bias in the NBA, and a false-belief that his senior season may have been a fluke.
Just to shoot down that theory, once and for all, Christmas’s per 40 min stats hardly changed over his four years with the exception of his scoring output. Here they are in black and white.
Proof, that he plays the same relentless style in 20 minutes or in 40 minutes, and the only thing that changed during his senior year was a larger role in the offense.
2. He Always Has Been, and Always Will Be A High Percentage Offensive Player
Just to keep harping on point #1, Rakeem shot 55% from the field and 71% from the free throw line. Over four years at Syracuse he shot 56% from the field and 68% of the FT line. His FT shooting improved with more minutes. His FG % stayed the same, more or less. What’s this mean? He’s consistent and will continue to be at the next level. He doesn’t take bad shots, so whether he’s a focus of an offense like last season, or a fourth or fifth option the season before, he’ll convert on the same percentage of his shots.
3. Cleveland’s Style is Perfect for Rak
Cleveland is a slow-the-tempo, grind-it-out type of team. Tristan Thompson was a beast on the offensive boards, averaging 3.3 per game, and LeBron James loves finding his teammates for open dunks. Christmas averaged over three offensive rebounds per game last year, and we already talked about his conversion rate.
4. He Fills a Huge Need For the Cavs
Cleveland has four serviceable big men right now on its roster, Christmas, Timofy Mozgov, Anderson Varejao, and Thompson. That’s assuming Kevin Love is gone, and I’m making that assumption. Varejao is no spring chicken, and even if he managed to stay healthy, the Cavs aren’t going to overplay him before the playoffs. That means TONS of opportunity for a young, athletic big man to step in and get playing time, without any real pressure or expectations. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Christmas taking over the load at Syracuse last year? Different situations, and different team expectations, but Christmas has shown he has the talent and confidence to excel in any role assigned to him.
5. He Gets to Play alongside the Best In the Game
LeBron James. He makes players with any ability into stars. He maximizes the potential of the people around, and finds ways to accentuate their skills sets. Just look at the guys he went the NBA finals with in 2007, and again in 2015. He’s a puppet master, and Christmas is a 6’10 puppet ready to be orchestrated.
I know it’s a long shot, but the writing is on the wall. Rakeem Christmas couldn’t have asked for a better situation to begin his NBA Career. It’s up to him to make the most of it. If he does what he did for four years at Syracuse, it’s not entirely inconceivable he’ll be hoisting the Rookie of the Year trophy come May, and maybe even the NBA Finals Trophy come June.