As the NBA regular season progresses into its final stages, the frontrunners for the league’s award races have separated themselves apart from the rest of the pack. Among the players vying for top placement in the awards races is Detroit Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham. The 20-year-old is keeping pace with Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes in the race for the NBA Rookie of the Year award. As they currently stand, Mobley is the odds on favorite to win the award, but Cunningham is right on his heels.
Detroit’s star rookie was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for January. In 15 games that month, Cunningham averaged 17.3 points per game, 5.6 assists per game and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 36.5 percent from beyond the arc. Another strong month in February and Cunningham has separated himself from Giddey and Barnes making the Rookie of the Year race a two-man competition between Mobley and Himself, a race that is becoming increasingly tight.
Team Success has propelled Mobley’s case for ROTY
The Cavaliers have been the Cinderella story of the 2021-22 NBA season. After a 13th place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, Cleveland has risen up to the fourth seed in the East. This newfound success has come in no small part thanks to the contributions of Mobley.
The USC product has played big minutes for the Cavs, averaging 34.1 a night. His box score numbers have been stellar all season. The big man averages 14.8 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting an even 50 percent from the floor. He leads all rookies in win shares per 48 minutes and player efficiency rating as well.
Mobley has been in the spotlight this season. The Cavaliers’ unexpected rise to the top of the Eastern Conference standings has drawn the eyes of many around the league. Mobley’s performance even drew him consideration as a replacement player for the NBA All-Star game. Serious consideration? Probably not, but still, his name was in the mix.
What is not to like about Mobley? He is a long athletic big man who defends well and plays to his strengths offensively. He has even shown potential as a floor spacer. His 26.1 percent shooting on three-balls does not show it, but the potential is there.
Mobley got off to a hot start to begin the season. He has continued to play well into the All-Star break and beyond. There is a strong case for him as the Rookie of the Year frontrunner. But as the season has progressed Cunningham has carved his way into the conversation.
Cunningham has bounced back from a slow start
Things were not going well to start off Cunningham’s NBA career. The 20-year-old missed five of Detroit’s six first games to start the season. Efficiency was a serious issue when he did make it onto the floor for the Pistons. Cunningham shot 33.5 percent from the floor and 24.5 percent from beyond the arc in his first 15 games. He did that while also attempting 14.1 shots per game during that span.
Cunningham was thrown into the fire right away. Despite his struggles, it was no secret that he was Detroit’s best option on offense. The 20-year-old consistently faced double-teams when he had the ball in his hands, he still does. But Cunningham adjusted. He started getting to his spots, continued to play aggressively and he completely took the reigns leading Detroit’s offense as well.
After a lackluster start, Cunningham greatly improved his efficiency. He is shooting 42.2 percent from the floor and 36.6 percent from three-point range in his last 32 games. He took home the Rising Stars MVP award during All-Star weekend and participated in the Skills Challenge as well.
Cunningham is the go-to guy in crunch time. Head coach Dwane Casey wants the ball in his star rookie’s hands when the game is on the line. Despite turnover issues, getting into foul trouble and constant double-teams the rookie does not shy away from the big moments.
Cunningham has outdueled Mobley in head-to-head matchups
Even though they are the 14th ranked team in the Eastern Conference, the Pistons hold a 2-1 record over the four seeded Cavaliers this season. Cunningham has played a major role in those victories over the Cavs as well.
In their first matchup, Cunningham was outplayed by Mobley. Cunningham racked up seven turnovers in a 98-78 loss. Mobley notched 16 points while collecting seven rebounds in that matchup.
Game two between the Central Division rivals saw Cunningham get a triple-double as he scored 19 points, dished out 10 assists and collected 10 rebounds. Cunningham did so on terrible efficiency, but he notched a triple-double and did so while only turning the ball over once. Mobley played well in the 115-105 loss to Detroit. The big man scored 18 points and brought in 9 rebounds, but Cunningham stole the show that game.
In the close 106-103 victory for Detroit, Cunningham got to the free-throw line at will. The rookie made 10 trips to the charity stripe sinking all but one. He was again incredibly inefficient from the floor in this game, but so was Mobley who managed 12 points compared to Cunningham’s 17.
Detroit and Cleveland will match up one final time this season on March 19. In the past two games, Cunningham has taken the spotlight and the victory. If Detroit can finish the season 3-1 against the Cavaliers and Cunningham outplays Mobley for the third time, he will have built a strong head-to-head case for the Rookie of the year award.
Rookie of the Year will be a close finish
Cunningham and Mobley have both made extremely strong cases to win the Rookie of the Year award. Mobley has been a really important cog in a Cavaliers team that is sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference. He has been consistently good throughout the entire 2021-22 season as well.
After a slow start, Cunningham has turned into the best player on the Pistons roster. He consistently makes”wow” plays, and he draws attention while also being on one of the worst teams in the NBA this season. If the Pistons were sitting in playoff position there is no question Cunningham would currently be the favorite to win the award. Mobley came to Cleveland and became an integral piece to their future. Cunningham came to Detroit and instantly became the face of the franchise.
Both players have a strong case for the award. Could they be named Co-Rookie of the Year? That has not happened since the 1999-00 season when Elton Brand and Steve Francis both took home the award. It is certainly a possibility, albeit unlikely.
This race could be boiled down to team success vs individual performance. It is not exactly a perfect description, but in its simplest form, sure. Mobley has put on some incredible performances, but Cunningham has been downright special. Both players have been at the top of their rookie class this season. Is Cunningham’s individual performance this season enough to make the team success Mobley is enjoying obsolete in this race? That is for the voters to decide, and it is not an enviable decision to make.