With the recent passing of the great Bill Russell, I was thinking about his beginning. Though he was an instant star, Russell did not win Rookie of the Year. Let’s do a moderate dive into how this happened and whether it should’ve happened.
It’s clear that the Olympics robbed Russell of the ROY. Russell missed several months of his rookie year because he was playing in the 1956 Olympics in Sydney and did not debut with Boston until December 22, 1956, 24 games into the season. Russell helped the Celtics to a strong finish and their first NBA title but he lost out in the Rookie of the Year to teammate Tom Heinsohn, a future Hall of Famer as well.
Russ, however, was obviously the better player and did complain that he deserved ROY. In “Tall Tales,” Jim Loscutoff stated that: “Heinsohn won the award, primarily because he played the full season. It turned out that the rookie award was the only major award that Russell never won. Bill has a lot of resentment about that. Tommy deserved it, but I think that Russell felt slighted that he didn’t get it.” Bill Reynolds wrote in “Cousy” that Russell “had also suggested that race was the reason he never really had gotten his due as a player” and cited not winning player of the year (Tom Gola won) in college or ROY as evidence of this.
Did he have a beef about this issue or did Loscutoff articulate the correct argument? Let’s break it down as best we can with the limited stat record. First the raw stats:
Heinsohn: 72 games, 29.9 mpg, 16.2 ppg, .397 FG%, .456 TS%, 9.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, 18.0 PER, .160 WS48
Russell: 48 games, 35.3 mpg, 14.7 ppg, .427 FG%, .450 TS%, 19.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 20.9 PER, .176 WS48
Granted, we are missing blocks, steal, and a few other stats but what we have shows Russ to be a little bit better. But was he better enough to overcome playing in 24 fewer games and 455 fewer minutes? Also hurting him a little was Russell’s poor free throw shooting (he shot a career worst .492% versus career average .561%).
It would be nice to see impact metrics to see how much of a boost Russell gave the team. Without the BPM and other stats we have today, we can sort of get there with a look at how the team did with him in the lineup overall. Boston actually started out really hot without him going 16-8 (.667%) pre-Russell and finishing up 28-20 (.583%) with him. This pre-Russell success would suggest that Russ wasn’t a big deal yet. But that is just one data point and a little detail can explain the drop in winning percentage after Russell arrived. Boston started out 25-13 with Russell, essentially the same win rate as the first 24 games, before finishing the year 3-6 in meaningless games (they had sewed up home court by mid-February). It’s possible they just let up with nothing to play for and the final nine games shouldn’t be given too much weight.
Digging even deeper, here are point margins before Russell and with him:
Games 1-24: 105.2 ppg v. 100.6 opponent ppg, margin +4.5 ppg
Games 25-72: 105.7 ppg v. 100.0 opponent ppg, margin +5.8 ppg
This data doesn’t account for strength of opponents and some other potential hiccups but it seems decisive. The Celtics were good before Russ and a bit better on both ends of the floor with him in the lineup. Though the team won at a lower rate, the fundamentals show Boston was better with Russell.
Another telling unscientific point was the MVP voting. Russell notched two votes (teammate Bob Cousy won the award) but Heinsohn got none. How is it possible that the voters considered Russell more valuable than Heinsohn in the MVP context but not the ROY? I honestly have no idea. We don’t have the ROY voting, so we don’t know how close that was either.
Was bias a factor in the ROY vote? It’s hard to say because the reasons articulated by Loscutoff have superficial merit and voting at that time was pretty superficial (even recently, we all remember Joel Embiid losing ROY when he was clearly the best rookie because of his reduced minutes). Regardless, the deeper stats show that Russell was clearly the better choice for ROY. It doesn’t really matter considering all he’s done in his career later but, for posterity, Russ is my 1956-57 ROY.