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Stan Van Gundy made waves Wednesday when he told reporters asking about the MVP race, “I don’t think it’s wide open. The media seems to have made their decision, and they’re the ones that vote. Derrick Rose has it. I haven’t really read or heard a media guy who is going another way at this point.” It’s almost old news, now, as the quote has been extensively covered, but what Stan is tapping into here is the reason the MVP discussion is one of my least favorite parts of the NBA season. I might be starting to sound like a broken record here, but the essence of Stan’s quote, and the truth of the MVP race, is that it is a media award for media-manufactured stories and hardly valuable at all as a reflection of actual player value, but is instead a reflection on which players fulfill the narratives about them.
First, just to do it, I will poke Rose lovers in the eye and give my two cents as far as his MVP candidacy is concerned: It seems sort of crazy. Like, pretty crazy. I’m particularly swayed by John Hollinger’s point that Rose is the best offensive player on a mediocre offensive team, and the worst defensive player on a fantastic defensive team. Of course Rose is a huge part of the Bulls success–I do think, on balance, he is their best player–but to say that the team’s strength is about Rose’s particular skills seems misguided. In truth, I can’t think of one single thing about Rose’s game that elevates him above anyone else in the top level of NBA production. He’s not a top ten player in effective field goal percentage, True Shooting percentage, or Player Efficiency Rating; he ranks behind ostensible gunner Russell Westbrook and the immortal Jose Calderon in assist percentage. His Offensive Rating is not in the top twenty. He does not even play the most minutes on his own team. Or, what about this argument: Could you get Kevin Durant, straight-up, for Derrick Rose? Never. KD is, lest anybody forget, leading the league in scoring for a second consecutive season, and he is less than a week older than Derrick Rose. Could you get Dwight Howard, straight-up, for Derrick Rose? Hardly. League-wide, Dwight is second in rebounds, first in blocks, second in Player Efficiency Rating, second in effective field goal percentage, second in Win Shares per 48 minutes. He scores roughly two fewer points per game than Derrick with a usage rate nearly seven percentage points lower. I won’t go as far as Tom Ziller’s persuasive, well-reasoned argument that Rose is giving the Bulls something like what Westbrook is giving the Thunder, but my point is this: Derrick Rose, having a fantastic season for a great team, has not distinguished himself in any discernible way from the rest of the NBA elite.
So my question is not whether Stan was right, but whether anybody could reasonably argue that he was wrong. The consensus for Rose as MVP is so obviously a direct result of his ability to fulfill the media’s expectations and desires that I feel crazy for even pointing it out. The old “best player on the best team” logic doesn’t even hold up, because I don’t see anybody lining up to give Manu Ginobili any trophies. This has a lot to do with the intersection of market and myth: Chicago is a huge and important NBA city that has seen a relative dearth of greatness since Jordan, and their return to prominence is being shoehorned into a similar story–great young superstar puts team on his back and carries them to a fantastic year. Never mind that new coach Tom Thibodeau–a better choice for COY than Rose for MVP by a mile–has shaped the Bulls into an impossibly tough team to score on, and never mind that every single role player, from veteran Luol Deng to the brash Joakim Noah, has tailored their game to match the new system.
As soon as the Chicago team started its ascension, it was going to be about Rose, because that’s the story that was set already.
What drives me craziest about the MVP is the notion that we’ll be setting aside Rose’s season as special for the rest of history. I know, I know, it’s only one subjective award, and people can always go back and read for themselves, but still. The whole point of a subjective award like this IS for the commemoration of a special season. The idea that someone could look back at 2011 and think of Derrick Rose as this year’s best player or best story or even simply the player who mean the most to his team is tremendously unfulfilling. Which brings me to the nature of the MVP. It’s brilliant, really, but it’s also pretty useless as an award. There are no criteria for the award at all, which means this kind of argument and discussion is precisely what the process is intended to generate. As a method for figuring out who the best players are, it’s sort of ludicrously inefficient, but as a means of generating excitement and buzz about the league, it’s perfect. The only tool we have for measuring–and we really means the voters, the media–is how players respond to expectations and (forgive me being a broken record) the narrative already written for them. Remind me again how leading the league in scoring for the fourth best team in the murderous West doesn’t get you mentioned as the MVP? Oh, that’s right. It’s because you disappointed the expectation you had no part in setting that your team would win sixty games despite a nucleus of 22 year olds. It’s the same way the league’s best center, carrying his team on both ends of the floor despite a season of tremendous flux, will be overlooked as well. The MVP just isn’t about value. It’s about exceeding what we, the viewing public, asked of you. Is Derrick Rose, in any measurable sense, better than Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard? Not at all. Has he exceeded expectations for his individual play while fulfilling a gratifying, preconceived narrative? Yes.
Stan Van Gundy, obviously, knows all this. It’s exactly what he was saying the other night. I wonder if it has always been this way. I suspect that it has, but I also wonder if the media doesn’t move so quickly these days that we can’t help but create whirlpools of attention that make everything a self-fulfilling prophecy. To put that more clearly, I think we analyze and cover things so extensively and so ubiquitously that the coverage informs the things we cover like never before. Before Twitter, and 12-hour live SportsCenter days, do you really think the Miami Heat would have had it this hard? Would it really be so easy to forget about the 22 year old leading scorer we have? Would the Knicks have felt compelled to give their franchise to Denver to land Carmelo? Maybe. But maybe the tremendous amount and accessibility of analysis these days creates a momentum that the things we’re actually analyze can hardly resist. To my eye, that’s exactly what’s happened with the Derrick Rose MVP story, and Stan Van Gundy knows it.