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Is it a race if it’s already over?
When it comes to the race for the Most Valuable Player award, the answer seems to be yes, given that the support for Derrick Rose — the star point guard for the Chicago Bulls — has swelled in recent weeks to dizzying heights. In some ways, it makes sense. The Bulls are in position to claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and win more than 60 games in the regular season. Rose is the unquestioned leader for Chicago and when looking back at history, players like him put themselves in great position to win MVP.
But does Rose deserve the award?
It depends on who you ask.
A majority of the mainstream media have made it clear who their choice is — Rose. This should come as no surprise, given that this is the same contingent that handed Steve Nash back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006, Allen Iverson the MVP award in 2001, and so on and so forth. What do these players have in common? Each of them, including Rose, exceeded a narrative that was bestowed upon them before the season began. Entering this year, Rose wasn’t the favorite to win MVP. Rose wasn’t even on the radar. After his heroics in leading Team USA to gold in the 2010 FIBA World Championships, Durant was seen as the player that would dethrone LeBron James and begin his evolution in becoming the best player in the NBA. Durant was the media’s choice. Unfortunately for Durant, he did not fulfill expectations and he was quickly forgotten in the conversation for MVP.
In a race for MVP that was wide open at the onset, Rose took control because he and the Bulls came out of nowhere in the East. The narrative that was set in stone for Chicago was that they were a year away from becoming a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Orlando Magic were going to duke it out for conference supremacy, while the Bulls would play the role of annoying brother and try to cause as much of a ruckus as possible. Of course, things have turned out much differently. Chicago has shattered expectations, with the help of head coach Tom Thibodeau, a smothering defense, and an excellent supporting cast that’s been able to complement Rose’s talents. And it’s not like Rose hasn’t had a great season because he has, given that he’s produced at a high level, particularly in crunch time, and was more than deserving of being named the starting point guard for the East in the 2011 NBA All-Star Game. But it can’t be denied that Rose has benefited from the storyline itself.
It’s a storyline that has vaulted Rose as the favorite to win MVP. It also helps that the structure of the league favors perimeter players. As such, Rose’s highlights are more exciting to watch in the eyes of the fans, given the position that he plays. That aids in painting a certain picture of how good Rose is.
While the mainstream media has made their decision, the online presence that covers the league and the analytics community has tried to make it clear in recent weeks that Rose isn’t the correct choice. This is no different than the tug-of-war that’s occurred in baseball in recent times. There are so many dogmatic principles that have been accepted as canon in baseball, like when it comes to choosing the Cy Young winner for instance, that it took years for not only the sabremetrics community to bust a lot of myths but to insert their voice in the discussion when it comes to having a vote in the process as a member of the BBWAA. It’s clear that basketball is reaching a similar stage. Unfortunately, one of the main differences is that writers like John Hollinger, Kevin Pelton, and others, who have made a concerted effort to quantify everything on the court and come away with accurate observations, don’t have a say in the voting process. As such, the dogmatic principles that surround choosing the MVP remain steadfast and strong. For example, too many times the MVP goes to the best player on the best team in the league or conference when that shouldn’t always be the case. Is Rose any different of a player if his team finishes first in the East or third? No, of course not. Heck, in 2003, it can be argued that Tracy McGrady should have been the MVP, given that his production was unrivaled by almost any of his peers, but he wasn’t even considered for the award because he was on a team with a supporting cast that was no better than average. It makes no sense to penalize McGrady and the season that he had for something that is almost entirely out of his control, yet this happens frequently when the voting comes up and people look at the standings during the construction of their arguments. It’s similar to pitchers in baseball getting unfairly penalized because their team can’t provide run support or they commit errors that cause unearned runs or the bullpen gives up the lead.
If the technology and information is out there to make an informed decision that’s also the correct one, why ignore it? Thankfully, that’s something that baseball has learned and the hope is that basketball can catch on too.
As such, using technology and information, there are a number of arguments being made for Rose that, when peeling away the layers, are flawed. This isn’t meant to disparage Rose, but to uncover the truths and reveal the realities as to why the Bulls are so good this year.
Best defense in the NBA
The Boston Celtics have gone back-and-forth with Chicago when it comes to leading the league in allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions. But the Bulls have led the NBA in that category for a majority of the season. Chicago’s leap from having a good defense (allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions in 2010) to an elite one (allowing 100.0 points per 100 possessions in 2011) is a big reason they’re a championship contender right now. That has little to do with Rose and almost everything to do with the arrival of head coach Tom Thibodeau and his relentless defensive schemes. Rose is simply a piece to the puzzle defensively. To assign all credit for the Bulls’ improvements on defense to Rose would discredit Thibodeau’s arrival, great defenders like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, and a bench that is quietly become a suffocating unit on that end of the floor. In fact, as a collective, the reserves are better defensively than the starters.
Which leads to the next point. Rose did not carry Chicago when Noah and Carlos Boozer sat out at different points in time due to injuries.
The Bulls’ defense carried them. When Taj Gibson filled in for Boozer and Kurt Thomas filled in for Noah, Chicago’s defense did not miss a beat. In the 54 combined games that Boozer and Noah missed, the Bulls held their opponents to 97.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s remarkable. Again, that speaks more to Thibodeau’s system defensively than it does on Rose. Defense remains a challenge to quantify but it’s worth noting that among the starters for Chicago, the defense improves the most when Rose is off the floor. When Rose is not in the game, the offense suffers dramatically but a superior defense makes up for it. Even more so than Boozer, someone that has been criticized a lot defensively in previous years yet is not as much of a drag on that side of the ball than Rose. Indeed, Rose’s impact on offense for the Bulls does more than enough to make up for his defense compared to his teammates. This isn’t to label Rose as bad defensively because he’s improved on that side of the ball this season. In fact, Synergy Sports Technology suggests that Rose is an excellent defender, although that’s partly because he benefits from the team-wide trust in Thibodeau’s schemes and the near flawless rotations Noah, Deng, and others execute on almost every possession. But it’s still a useful exercise to point out such a disparity and try to figure out Rose’s value on defense, though it’s especially revealing that there’s scads of evidence suggesting Chicago improves defensively without him by a considerable degree.
An excellent coaching staff and supporting cast
Where would the Bulls be without Rose?
That question is brought up many times, with the underlying assumption that Chicago would be nowhere to be found and subsequently located in a dark abyss without the shining light of Rose to guide them on the path to a title. Thing is, the Bulls would still be a playoff-caliber team if Rose wasn’t on the roster, something that Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference is able to quantify:
In plain English, Chicago’s lineups can be expected to have an efficiency differential of +5.00 against an average team with Rose in the game, while they can be expected to have a differential of +2.36 against an average team when Rose isn’t in the game.
Again, this shows that while Chicago is certainly lessened when Rose is not on the floor, the hypothesis that they would completely fall apart without him is baseless. +2.36 is still a playoff-caliber team, essentially the same as the Hornets or Thunder. And this is after adjusting for the strength of opposing lineups when the backups are in the game, so it’s accounting for any backup-vs-backup effects.
That’s because a great supporting cast would remain, including an All-Star caliber talent in Noah, a double-double guy in Boozer, one of the top perimeter defenders in the league in Deng when healthy, as well as one of the best benches in the NBA and the coaching wizardry of Thibodeau. The point is, Rose isn’t alone in the journey. Thanks to an excellent offseason by Chicago, Rose is surrounded with plenty of talent and a superb coaching staff. It’s true that Rose is the leader and closer of the Bulls, leading them to many victories down the stretch with the basketball in his hands. But like senselessly ignoring Chicago’s defense, it would behoove people to ignore the impacts of not only Thibodeau but players like Noah, Deng, and Boozer as well as newcomers like Kyle Korver that have stepped up in crunch-time themselves.
Rose is a great player but the Bulls are a great team.
There are better MVP candidates
There’s no question that Rose has stood out this year for Chicago. The problem is that there are players better and more valuable than him.
The likes of LeBron James and Dwight Howard, just to name a few, have performed at a higher level and out-produced Rose by a wide margin. It’s one thing if Rose is within striking distance statistically to James and Howard when looking at the numbers across the board, but he’s not close. That’s one of the biggest reasons that it’s hard to argue that Rose is deserving of the MVP when there’s superior candidates. Critics may be quick to argue that James, in particular, has the benefit of playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh but consider this. The Miami Heat arguably have the worst bench in the league, which has forced James to carry a heavy load just like he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers, even with Wade and Bosh en tow. Plus, when James is off the floor, the Heat get outscored by 0.3 points per 100 possessions. But when James is present, Miami outscores opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions so that’s where his presence is felt. To put that number in perspective, the Bulls outscore their opponents by at least 6.0 points per 100 possessions whether Rose is on the court or not. The Orlando Magic, on the other hand, would likely fall apart without Howard, given that he’s the direct driving force of their successes on offense and defense when taking into account his omnipresence in the paint.
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Statistical plus/minus and WARP are prorated to 82 games
Stats aren’t everything. This is true. However, it’s hard to explain away the disparity between Rose and players like James and Howard. Intangibles only go so far before reality sets in. And the reality is that players like James and Howard are elite players on both ends of the floor because of their ability to impact the game on every possession. James and Howard are two of the most efficient players in the league on offense. For James, even though his three-point shot comes and goes, his ability to finish at the rim, get to the free-throw line, as well as punish opponents in pick and rolls, are qualities that stand out for him. As for Howard, it’s his tremendous growth in the low post that has spurred his ascension as one of the more gifted players offensively and made him a complete two-way player. James and Howard aren’t only highly efficient players on offense, but they are key cogs to their respective units defensively. James is a terror on the perimeter on defense and is able to defend multiple positions. Meanwhile, Howard is well on his way to earning the Defensive Player of the Year award for a third consecutive season, given that he’s been able to anchor the Magic defensively despite little help from his teammates.
Rose’s overall resume can’t quite compare.
Granted, Rose is an efficient player to an extent, but he’s nowhere nearly as efficient as James and Howard even though he’s shouldering a similar burden on offense. And yes, it’s true that Rose has gotten better offensively but not dramatically so.
Before and after the All-Star break
The main improvements for Rose has been his ability to shoot three-pointers at a higher percentage than in previous seasons, as well as doing a better job of drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. As was pointed out elsewhere, the surprising thing is that although Chicago is 15-4 after the All-Star break, Rose’s numbers have dipped a little bit. If Rose hasn’t changed much as a player before and after All-Star weekend, then it’s increasingly clear that the elements like defense, coaching, and bench play have aided in the Bull’s surge to the top of the East along with Rose. Because for as much as Rose is responsible for the Bulls’ success on offense, they’re only ranked 14th in offensive efficiency. That goes back to Rose being a marginally efficient player himself, which matters a great deal in this discussion.
Granted, that’s a massive improvement from last year, in which the Bulls were 27th in the same category, and Rose deserves plenty of credit for that quantum leap. But that’s precisely the reason that Chicago signed a scorer like Boozer and a shooter like Korver, as well as utilize Thibodeau’s coaching acumen to develop a better system to improve the offense. There are many reasons why the Bulls are in the position that they’re in, but it’s not all Rose.
So who should be the MVP?
Let’s put it this way.
The same numbers that showed Michael Jordan should have been MVP nearly every year he played in the NBA are the same numbers that show Rose shouldn’t win the award.