Because discourse in America has taken such a turn that you can’t defend one side without seemingly trashing another, the 2011 NBA MVP debate has taken the feel of a congressional budget battle. Everyone is bringing out charts, or telling stories and, ultimately, choosing sides.
Can you navigate HoopData.com without looking at the screen? Then you’re probably voting for Dwight Howard. Can you rattle off 10 synonyms for “amazing” without thinking? Then you’ve probably already cast your vote for Derrick Rose. That’s how the party lines have been drawn. The numbers vs. the story.
And just like most of these debates, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. Do the numbers matter? Of course they do. But they don’t tell the whole story. And the story matters too, but it has to be supported by numbers. You see, it all works hand in hand.
The statistical revolution is a necessary thing. It forces us to look at basketball differently... to un-learn what we’ve learned and re-learn it with this new perspective. It’s a good thing. But the disciples of Hollinger are latching on to Dwight Howard in hopes that he can be their statistical Super Man. Because in the world of PER’s and Rebounding Rate and the myriad of other new ways to analyze the sport, Dwight stands tall... perhaps taller than he even does in real life. He’s an anomalous beast whose numbers defy logic. And, quite honestly, the numbers make him quite deserving of the MVP award.
But he doesn’t have the other half of the formula. It’s the half of the formula that, despite the objections, is as important as the stats. Because basketball is not played on paper.
Basketball is a sport that is watched with our eyes, not our calculators. And through those eyes, we see things the numbers can’t.
Somewhere in the middle of the Bulls 23-4 post-All Star run, what the eyes were seeing became too much for advanced stats to handle. Somewhere in the middle of the Bulls acting like their namesake and running roughshod over the competition, Derrick Rose rode that momentum to the top of the MVP list. His stats are great. But it's the way he got those stats that got people all ga-ga over him.
On February 24, when the Heat walked into the United Center, not many people thought the Bulls would catch them, or Boston, in the standings. But Rose dropped 26 points, 6 assists and 5 boards on them to get a win. On March 3rd, the Bulls marched into the Amway Center and beat another Eastern Conference power in Orlando. Rose again led the way with a 24/4/4 night. Three days later, Rose had 27 points and 5 assists as Chicago beat Miami, AGAIN... this time by 1.
It was a Sherman’s March through the NBA, and every night Derrick Rose stood tall as the leader. Miami had all the hype and Boston had all the experience, but it was the Bulls that dispatched them all. And yes, the Bulls are winning because of a total team effort, but Derrick Rose is unquestionably the leader of that team. And he brings an unquantifiable essence to them that raises everyone’s level of play. It’s something that statistics can’t capture... but it’s something that we know is there.
Stats can support whatever argument you really want to make in this MVP debate because there are a lot of worthy candidates. I can cherry pick a few stats that show Derrick Rose does, statistically belong in the same realm as these guys. His clutch numbers are astounding, showing he raises his game to another level when his team needs him. He’s fifth in the league in APER (Alternate Player Efficiency Rating, which HoopData describes as PER adjusted for actual assisted and unassisted FG’s as opposed to using estimates. Slightly more accurate than PER), at 26.34... slightly behind Dwight Howard’s 26.53.
And honestly, Derrick Rose just needs to be in the same team picture statistically because he’s got it locked up everywhere else. While he’s winning games and making the highlight reels, Dwight Howard has served TWO suspensions for technical fouls. I’m sorry, but that matters. If a player is that valuable, he needs to be on the court.
While Rose was leading an upstart squad to places no one expected them to be, LeBron and his heavily hyped Heat spent stretches scuffling through their schedule. Yes, that matters too. Because when you do achieve something you weren’t supposed to achieve, it inherently increases the value of everyone involved in that achievement. And when you don’t meet your goals, even if the bar is really high, it does cause a bit of disappointment.
Dwight Howard and LeBron James are obviously very worthy MVP candidates. Either could win and it would be legit. But Derrick Rose did something they couldn’t: defy expectations. If Orlando was fighting for a 2 seed or if Miami had 70 wins, the story would be different. If the Bulls were the 4 seed most people expected them to be, we’d be talking about Rose as the Most Improved, not Most Valuable.
In the end, it all matters. The stats, the story, the team, the standings... all of it. Even if you think it shouldn’t. It does. Because basketball is more than just numbers. Numbers don’t sweat, or roll ankles, or scream at referees. There is an intangible element to this game that numbers, no matter how advanced they get, will never be able to capture. But a player can.
And Derrick Rose has.
"(...)the Bulls are winning because of a total team effort, but Derrick Rose is unquestionably the leader of that team. And he brings an unquantifiable essence to them that raises everyone’s level of play."
This is the kind of player that becomes a legend at any sport, at any given time.Cheers from Portugal!