At the conclusion of the NBA regular season next week, individual awards will be handed out, teams will start competing for the championship, and I will wonder if I've been following the same basketball season as the sportswriters are covering. The media has already labeled this season as the Year of Derrick Rose, the supersonic Chicago native who has revived the Bulls franchise. I may be young, but I can anticipate the pangs of conscience we are going to feel when we look back at this season five years later and realize that the most valuable player may not have been someone by the name of Rose.
There will be questions. Didn’t James throw down a couple of nasty dunks every now and then? Didn’t Howard jump a little higher than anybody else in the league? And didn’t Bryant take his team to a third consecutive championship while continuing to play some of the best basketball this generation has ever witnessed? (The last statement will become true as of June 2011.) In the end, was Derrick Rose really the best player in the league in 2011?
While Derrick Rose is a thoroughly enjoyable athlete to watch, he is not the most valuable player in the league—at least, not when LeBron James and Dwight Howard are still putting up ridiculous numbers and winning games (don’t forget Kobe, too). But after the flood of media backlash against James when he joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, the impact James has on his teams, both former and current, has been grossly underappreciated. The Cleveland Cavaliers won 61 games with LBJ last season; right now they are still trying to win their 17th of the year. The Miami Heat won 47 games last season, but after acquiring James, they are on pace to win at least 56 games and clinch the second seed of the playoffs. The idea that LeBron James can’t be the Most Valuable Player because he is playing alongside Dwyane Wade is a myth created by the media.
A case in point is the shift of fans’ opinion at the beginning of the season. Before LeBron James even played a game as a member of the Heat, only 13% of the fans believed that he would have a shot at the MVP award, while 48% believed that Kevin Durant was the most likely winner. In hindsight, much of the shift in public opinion was guided by the media, which wasn’t shy about praising Kevin Durant’s performance at the 2010 World Championships and putting him on a pedestal, while degrading James just for The Decision.
After all, LeBron James remains the back-to-back MVP winner and surprisingly, his performance this season has been just as dominant as his two previous MVP seasons. He leads the league in PER, a rating of a player’s per-minute productivity, with 27.2, while Derrick Rose is eighth in the league with 23.6. LeBron James is also the second-leading scorer in the league behind Kevin Durant, a feat that he accomplished while sharing the ball with Dwyane Wade. Statistically, Rose pales in comparison to James in almost all categories except assists, in which Rose is ahead of James by less than one per game. Are we missing something here? How is Derrick Rose more valuable offensively than LeBron James?
Confronted with these facts, many supporters of Rose point to his tenacious defense as justification for the MVP award. But once again, this is a media myth. After a fascinating statistical analysis, a recent New York Times article argued that Derrick Rose’s MVP campaign is based on a flawed assumption that his team won games by playing defense with Rose at the helm. It’s been shown that while opponents score 1.03 points per possession on average, which is a great number itself, the Bulls were better without Rose defensively in that they gave up only 0.93 points per possession when Rose is on the bench. Does this mean Derrick Rose is defensively challenged? No, but it does make us question whether Rose’s status as a defensive player has been exalted to an unreasonable level by the media.
The MVP voting process, which relies on the opinions of professional journalists, should come into question. Media members are almost refusing to acknowledge what LeBron James has done this year, and they are doing so out of their own self-interest. One of the few honest reporters quipped that “Derrick Rose is only the fourth best player in the state of Florida.” But he won the award because for journalists, handing LeBron James his third straight MVP award would mean writing the same stories for three consecutive years. In their minds, third time’s the alarm. Media prefers novelty over proficiency, and Derrick Rose is simply a better fit for the media. However, that the media is willing to vote for an MVP with a better storyline than statistics is nothing new.
Historically, the only player who has won the MVP award three times after the journalists started voting was Larry Bird. Before 1981, the players in the league voted on the most valuable player. During that time, two players, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, managed to win three consecutive MVP awards. Bill Russell wasn’t satisfied though. Winner of eleven championships, Russell once said, “I was the most valuable player of the league by the players’ votes, but I was second team by the writers’ votes.” Even Michael Jordan, a deified figure in basketball history, couldn’t rise above the power of media as he never received the MVP award for three consecutive seasons. This was during the early 1990s, a time when he was (and is) almost unanimously regarded as the best player in the game. In 1997, Michael Jordan was putting up incredible numbers and guided the Bulls to 69 wins, but Karl Malone ended up with the MVP award. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons summed up the injustice of that year’s award: “[That] wasn’t a MVP case, it was a crime scene.”
The MVP award voting hasn’t officially taken place, but the stage has already been set for Rose to take home the trophy. I admire Rose, but if you honestly compare him to LeBron James, Dwight Howard, or Kobe Bryant, there are bound to be some raised eyebrows. Five years later, Derrick Rose might turn into an incredible player and dominate over the league. But that’s not what happened this year. In 2011, the NBA is “Where MVP Robbery Happens.”