We’ll never reach a consensus on what constitutes “Value” in the NBA’s MVP criteria. It can’t be done.
Read the statheads like Neil Payne or John Hollinger, and the two top choices are LeBron (again) and Dwight Howard. These are the players producing the most effectively by most advanced empiric measures used today and doing so for the third and fourth ranked teams in the East. The mindset here is that only the data is objective, so only the data is considered.
Read the sportswriters like Michael Wilbon or Chris Sheridan, or listen to a lot of the players out there, and there’s only one choice this year. Derrick Rose. No he doesn’t produce as well as LeBron (or Howard or Wade or Dirk or Chris Paul) statistically, but the reasoning goes that Rose has carried a Chicago team hamstrung with lack of talent and injuries to one of the top 4 records in the league. Luckily he was able to do this carrying without having to play as well as those other players statistically.
There are of course other aspects to the game than statistical production. There’s keeping the team together and focused and in sync. Call it Leadership. It was one of the keys to the greatness of Jordan, Bird, Magic, and Russell, and Rose has it in spades. Of course when Bird, Magic, Michael, and Russell won their combined 16 MVPs they generally were at least top five statistically. Even Jordan at age 35 was top 4 in both PER and Win Share. Rose is not even top 10 in PER (12th) and ranks 7th in Win Shares (14th in WS/Min).
The statisticians who are paying attention see the second coming of 2001 Allen Iverson. A very high usage (2nd only to Kobe Bean), undersized scoring guard masquerading as a point with a low shooting percentage (Rose is shooting under 44% from the field) a poor assist to turnover rate (roughly 2:1), whose team does most of its winning on the defensive end where he is actually the weakest link. They have a point, BUT just like with Iverson, a team needs offense, and someone has to provide it. That Iverson-like ability to penetrate the defense and create a shot at any time is game changing. Defenses become warped out of position. Rebounders lose their box outs. Perimeter shooters get open. It all happens because that speedy ball-dominant guard gets in the lane all the time. So even though he’s not an especially efficient scorer or passer, his ability to break down the defense in and of itself pays off.
Also like Iverson, Rose has supreme confidence, which is a critical element in any team leader. It’s why Pierce is so crucial to the Boston mix. Garnett has the focus and intensity, but Pierce is the one in the locker room with that edge of arrogance. Bryant has it. Shaq had it back when he was the best. Jordan, Magic, and Bird all had it. So does Rose. I wonder if the other candidates really do. Does LeBron, as supremely talented and productive as is, inspire that ultimate confidence in his teammates?
Speaking of Bryant, I believe everything we’ve mentioned about Rose could apply to him this season as well except that Bryant hasn’t actually been the most productive player on his team. It’s one thing to say production isn’t the most critical aspect of being the MVP, it’s another thing to say that someone else is actually doing more heavy lifting on the floor. Kobe’s angry leadership is valuable, and his ability to inspire confidence in difficult situations can’t be overstated, but there are games when he can’t shoot bad enough to lose because Gasol and Bynum are so damned efficient (hate the Lakers!). An MVP should be the most productive player on his own team. That’s also why Wade doesn’t get the award.
So the question really comes down to this: Do you believe that a guy like LeBron this season, who is once again playing phenomenal basketball but is almost doing so in isolation, is unassailable because of the total production he provides? Or do you believe that a guy like Derrick Rose, who is honestly not playing the most efficient or productive ball, is unassailable because his style and persona seem to foster team chemistry? Obviously neither case is that extreme. LeBron does play in a team concept, and Rose does produce prolifically. But the question of what the observer most values remains. Oh, and let’s not forget Dwight Howard, who falls a little more on the LeBron side but whose defensive presence is such a massive factor that it may overshadow any lacking in leadership or intangibles to be found in his person.
I believe Rose is getting some voter attention on straight personality. “Humble” is a word often used in conjunction with Rose in MVP discussions (much as it was for Durant when he was the preseason favorite for the award). I’m not real big on the notion of off the court likeability influencing award voters. However, part of Rose’s personality seems to inherently aid in chemistry-building, and like with Steve Nash on those strong Phoenix contenders, that can make a difference on the court. When a player is so popular that everyone on the team wants to put aside individual goals to get on board with the leader’s goals, that’s when the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. That might be enough to take the MVP this season even if the numbers don’t seem to add up.