I know, I know. We said fewer sports posts.
But with the Bulls actually playing well enough to score the 1-seed in the East and a shot at the NBA’s best record, everyone is talking Derrick Rose for MVP.
And they’re probably wrong.
Let’s be clear from the top. I like the Bulls. I like Derrick Rose. I think Rose is a superior basketball player to most. I am glad the Bulls drafted Rose over Beasley. I love watching Rose make a drive to the rim or toss a no-look kick-out pass to an open Korver in the corner.
Yet, Rose is not the most valuable player in the league. But how can we measure value?
Well, let’s take a few advanced player metrics from the NBA, not all of which I believe are accurate, but all of which have various merits.
If we believe Adjusted +/- (a wildly inconsistent and not altogether useful stat), we see that Rose is in the low-20s in league-wide ranking for the 10-11 season.
If we believe PER (a stat that overvalues shot attempts and usage), we see that Rose is ranked about 8th in the league.
If we believe Wins Produced (a stat that overvalues rebounds), we see that Rose is ranked about in the high-40s in the league.
Derrick Rose is a very good player in the NBA, but he is not among the best of the best. Here, generally, the numbers agree, and here, generally, the “heart”/”grit” club takes over.
Here’s a sample from Michael Wilbon of ESPN:
Numbers can’t tell you how hard a guy practices and whether his infectious work habits affect the work habits of teammates. Numbers can’t tell you whether a guy grabbed somebody by the collar in the locker room and said, “You’re playing tonight or I’m going to put my fist through your chest” which, trust me, happens. […]
The truth of the matter this season is that NO player in the NBA has meant as much to his team, has played as well, has led as effectively, has been as accountable and as responsible as D. Rose of the Chicago Bulls. Fortunately, I think the vast majority of the voters know this. I know Doc Rivers pulled me aside in January and said, “Rose is going to the MVP of the league THIS year.” Doc said that. I’ll take his informed judgment over all the numbers Hollinger and anybody else can produce.
Our tendency is to confirm what we already assume to be true. Confirmation bias leads us to use even anecdotal evidence to outweigh strong, data-driven evidence, so long as it confirms something we already believe to be true. If Wilbon had already decided in January that the MVP would be Rose, all the information he saw after the fact confirmed that to him. Wilbon’s idea is that the numbers don’t tell us everything, which is true. But numbers do what our eyes cannot: watch every game, shot (made and missed), and play that we didn’t see.
If, as Wilbon claims, the reason for the Bulls’ success is Derrick Rose, then why didn’t this success exist last year? What’s different? The Bulls added several new, productive players (Boozer, Brewer, Asik, Korver), without giving up any productive players. The Bulls added a new coach with a defensive mindset. Rose plays more minutes and takes more shots, but he tends to be less efficient when taking them. But Rose himself did not change substantially in his style of play; he only changed in his usage — the percent of the time the ball was in his hands. The only person in the league with the ball in his hands more was the similarly-lauded Kobe Bryant.
When Miami went from a 47-win team last season to a probable 58-win team this season, everyone (rightly) attributed their new success to their new players: Lebron James and Chris Bosh. When Cleveland went from a 61-win team last season to a 18-win team this season, everyone similarly attributed their failure to the departure of key players.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. All the human drama of sports drives sportswriting and drives fandom. But, when talking about most valuable players, the numbers matter, and the human drama leads us to make assertions not based in fact.
P.S. My MVP pick would be Kevin Love, but since no one takes that choice seriously, I’ll say Dwight Howard.