If there’s a popular choice for MVP right now, it’s Derrick Rose. The 22-year-old point guard has carried the Bulls into the race for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference, answered calls to get to the line more, developed a decent three-point shot, improved his defense and generally come across like a very nice human being. (Note: That last thing is not a joke. The media love Rose and dislike LeBron James, and that will influence MVP voting in a few cases.)
He’s also sniffing the top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating, which means he’s improved his shooting efficiency to the point where we can reasonably include him in any MVP talk.
But as is the case with Dwight Howard, there is a big blemish on Rose’s candidacy: The Bulls have been very good whether or not Rose is on the court, and their defense has been much better with him on the bench. And their defense is their real MVP; the Bulls have flip-flopped with Boston for the top spot in points allowed all season, and that stingy defense is carrying an offense that is, frankly, mediocre. Chicago ranks just 15th in points per possession – right at the league average. Offense is Rose’s strength, and yet the Bulls are a middle-of-the-road offensive team. They win because of their defense.
This is why a lot of folks believe Tom Thibodeau is a stronger Coach of the Year candidate than Rose is an MVP candidate.
(Side note: It’s interesting, if not particularly earth-shattering, that Rajon Rondo, Rose and Chris Paul quarterback offenses that rank 14th, 15th and 21st, respectively, in points per possession. Meanwhile, the Rockets, Mavericks and Knicks all rank in the top 10. A point guard isn’t everything, no matter how much we all hype the Greatest Generation of Point Guards.)
But I wonder if all this focus on Chicago’s elite defense — and how it affects Rose’s plus/minus numbers — might be under-selling Rose a bit. Because here’s the simple truth about Chicago: I’m not sure this team, with all its injuries, could have scored enough to win even half its games without Rose, even if the numbers seem to be telling us differently.
Rose isn’t everything to Chicago’s offense, and you shouldn’t listen to Rose-backers who say he is. The Bulls have a legit 20-10 guy in Carlos Boozer, even if he has missed 20 games this season. Joakim Noah has missed half the season, but he has a much more positive effect on Chicago’s offense than a lot of folks realize. Thibodeau and his staff draw up some nice, motion-heavy sets for backup guys like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson.
Still, the critics can’t ignore this: Chicago has scored nearly a dozen more points per 100 possessions with Rose on the floor versus with him on the bench. Another way to put that: With Rose on the court, Chicago scores like a borderline top-five offense. With Rose on the bench, it turns into the Bucks.
Only five guys in the league have a larger impact on their team’s scoring: Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Andre Miller. The Rose/Paul comparison is an interesting one in this sense. Both are outstanding offensive players leading average or below-average offenses — something MVP voters could hold against them. If Rose is so good, why does Chicago’s offense flounder?
But offense in the NBA can be more about surviving than anything else, particularly if you don’t have a ton of guys who can space the floor at an elite level or create their own shots. Chicago’s offense is not quite ready to thrive given its talent on that end, but it has to at least survive for this team to win. Boston has been in a similar situation over the last three seasons.
And without Rose scoring and dishing for an unusual number of three-pointers, I’m not sure the Bulls would survive to the point that they could push Miami and Boston.
All of this said, should Rose lose a bit of MVP credit for the fact that the Bulls’ defense is so much worse with him on the court? The problem is obviously not all on Rose, considering Chicago’s starters — including Noah — all fare poorly by this measure, indicating something is a bit amiss with this group. The same is/was true in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder’s pre-trade starting lineup played consistently poor defense compared to lineups with more bench guys. Something was fundamentally wrong with that lineup, something you couldn’t pin on any one starter.
And if you dig into the lineup data, you realize that Chicago’s main units with Rose actually perform pretty well on defense, at a level about equivalent to Orlando’s top-five overall performance. It’s only when you get into lineups that have played 30 or fewer minutes together that you begin to see a dramatic fall-off. There isn’t much of a pattern that I can see in those flawed lineups, which is why things didn’t change all that much when Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference used a fancy adjusted plus/minus system that corrects for the quality of a player’s teammates and opponents. That sort of system, which tries to toss out the effect of things like the artificial boost a player might get by going up against backups, helped Rose a bit, but it still spit out data showing Chicago remains a very good team even with Rose on the bench.
And that is, again, because Chicago’s defense is its real MVP.
But does that make Rose less of an MVP candidate? I’m not convinced.