If Derrick Rose's case for NBA MVP left any room for debate before Thursday night's Bulls-Celtics game, 48 minutes later, there wasn't much left to argue. That doesn't mean the argument's over, of course.
Even if you're just a casual basketball fan, you've probably heard that Rose's MVP campaign has been the source of some controversy. To boil it down... Stats experts claim he's overrated, at least as far his value to the Bulls is concerned. Others say what he means to the Bulls doesn't translate to stats, and if anything, he's proof that the numbers are flawed.
Mind you, the MVP award really doesn't mean a whole lot.
LeBron's won the past two, and each year, Kobe won the NBA title. The year before that, Kobe won the MVP, and the Celtics won the title. So whatever happens with Rose, let's keep it in perspective. A week from now, the actual MVP award becomes irrelevant.
Until then, it's like the debate over the federal budget. We're technically arguing about one thing, and one decision, but if you look at the people talking and what they represent, there's a whole lot more going on. Which is why it's worth talking about.
We'll get there.
Thursday night, though, Rose scored 30 points against one of the best defenses in the league (not to mention Chicago's biggest rival). He held Rajon Rondo, his biggest personal rival, to 3-10 shooting and just six assists. With the win, Chicago all but guaranteed themselves the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. And Rose did it all with the disposition of someone who doesn't seem to care about all this attention. If anything, he'd probably prefer to avoid it altogether.
Any of those points can be added to Rose's extensive list of MVP credentials, but what sets him apart has nothing to do with stats or storylines or Eastern Conference standings.
Sometimes, you just know. This seems like the worst of the worst cliches, so hear me out. It really just comes down to watching sports. Watch any basketball game, and certain players stand out from the crowd. Guys that have a knack for making shots in big moments, or even guys who look like they have knack for making shots in big moments. Guys who just carry themselves a little differently.
In the NBA, a lot of stars can imitate Derrick Rose's skills--Russell Westbrook, for instance, has almost the exact same stats--and just as many can meet his jaw-to-the-floor athleticism with bats**t crazy displays of their own. But some of what Rose gives the Bulls has nothing to do with stats or highlights. Yeah, he's a killer, and there are tangible ways where that helps the Bulls win. Scoring 30 points, locking down Rondo, etc.
But more importantly, in every game, his Bulls teammates believe the best player on the floor plays for them. That gives Chicago a little extra swagger. And in a lot of cases, it puts the other team on their heels. A true superstar tilts the court in his team's favor just by showing up.
How can you tell if a guy does that? You just know. With Rose, you can see it.
Sometimes, if you don't know at first, you find out eventually. Back when the Bulls were just one of the best East and moderately surprising as a contender, it was fair to doubt Rose's legitimacy as an MVP candidate. When I wrote this, the Bulls were still in third place:
... say what you want about his advanced stats or his overblown backstory ... but Derrick Rose has turned himself into one of the NBA's Goliaths, and positioned the Bulls as giant killers.
Since then, the Bulls have become Goliaths themselves. Chicago's stopped being "the team noooooobody wants to face in the playoffs." We don't say that anymore because it's redundant.
Obviously nobody wants to face the best team in the Eastern Conference.
So put it this way: You could have doubted Rose's candidacy back at the All-Star break, when his team's record and his own stats both looked like novelties. For all of Rose's scoring, he didn't do it very efficiently. And for all of Chicago's winning, it's not like they were going to win a title.
Now they really might. Chicago's won 17 of the past 19 games, and with Rose as the catalyst, the nucleus in Chicago scares every team in the NBA, including the Celtics team they beat the crap out of on Thursday night. As the year's gone on, doubting Derrick Rose looks more and more ridiculous. If you weren't sure about Rose in February, you've found out all you need to know in the weeks since.
Sometimes, you find out something that makes you question everything. What's amazing about Rose's MVP candidacy is that it's forced everyone to question everything. People watching Rose this year have seen a revelation, and they come away rhapsodizing.
But Rose's numbers don't match up with LeBron and Dwight Howard, his fans find out. Coupled with Chicago's team defense and rebounding stats, the "revelation" is actually pretty rational, according to stats experts. He's a good player in the perfect system. MVP? Maybe not.
At the same time, how do you think the stats experts feel? They love basketball, too. And the more they huff and puff about putting Rose's numbers in perspective, the more impossible it becomes.
Look at Thursday night. Could there have been a more definitive eff you to the stats crowd? So it's left a lot of them with a choice. Concede that maybe the formulas don't account for everything, or dig in their heels and oppose a player that's impossible not to love.
After all, blogs exist to overthrow the conventional, schlocky columns that would otherwise dominate the discourse. Stuff like this, from Rick Reilly:
He's my MVP so far, not just for the way he's carried the limping Chicago Bulls the way Penn's carried Teller. And not just for the way he jumps like a frog bred with a kangaroo. And not just for the way he scores, defends and passes like every game is a one-day tryout. He's my MVP for moments like this...
[Rose approaches three young fans after a game and thanks them for supporting the Bulls]
[OMG ISN'T DERRICK ROSE PERFECT?]
What better way to prove that's a total crock of sentimental s**t than with cold, hard numbers? It's how the internet's gotten so successful; because a lot of fans read the nonsense coming from the cult of mainstream columnists and realize it's total BS. They can't necessarily explain why, but they just know. The NBA MVP shouldn't be decided by post-game anecdotes.
Blogs confirm it for you. Sometimes with well-aimed snark, but more often, with facts.
Mark Cuban made some headlines this week for castigating "internet writers" and their rumor-mongering tendencies, but the truth is, no community's more rooted in fact and numbers and statistical proof than the people that work in NBA blogosphere. Their reliance on stats has allowed a lot of brilliant people to gain the credibility they deserve. That's awesome.
It's only a problem when it becomes a cult of its own; a pretentious, nerdtastic cult that looks down on people who disagree. Then, they're just as bad as the closed-minded columnists they replace.
Like, last week when the Rose debate was raging, NBC's Kurt Helin sneered:
Because so many smart people have made careers out of joining the advanced stats movement and relying on what they can prove as opposed to what they may see on a given night, those guys think that anybody who disagrees will simply end up on the wrong side of history.
That's what happened in baseball, isn't it?
But to Kurt and everyone that agrees with him: basketball's not baseball, a sport where players performs independently of their teammates. And if we want to talk about the inevitability of statistics, why don't we invite the football bloggers, too, and ask them why Peyton Manning and Drew Brees finished outside the top 10 in quarterback rating last year? Does that mean Joe Flacco's better than Drew Brees? Matt Cassell's better than Peyton Manning?
There's no perfect formulas for these things. Stats don't tell the whole story anymore than a good story takes the place of stats. In basketball and football, numbers help us understand, but they're not lessons by themselves. That's why basketball's more fun than baseball, right?
Where the Pastime boils down to a science, basketball's still closer to art. This may lead some folks to attach too much symbolism to certain displays, but that doesn't mean we need the pendulum to swing in the other direction, where the game gets judged as paint-by-numbers.
We can all interpret this differently. There's no right answer. The only way you can get it wrong is to be so arrogant to suggest that you can prove this one way or another.
And the same way a lot of fans just know that someone like Reilly is hawking a bunch of mindless melodrama, a lot of us just know that no matter what the numbers say, Derrick Rose has been the baddest dude in the NBA this season. Being on Team Rose doesn't make you naive.
Sometimes you just know things intuitively. Sometimes you find out eventually, like after Derrick Rose convinces you on National TV against the Celtics. And sometimes, what you find out makes you question everything. So, if Derrick Rose inherently forces some of the game's brightest minds to re-think how they understand basketball... Isn't that the best argument yet for an MVP?