Derrick Rose, the MVP race, and the Isiah-Iverson Team Model
With Derrick Rose‘s continued improvement, and the Chicago Bulls‘ emergence as a championship contender, Rose has received quite a bit of discussion as an MVP candidate. At the most superficial level, the argument for Rose goes something like this:
Rose is doing it all by himself. Yeah, there’s Boozer & Noah, but they’ve been injured and the Bulls still were great. Yeah, Rose’s efficiency isn’t the best, but they’ve got no one else to go to when they need a bucket. If it weren’t for Rose, the Bulls would be terrible.
ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh just wrote a piece that goes significantly more depth on Rose’s MVP candidacy, and it’s good. It’s focused on one really key point that is crucial to understand: The Bulls are winning because they have great defense, not because they have great offense – and Rose is absolutely not the primary reason for the defensive success since he’s very much an offensive oriented star. So that’s the trick, this isn’t a case of one player so unstoppable on offense that his team’s offense thrives even without supporting talent, it’s a story of a defense so good, that they can get away with a mediocre offense run by one ball dominant player.
As well as Haberstroh stated that though, he’s still not going as deep as is needed, and he’s making some mistakes along the way.
A team’s forte doesn’t need to be its star’s forte
Fundamentally, the problem with Haberstroh’s conclusion is this: Just because a team’s defense is it’s strength, doesn’t mean that it’s most valuable player can’t be offensive-oriented. For an analogy: Consider a company with a team of 50 technicians assembling product, and 2 salesmen who augment sales by 25%. Clearly, the company’s technician team is more valuable than the sales team, but that doesn’t mean that each technician is more valuable than each salesman – in fact, likely the opposite conclusion is the correct one.
This year the player on the Bulls who has played the 3rd most has played about 1250 minutes. Rose has played over 2100 to lead the team, and Luol Deng runs second at a bit over 2000. I agree with Haberstroh that rookie coach Tom Thibodeau has done an incredible job with the defense, but with Rose playing so much more than everyone else but Deng, it’s quite plausible to say that Rose actually has been the team’s defensive MVP. Meanwhile on offense, Rose has the time edge, and every facet of the offense revolving around him. I realize Haberstroh wasn’t trying to say Rose isn’t his team’s MVP, but really, any intuitive break down here says that Rose is drastically more valuable to his team than any of his teammates. The same cannot be said for the man Haberstroh champions: LeBron James.
(At this point I’ll reiterate that I’m not fundamentally against LeBron as an MVP choice right now, I’m just trying to get everyone to keep an open mind.)
Haberstroh then goes directly to the use of +/- stats here to make his case, but is really a shame because a deeper look at those stats make the same point as my salesman example. Here’s what he wrote:
When his advocates ask, “Where would the Bulls be without Rose?” the question is meant to be a rhetorical one. The obvious implication is that a Rose-less Bulls squad would instantly become a basement dweller. But rather than blindly accept it, we can actually see how the Bulls have managed without him on the court. And how have they fared with Rose benched? By beating opponents by 51 points on the season, or an average of 4.9 points every 100 possessions.
Now first, he’s using raw on/off numbers here. Usage of them is fine, but usage of them without using the more sophisticated adjusted +/- (APM) version of the stat is unwise. APM, for those unfamiliar, actually factors in who that player has played with and against, and how much time he has spent doing for each and every player in the Association. Consider: If a player spends a disproportionate amount of time with weaker teammates against stronger opponents, then this will mean his on/off +/- will underrate him. In such a circumstance we would expect a modest on/off number and a stronger APM numbers.
What do we find with Rose? Exactly that. According to basketballvalue.com, his on/off number is a +2.33, but his APM is +11.56. None of the other rotation players on the Bulls have an APM north of +1.0, so Rose is *drastically* ahead of his teammates according to this stat even if you don’t think about the fact that he’s played so much more than the other players on his team (except for Deng).
Also incidentally, basketballvalue.com has offensive and defensive splits for the raw on/off numbers, and they back up what’s been said about Rose as an offensive impact guy, so to the extent that Rose is carrying his team, everything seems to point to that being an offense thing. Very clearly, it is Thibodeau who deserves raves for the defense. Haberstroh talks about Thibs as worthy of coach of the year, and that it’s likely only the Spurs’ amazing performance that would prevent that – I strongly agree on both counts.
The Isiah-Iverson Star Model and some concerns
Let’s talk a little bit more about the offensive star on a defense-oriented team. There are two stars in my lifetime that comes to mind immediately as fitting this bill similarly: Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson.
Thomas rose to prominence as the star of the 2-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons, who were known for rough defense led by Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman. However, to some degree at least, Thomas’ star status is beyond debate. In those playoff runs, Thomas wasn’t just the guy who happened to score the most points, he put up some absolutely legendary performances against top opponents on the biggest stage.
Iverson of course had his one annus mirabilis ’00-01 where he became the toast of the NBA. Like Rose, the team success was unexpected and came with significant teammate instability. While it again makes sense to credit team members other than the star for the defensive success, and while the 76ers were a team thriving on defense, it becomes far fetched to seriously argue that Iverson wasn’t far and away the most valuable player of the team.
For a young player such as Rose, comparisons to Isiah and AI is pretty heady stuff. Anyone who doesn’t see Rose as a threat to go down as a player with similar accolades should spend time thinking more on what it is those two HOFers had, that Rose isn’t close to achieving himself.
At the same time, put me in the camp that believes both of those stars are indeed overrated.
Those legendary games from Isiah are great, but I’m loathe to focus too much on specific games. If I can’t rely on a player pulling off a level of performance consistently, then I don’t consider it to be totally real. Isiah put up numbers of middling volume and middling efficiency, because that’s what he could consistently achieve – and no one would be that in love with the man if it weren’t for those titles, for which he was absolutely dependent on his teammates’ stellar defense.
Iverson’s ’00-01 is interesting because he may have indeed been worthy of the MVP that year, but regardless of that, the man’s impact was clearly, and significantly, overrated in later years. For year’s I argued that the “they’d win nothing without him” argument was wrongly applied to AI. The team played mediocre with him, and mediocre without him, not horrendous. Then the trade came, the 76ers didn’t turned into the LeBron-less Cavaliers, and Iverson’s reputation eventually fell off a cliff. At this point, it’s simply considered a given that no one is willing to admit they think Iverson deserved his MVP.
And yet, those 76ers really did have a record as good as the Lakers that year, and the non-Laker, non-Iverson contender is Tim Duncan, who really didn’t get to his peak until the next couple years. I’m willing to say I’m really not sure whether Iverson deserved it or not.
All of this makes me both want to defend Rose to others, and reluctant to be that swayed by him. I think the attacks on Rose’s MVP candidacy tend to be confused in their nature. Basically you’ve got a ton of people who simply don’t like like giving a clearly inferior player (as Rose is to LeBron) the MVP. This is a perfectly fine philosophy for them to have, but they aren’t content to have it and live & let live, and so they make bolder attacks which just get them into trouble. At the same time, Rose’s place on my own MVP lists has always been done without enthusiasm simply because of my uncertainties. I can’t honestly make an argument for specific teammates of Rose having significantly bigger impact than you’d think if the Bulls were less successful, however it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if the Bulls’ offense wouldn’t be drastically worse than they are now if they had everyone happy but Rose – and it really won’t surprise me at all if we find that Rose-dominated offenses never approach excellence even as he has offensive talent begin to accumulate in large quantities around him.
- Hollering @Hollinger about LeBron James and MVP Philosophy (asubstituteforwar.wordpress.com)
- Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh likes Derrick Rose over LeBron James for MVP (sports.espn.go.com)