Sunday, April 10, 2011

Derrick Rose will be a Hall of Famer

...if you're a subscriber to historical trends in the National Basketball Association. I never thought I would be a writer that would use that type of hook to get someone to read an article, but at this point, the only people that are reading this are my friends and Aunts, so it doesn't really matter how hackneyed my intros are, does it?

Everything possibly related to Derrick Rose's candidacy and seemingly inevitable placement of the 2011 NBA MVP award has been written in the last few weeks. While it seemed incredibly unlikely that the 2010-11 campaign could finish with Rose, who before the season was quoted as saying "...Why couldn't I be the MVP?" , winning the prestigious award, here we are in the first week of April, with nearly every writer and NBA commentator I've heard of saying that the award is now Rose's to lose.

And why not? I've heard the knocks on Rose's performance - everything from his poor true shooting percentage to how coach Thibedeau's defense is the real MVP of the Bulls. But every positive of Rose's season are just as, if not even more compelling - his fantastic stats, his useage rate, his intangibles as a teammate and how he carried a team without Boozer and Noah for so much of the season. He has brought his Bulls from consecutive seasons as a playoff 8-seed in the Eastern conference and a fringe .500 team to a title contender. They have made a 20 game jump in victories this year. Maybe most impressively, he has done so with Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver as his fellow guards, despite the fact that the most remarkable things about them is that Bogans is still in the league and Korver bears a stunning resemblance to the guy who created Punk'd. But the point I am trying to make here is not to argue for or against Rose's MVP candidacy. That's been done, and quite frankly, I don't know how I feel about it yet. Rather, it's to shed light the historical significance of Derrick's seemingly inevitable achievement would be.

Looking at the past list of NBA MVPs, every single person on this list prior to Shaquille's 2000 award has been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. And looking at every recipient from Shaquille onward is a list of guys that almost assuredly, barring a PED scandal or Chris Benoit-style meltdown, will be in the Hall of Fame at some point in the future (these guys are all not in the Hall of Fame because they are still active in a basketball league - I say "basketball league" instead of the NBA because Iverson is playing for the Istanbul Turkish Delights or something like that). Even more specific to Rose's case is that according the Marc Stein of ESPN, only 7 men have ever won an MVP in their first three seasons; a list that includes Wilt, Bill Russell, Unseld, Kareem, McAdoo and Dave Cowens. Derrick's dominance at age 21 (!) is extraordinarily rare.

This is a pretty amazing statistic - neither in baseball, football or hockey has this been the case for the lineage of their MVP trophies (though they do come close in the NHL). While receiving the MVP does not necessarily guarantee you entry into the Hall of Fame, moreso than all of the other sports in North America it says something about your skill set and transcendence within your sport. And I suppose that is what is most unique in basketball over most other sports - there is just not really a way for any one player to be dominant at an MVP level for a limited period of time without injury being the reason (please see Walton, Bill - or as I know him, perhaps the greatest athlete come commentator that has ever walked this, or any other terrestrial plane in this reality's time and space).

Each one of the MVPs has had a chokehold on supremacy of their positions for not just the season in which they won the award, but for an extended period of time. Even the three most dubious members of this list, Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo and Wes Unseld , have achievements that merit their entry into the Hall (McAdoo finished int he top 7 in points 5 years in a row, topping the list 3 times and Unseld is 11th all time in rebounds). There are no MVPs like baseball's Ken Caminiti, whose 1994 NL MVP season was bookended by zero top 10 finishes in the MVP race and 2 other All-Star game appearances.

I guess this is what separates games like baseball and football from basketball. Baseball is, more than anything a cerebral sport. It's a game of fine mechanics, where a couple inches between release points is the difference between an All-Star game start and a non-tender. The physical nature of the game is sometimes an afterthought, as AL MVPs to Dustin Pedroia and AL Cy Youngs to Bartolo Colon will tell you. In a game of incremental change being the difference between success and failure, it is not hard to see why players can come and go from being the most valuable to being quite mortal.

Football is a bruising, physical game, where every single play, and without being melodramatic here, could be your very last. What makes a player elite is, many and most times, based on sheer brute force, something that is not sustainable, no matter how much tape a player may watch or how intelligent a player is.

Basketball is somewhere in between - it's a sport in which to be one of the games very best, you need both a tremendous physical advantage, but at the same time, a cunning mental game to match. Look at guys like Kwame Brown and Vince Carter. Physically, what separates them from Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant? Nothing really. But what has made both of the latter into future Hall of Fame players is how they approach the game before and after the buzzer sounds. Well, that and Karl doesn't have hands akin to a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Kobe still has his hair (for now).

It seems to me that the players that have achieved greatness, MVP-level greatness at the professional level, got there not only because they were born with 7-foot wingspans and incredible hand-eye coordination, but also because they possessed a will to win and a desire to absolutely crush men below their heels. It is only through a combination of both these attributes that you can rise to the top in the NBA - otherwordly gifts of body combined with a mental game that perhaps surpasses the physical. Kobe and Jordan aren't just Kobe and Jordan because they could jump higher and everyone else and because they made shots with 4 defenders in their faces - they are Kobe and Jordan because of their near insatiable thirst for competition and an endless quest to justify their arrogance.

Derrick Rose is here to stay. To me, this award is less about this season as it is an indicator of how good Rose is and will be for the next 5 to 10 years. He has taken his game to another stratosphere and is one of the top 5 best players in the league right now, without a doubt. He has proven to me that the only thing that surpasses his physical game is his mental game, something that only the absolute greats of the game have ever done. I suppose I do believe that this award is fitting - it's whether or not his career will justify the lofty membership this award has bestowed upon him. Don't let us down, Derrick.

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