2011 NBA Playoffs: Bulls Rose Didn't Play Like MVP vs. Hawks

| by David Berri

Teachers (and professors) often assign papers to their students.  And in general, the day the assignments are made is different from the day the assignments are due.

If you work in the media, though, it is a very different story.  On Wednesday night, the Chicago Bulls defeated the Atlanta Hawks.  Within hours of the completion of the game, Michael Wilbon wrote an article detailing Derrick Rose’s contribution to Chicago’s success.

Before we get to what Wilbon said, let’s review some background on the game. Before the game started, Rose received the Most Valuable Player award.  He then proceeded to do the following in the game:

  • Field Goal Attempts: 27
  • Made Field Goals: 10
  • Missed Field Goals: 17
  • Free Throws Made: 4
  • Free Throws Attempted: 6
  • Missed Free Throws: 2
  • Points Scored: 25
  • Rebounds: 6
  • Turnovers: 8
  • Steals: 0
  • Blocked Shots: 2
  • Assists: 10
  • Personal Fouls: 0
  • Win Score: -1.5

When we look at these numbers, Rose did not have a good game.

And Wilbon notes this:

You can look at Rose’s 10-for-27 shooting and his eight turnovers and say it was a subpar night for a player who accepted, to complete adoration, the league’s MVP award from commissioner David Stern before Wednesday’s 86-73 win over the Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But then Wilbon notes the following:

Those obsessed with metrics and statistical analysis will do just that. People who know the history of great players in the NBA, however, will take Wednesday’s game for what it was: the most important performance in the most important game in Derrick Rose’s professional career. Had his team lost Game 2 to Atlanta, its season would have been perilously close to over and done.

If you’re looking for style points wait for figure skating or gymnastics. In 43 minutes on a bad wheel, Rose did what MVPs do. He carried his team, even on one leg, to a victory the Bulls simply had to have.

Even with the team he played for at a Hall of Fame level losing to the Bulls, Dominique Wilkins, now a broadcaster, said immediately following the game, “Derrick Rose deserves so much credit. He’s injured. I know what he says, but the fact is he’s injured. But when you’re the best player on the team, you play, period. Something about the playoffs enables you to overcome the injuries. More important than that, it’s your job. If you’re ‘The Guy’ you cannot let your teammates see you sweat. You can’t afford to let them see a cloud hanging over you. You can’t let the fans down. The pressure is a beast. And if Derrick doesn’t score big, they can’t win. I know people will look at the stats and say, ‘Well, that’s a sub-par night.’ Look, I played playoff games with an ankle so badly sprained I had to wear a boot over my sock. I played playoff games with three fractured fingers. The Game 7 in Boston against Bird?Had a dislocated thumb. Look at it; still can’t straighten it out. It doesn’t matter that he was 10-for-27 or had turnovers or that Jeff Teague played him really, really well, which he did. What mattered is Rose’s presence.”

In other words, Rose of course has had better games, dozens of them. But he’s never been more valuable.

The absolute unwillingness to even acknowledge the ankle, preventing him from doing his acrobatic thing, is part of the reason why Rose is the MVP and why the Bulls finished with the NBA’s best record in the regular season.

So let me summarize those two sections of this article.

1. Rose did not play well.  Both Wilbon and Wilkins agree with this observation.

2. Rose was still the most valuable player on the court because he was willing to play with injury.

Of course. Carlos Boozer also played with injury.  And Wilbon and Wilkins don’t say anything about Boozer.

Wilbon does note this about the Bulls:

The Bulls aren’t going to lead the league in anything glamorous. You want artistic? Miami’s your team. The Bulls, at their best, have to settle for tough, for defense and rebounding and grinding.

Okay, the Bulls win because of defense and rebounding.  Against the Hawks, the Bulls did grab 19 more rebounds.  And of the 58 rebound grabbed by Chicago, 37 were taken by Boozer, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah.

So one would think that if you thought rebounding was a key factor in the game, then the players who grabbed the rebounds would be considered important.  These players, though, are not mentioned by Wilbon.  His article focuses on why Rose should be thought of as MVP, despite not actually playing well. And his argument rests entirely on the fact Rose played hurt (again, much like Boozer).

All of this strikes me as follows:  Wilbon knows that Rose did not play well.   But he wants to heap praise on the NBA’s MVP (who maybe Wilbon voted for?).  After all, we “know” scorers are the “best” players, and Rose is the leading scorer on the Bulls (primarily – as I have noted in the past – because Rose chooses to take the most shots on the Bulls).  So he constructs an argument that doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny when your read all that Wilbon has to say.

Maybe this is why we give our students more than a few hours to complete a writing assignment.

More on Derrick Rose and the Bulls

Back in April, I noted the following:  Rose has improved over what we saw last year.  But as the following table notes, the Bulls as a team played about as well as we would expect, given the performance of the players the team employed.  In other words, it is not clear that coaching played a significant role in this team’s success.  It looks like Chicago simply chose more productive players.

One should also note that one could argue that Rose was MVP – or at least, the Most Productive Player – on the Bulls.  But he was not – as Dan Wetzel argued at Yahoo! – the “best” player in the league (at least, not if “best” is defined as Most Productive).

The above table also highlights a point Andres Alvarez noted last March.  Specifically, one key for the Bulls was the lack of unproductive players on the roster.

Stats and the MVP vote

One last point… the media will often argue – as Wilbon does above — that you have to look past statistics in evaluating players.  But let’s look at two “stats” with respect to the top six players in voting for this award:

  • Derrick Rose: 25.0 points per game, 62 team wins
  • Dwight Howard: 22.9 points per game, 52 team wins
  • LeBron James: 26.7 points per game, 58 team wins
  • Kobe Bryant: 25.3 points per game, 57 team wins
  • Kevin Durant: 27.7 points per game, 55 team wins
  • Dirk Nowitzki: 23.0 points per game, 57 team wins

Can you see the pattern?  The sports media seems to choose the leading scorers on the best NBA teams for the MVP award (a result consistent with a paper Aju Fenn and I presented a few years ago).  So the media does consider stats.  But the menu of stats is dominated by two big items: points scored per game and team wins.

There is nothing wrong with focusing on the numbers.  In fact, I think that is what the media is actually doing with this award.  All I would suggest is that the media look at more numbers in making their player evaluations.  If they took this step, maybe we could avoid confusing columns like the one offered by Michael Wilbon.

- DJ