For the first time in three years, LeBron James did not give an acceptance speech at the Most Valuable Player’s press conference. Now, as he faces his successor at the podium, Derrick Rose, in the Eastern Conference Finals, James is hoping his Heat can do exactly what the Magic and Celtics did to him — prevent the reigning MVP from advancing to the NBA Finals.
In the NBA, the Most Valuable Player carrying his team to the brink of a title is the rule, not the exception. Since the league began handing out the hardware in 1956, the MVP’s team has appeared in the championship round 28 times, good for a 51 percent rate. And during the NBA’s halcyon era of Magic, Larry, and Michael, the clip was even higher: from 1983-2003, the MVP made a Finals appearance in 16 of 21 seasons, more than 75% of the time. In a world where current players are largely measured against those three names alone, it makes headlines when a reigning MVP fails to reach the league’s grandest stage.
Perhaps this is why the drought of recent winners has been met with so much scorn. Since 2004, only one MVP (Kobe Bryant in 2008) has led his club to the Finals. The others — Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and James — flamed out in the Conference Finals (or in the cases of the latter two, earlier), provoking backlash from the Skip Bayless set and anyone else preoccupied with legacies or comparisons to long-retired legends. That it has been viewed as a blemish on James’ otherwise staggering resume is undeniable.
Yet now he has a chance to inflict the same criticism on Rose, the youngest MVP in league history. It’s strangely fitting, because their paths have run parallel ever since the Rose-for-MVP talk rose from a whisper at the lunatic fringe of Bulls fandom to a din heard across the entire country. In the wake of ‘The Decision’, the media tried to talk itself into casting Kevin Durant as James’ foil, but Rose out-Duranted everyone, ranging from his own sharp improvement to the Bulls’ unexpected #1 seed and the endearingly humble manner in which he carried himself (culminating in a truly beautiful moment at his MVP presser). In the minds of many, he embodied the yin to James’ preening yang.
For these reasons, the media will doubtless go easier on Rose than they did James, should the Bulls’ season end early. And by the same token, the fact that James felt he needed two other big names, one of whom is nearly his equal in the universe of NBA megastars, to reach the Finals again will continue to dog him if the Heat prevail. But even if his legacy cannot be fully repaired through victory, it’s clear that in a twist of fate, the only way James can gain some measure of redemption for his “incomplete” MVPs of 2009 and 2010 is to stamp Rose’s 2011 award with the same stigma.
From 2008 to 2010, the NBA playoffs clearly had a “ruling class” that consisted of Boston, Orlando, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Combined, those three teams played 26 playoff series, and just once did one of them lose to a team outside of their own small clique:
Over that 3-year span, the Lakers-Celtics-Magic triad went 20-1 in series against non-ruling class teams, and as a result the road to the NBA title always went through one of the three teams. The rest of the league was largely irrelevant when it came to determining the championship.
Until this year, that is. For the first time since 2007, a ruling-class team failed to register at least 1 series win in a playoff season, as the Magic fell to the Atlanta Hawks in a 1st-round upset. Yesterday, the Lakers saw their season end against a non-ruling class team for the first time since 2007, losing in embarrassing fashion against the Dallas Mavericks. And the Celtics, for all of Kevin Garnett & Rajon Rondo‘s heroics in Game 3, still trail Miami’s superteam 2-1 in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
It’s tough to make any sweeping statements on the basis of a few week’s worth of games, but the 2011 playoffs seem to indicate a major changing of the NBA guard. After having their way with the league’s proletariat for three seasons, the once-mighty ruling class now finds itself on the wrong end of a radical upheaval.
With Derrick Rose‘s 2011 MVP looking like a foregone conclusion, it seems only natural to compare his campaign to that of Allen Iverson in 2001, the year another popular guard won the MVP despite not being the game’s most talented player.
Here’s the numerical tale of the tape for A.I. and D-Rose, with Rose extrapolated to 82 team games: (Glossary)
Statistically, the two players are incredibly comparable. If you translate Iverson from the 103.0 league-ORtg environment of 2001 to the league ORtg of 107.1 in 2011, his ORtg/%Poss/DRtg becomes 110.5/33.8/103.0, production that is basically equivalent to Rose’s after adjusting for usage.
“Trying to compare the Heat to anything that has ever come before is an exercise in futility. You have the best player in the league, who happens to LOVE to pass teamed up with the second-or-third best player, who also is pretty fond of passing to the open man. They may both have had similar styles, but they ended up in those styles due to their teams’ set-ups. How LeBron will act now that he can people to pass to who are good in their own right cannot be predicted with the information we have.
There’s never been anything like it before. Every Heat game is going to be worth watching, especially against the crappy teams, because you don’t know what sort of thing they’ll bring out when they’re way ahead. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have regular season games where Miller shoots 20 3s and scores 30+ points, just because they think it’d be fun to do. This Heat team goes way beyond special into the realm of surreal.”
That reminded me of a Chase Stuart post at PFR in October 2007: