By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Apr 9 2011 11:06AM
Be careful what you wish for.
As The Race wraps up another season, sealing its rankings for the NBA's 2011 Most Valuable Player Award, it beams like parents at a graduation, sending their kids off into the real world. Mixed with pride and relief over a job well done (and hopefully paid for without a nagging home-equity loan) is the trepidation that the world can be a cold, hard place.
Nothing can crush an MVP candidate's magical season like an abrupt, premature postseason elimination. Even the most self-absorbed individual superstar may find himself with a heart he never knew he had, breaking over the too-soon end of some team-first aspirations. For those who truly put championships over personal awards, having to "go fishin' " can make it hard to look at trophies when a ring was the goal.
Yet it happens all the time. Of the last 40 players to be chosen as MVP, only 13 of them -- and none since Tim Duncan in 2003 -- managed to back that honor up a couple of months later with an NBA title. Considering the pre-selection involved, that MVPs come almost exclusively from teams having very good or great seasons, the fact that 27 of them didn't push on to a championship is sobering. At least, it ought to be.
Granted, this is an issue of correlation, not causation. Being acclaimed as the MVP of the regular season has nothing to do, necessarily, with helping one's team win a ring. Since Michael Jordan began twinning those ambitions in the 1990s, claiming the MVP and Finals MVP awards four times in six championship runs, only Duncan (2003), Shaquille O'Neal (2000) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) have done it.
Newly minted MVPs don't just have a tough time winning titles, they have a hard enough time just reaching The Finals. Only six other MVPs since 1971 wound up on runner-up teams: Kobe Bryant (2008), Allen Iverson (2001), Karl Malone (1997), Charles Barkley (1993), Magic Johnson (1989) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1974). So, working with the most recent 40, there is a 42.5 chance of exiting the postseason in or before a conference finals.
Still, top candidates don't get where they are by shying away from challenges or hedging their bets. Least of all Chicago guard Derrick Rose.
Rose breaks the tape in this final 2010-11 edition of The Race, hotly pursued by the next two or three contenders but ultimately opening some space. The third-year playmaker -- who now is on track to become the youngest MVP in NBA history, considering he won't turn 23 until Oct. 4 -- did it by sparking the Bulls to the likely No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference (their magic number was 1 with four games left).
Rose did it with a stunning step up in his game, so much that he would be on the short list for the league's Most Improved Player award if he hadn't upgraded to this loftier debate. He did it with explosiveness, he did it with leadership, he did it with highlight moments, he did it with humility. He did it with a personal challenge back at the start of training camp ("Why can't I be MVP?" said a confident guy who didn't get even a fifth-place vote after his first two seasons).
Yes, he has done it with statistics, though the most devoted data-punchers would have you think that Rose is some sort of undeserving Podoloff trophy usurper. He is on the brink of becoming only the seventh player in NBA history to finish with at least 24.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 8.0 apg, joining Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and LeBron James. He is the only player to rank in the top 10 in scoring and assists. And he has scored or assisted on at least half of Chicago's field goals in 26 games this season, tops in the NBA.
Oh, and in terms of team stuff, the Bulls haven't lost three in a row this season. Their record after even a single loss: 16-4. Also, for all the help he has gotten from Tom Thibodeau's coaching and the Chicago defense's togetherness, Rose has had to carry the Bulls through the considerable injury absences of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, the team's second- and third-most important players.
But Rose's contributions go far beyond stats (a tool that some MVP pundits want to use to dictate the discussion rather than contribute to it). They stretch into practice, into the locker room, into intensity and confidence and team chemistry. More than that, they reach all the way to artistry, which is a big reason so many of us watch and care about pro basketball in the first place.
This wasn't just a "star is born" performance for Rose, it was an "MVP is born" season, from start to finish (the remaining six days not withstanding). The Race is pleased to have caught on relatively early, moving him to the top of the rankings in the final week of calendar 2010 and keeping him there throughout.
Who knew this bandwagon was going to run out of space for stand-bys?
Here are The Race's final 2010-11 MVP rankings (and yes, Nos. 1-5 will appear on at least one official ballot in this order):
Dropping out: Rajon Rondo, Boston (No. 9 last week), Aldridge, Portland (No. 10).
Honorable mention: Aldridge; Rondo; Chris Paul, New Orleans; Zach Randolph, Memphis; Amar'e Stoudemire, New York.
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