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Race for MVP about more than scoring and big games

Derrick Rose made a commitment to the Bulls last July and they didn't even realize it at the time. It was the kind of thing that can make for a great team.
"I'm guessing Rose had this MVP thing in mind long before he blurted it out in preseason," writes Sam Smith.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

I've never been sure what to make of this ever since I saw it at this season's All-Star game. We've heard any number of coaches like Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers make Derrick's Rose case for MVP, though it's also created a running debate among commentators and columnists which still should make the results interesting. We don't hear all that much from the top players, though a few, like Chris Bosh, of all people, suggested Rose as the likely winner.

But you also get the sense the other top players don't quite know what to make of Rose, who eschewed the flamboyant introductions at the All-Star game in favor of a bit of a nod and wave. Then the next time I looked up, Rose was at center court going through the pregame instructions with the referees, which meant he was named the Eastern Conference captain. I asked Rose about it and he shrugged, not wanting to mention himself ahead of anyone. But as an NBA official told me when I asked were there official captains, "I didn't see anyone else there but Rose."

It's obviously quite the honor to be named a starter for the first time at the All-Star game and then be named captain, though it is just a ceremonial gesture for the game. Did it mean anything? Hard to say.

But it also takes me back to last summer and how Rose handled free agency and why I think it played a big part in the season the Bulls have had.

Obviously with all the nice bench play and defense and coaching and chemistry, if you've been watching it's clear this Bulls team goes as Derrick Rose goes. It was the same with Michael Jordan and no one was offended. It's OK. He is the one irreplaceable part.

It's no secret, though long forgotten and forgiven, the Bulls were after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Given that trio still trails the Bulls is sanction enough of the season the Bulls have had.

Although Bulls' management never has commented much, they were led to believe after the meetings with the James gang they were all coming to Chicago. Who really knows, and it seems unlikely there ever was a chance given the way it worked out.

There was some question about how Rose handled it all in not joining the Bulls contingent recruiting James in Ohio. Rose must not like him, it was assumed. There were stories afterward his signal to James sent James to Miami. Since then Rose has said he reached out to contact James and did nothing to deter him.

But looking back, Rose probably handled the whole affair with the most sophistication. It likely led to a lot of why the Bulls have been successful this season, why Rose is the leading MVP candidate and why those other All-Stars apparently stand in some awe of the kid. There were two things that stood out.

First, Rose stepped back and probably understood better than most this was a done deal and James likely wanted no part of Chicago. So I'm guessing Rose had this MVP thing in mind long before he blurted it out in preseason. This is a savvy kid.

Rose understood as players do and coaches and GMs generally don't that you don't put yourself in a submissive position if you want to lead a team to a title. Could you ever imagine Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson going to knock on Karl Malone's door and beg him for help? OK, so then you do and what if he doesn't come, which Rose likely always doubted.

Then he's got you.

And you've got to face him and he knows and you know that you needed him. Rose made his statement about the 2010-11 season right then. You're welcome to join me, but I don't need you.

The other thing Rose did was something he picked up from Derek Jeter, the great New York Yankees' captain.

There is nowhere in American sports that free agents are recruited more frequently than with the Yankees. Jeter is always fine and even put up with Alex Rodriquez. But there is one thing Jeter does that always has endeared him to his teammates and has helped provide that inner strength the Yankees generally have had.

Jeter doesn't recruit players to replace teammates. Management can do what it wants, but you will never see Jeter go out and lobby for a player or entice someone at the same position as a key teammate. You don't violate the sanctity of the locker room. It's something Rose studied and understood.

The Bulls weren't exactly loaded at power forward and shooting guard, but they had a pretty good small forward, Luol Deng. That happens to be the position James plays.

If management had acquired James, so be it. But Rose wasn't about to go recruiting to replace a key teammate.

So what happens? Coincidence? Maybe. But Deng is having what observers around him are saying is his best season in his pro career. He's had better statistical seasons. But his overall production, defense, reliability and importance to coach Tom Thibodeau has made Deng a vital element of the Bulls' vastly successful season.

Think there's any connection between Rose not going out to find a new small forward and Deng having arguably his finest season? I ran this by Deng once and he talked about generally being confident. But I know how I'd feel. There's more to being an MVP than scoring numbers and big game performances. There's more to being a leader than yelling a lot and telling people what to do. Derrick Rose made a commitment to the Bulls last July and they didn't even realize it at the time. It was the kind of thing that can make for a great team.

Knicks in postseason, but getting tired...

-- The Knicks have had an unusually heavy March schedule with 18 games, and Amar'e Stoudemire--averaging just over six rebounds the last five games--could be tired, as coach Mike D'Antoni said. Though Stoudemire did have 28 Sunday when the Knicks clinched a playoff spot. But not that Dwight Howard was all that sympathetic. Said Howard when the Magic beat the Knicks recently, "I just don't see him being as aggressive as he used to be. But we all play the same amount of games. I know it's a lot of pressure on him. They ask him to do a lot. You've just got to fight through it." When Stoudemire got one rebound last week in the win over the Nets, D'Antoni mysteriously told the New York Post: "The things we have to improve are in our locker room." Not sure what that means, but Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony seem pretty busy with New York life with both filming a Sesame Street cameo last week, Anthony headed for Saturday Night Life and reports in the local media of Stoudemire partying regularly with singer Ciara. No wonder Stoudemire asked D'Antoni to cancel practice last week. When you want to come to a city with so many gossip columns it's part of the deal. ... Maybe all that whining the Magic do about Howard is paying off. In Friday's Magic win over Charlotte Howard was called for zero fouls despite playing 38 minutes with 26 points, 14 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Really, is that possible if you've ever watched the guy play? ... Good one from Doc Rivers, who refers to Rajon Rondo hitting jump shots as "coach's porn." It's the big game of the month Thursday for the Bulls on national TNT against the Celtics, who were vacillating daily about whether Shaquille O'Neal will return before the end of the regular season. So Shaq returns Sunday night and immediately suffers a calf strain and leaves. It simply seems ludicrous to believe the previously lumbering Shaq can add much of anything after being out so long and then getting hurt again so quickly. It's starting to sound like that Kevin Garnett stuff of 2009 when he was due back every day until he never returned. A variation on the old line about how you know they are lying because their mouth is moving, the Celtics immediately downplayed the injury. Based on 2009, it's difficult to believe anything they say about injuries. Boston is probably mostly fighting off Miami for second or third and second round home court advantage. But if I were the Celtics I wouldn't be so sure if I ended up third and had the 76ers, whom Boston plays Tuesday. The Celtics are 2-1 over the 76ers with both wins by fewer than five points. Since the 76ers 3-13 start, their record is only three games poorer than Boston's, 37-24 to 40-19.

LeBron's return to Cleveland, Part II

-- How about LeBron James showing up for the game with the Cavs last week wearing a t-shirt that read: "Long Live The King." Yes, there was that stuff about his acolytes being denied access to the parking garage, a great irony since the Cavs allowed James and his buddies to control parking lot access when he played there and bar players' families from the indoor parking. Then James, pretending he had to use the toilet, skipped the intros, though James now is saying he does it all the time. Whatever you imagined for Michael Jordan, he never pulled childish stunts like that. You get the sense James and his juvenile pals dream this stuff up in what we used to call "goofing on the grownups." Just pathetic stuff. ... How about the Heat talking about signing Eddy Curry? That should wrap up exec of the year for Pat Riley. Though it may be a look for next season. One hopes. ... Sometimes you overthink, and that seems to have happened to the Milwaukee Bucks this season as they had a nice chemistry going last season before letting go Kurt Thomas and Luke Ridnour. Said Brandon Jennings to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as the playoffs fade: "Some guys have the mind-set of winning on the team and some guys just don't. It's been that way all year. We traded a lot of pieces I feel like we should have kept. But that's part of the business, and you've just got to roll with it." The Bucks did have a load of injuries and Andrew Bogut never did recover and will need surgery. So they should be a playoff team if they can fix the pieces, but they probably should have been, anyway in the East.

Playoff preview in Orlando... maybe

-- It's perhaps a second round preview for the Bulls in Orlando Sunday on ABC-TV, though don't be too sure. The Hawks just beat the Magic and Orlando credited the tough play of Jason Collins on Howard as the Hawks won the season series 3-1. Jason Collins? Now, really. "That's the best defense I've seen all year on Dwight," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "He did a great job. Against Collins, [Howard] didn't get a lot of good shots. He's big and physical. He doesn't give you anything easy. Dwight had trouble getting good, on-balance shots." Jason Collins? Then the Magic lose Sunday to the Raptors, who were playing the second of a back to back. It's getting difficult to take Orlando seriously at all. Gilbert Arenas, by the way, is down to shooting 36 percent and 29 percent on threes. No, that does not appear to be working, though what's hurt the Magic the most in all their trades seems to be the loss of Marcin Gortat, without whom the Magic suddenly are small even with Howard. Gortat, by the way, finally is starting, averaging 15.8 and 11.1 the last 10 games for Suns. He was supposed to have that job for Dallas until Orlando matched his free agency offer. Overpaying for Brandon Bass from Dallas didn't seem to punish the Mavs that much. ... Remember when the Heat were a good defensive team? Yes, about two weeks ago. Since moving Mike Bibby into the starting lineup, the Heat was giving up 102.2 points per game before 94 Sunday against the Nets. Maybe the Heat just want to dump games to avoid the Knicks in the first round with so many New Yorkers living in Miami. ... You look at John Wall's numbers, and they are impressive for a rookie at 16 points and 8.6 assists. But with the latest getting in a sucker punch on Zydrunas Ilgauskas and getting suspended and playing out of control and caught up in Washington's erratic team wide behavior, it is a disappointing start for such a once highly regarded prospect. Said one veteran team executive who has watched Wall closely for years: "The Wizards are worse this season than they were last season after getting the No. 1 pick. When does that happen? Wall's not as good a player now as he was in college." Wall clearly is a talent, but he may not make enough of it unless he's separated from Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young.

NBA news and notes

-- If you're looking for another first round upset possibility, try the collapsing Mavs, though first round and out seems hardly an upset with them. But they've lost their last seven to winning teams and since the end of December are 2-11 against the Lakers, Spurs, Trailblazers, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Thunder. ... The Spurs also have been in some distress with six straight losses before Sunday's rout of the Suns (the Spurs had gone more than 1,100 games without such a long losing streak). The Spurs' vulnerability seems to stem on some level from a lack of any true threat at the rim with Tim Duncan slowed and Antonio McDyess, in for DeJuan Blair for size, on his last legs. They've fallen to 13th in field goal defense, and what can you expect playing Matt Bonner so much? Rajon Rondo, yes, had those 22 points against the Spurs as point guards are killing the Spurs. Not that he isn't doing it a lot, anyway, but Derrick Rose is averaging almost 40 against the Spurs. Yes, the Spurs have to beat you now with offense. They can, though it's difficult to see them going far in the playoffs despite that wonderful regular season as they still are first overall. Really, can anyone win this season. The Lakers were looking pretty good lately. Really, the more everyone keeps losing it's getting more difficult not to make a case for the Bulls. ... The Suns are in Chicago Tuesday no longer with a playoff chance after being in the conference finals last year. Maybe we would have been adding Stoudemire to that MVP list if not for the trade of Anthony.

-- Rockets players were doing some crying about the 76ers locking up a playoff bid with a similar record and the Rockets likely out. Though the 76ers then beat up the Rockets. Houston has won eight of 10, but it is difficult to see them overtaking the Hornets or Grizzlies and should have another winning season without making the playoffs. They have had some hard luck years. They missed the playoffs last year with 42 wins and in 2003 with 43 wins. They are now five over .500. ... The Grizzlies new folk hero is Tony Allen, who explained that giddy yap action we saw a few weeks ago when the Grizzlies were in Chicago comes from a Paul Pierce practice move, and Allen says he's also working on the Antoine Walker shimmy shake. Though removing one ball stopper in Rudy Gay next to Zach Randolph seems to have energized the Grizzlies, who have won seven of eight and 17 of 24. If they can avoid the Lakers, they should win their first playoff game ever as a franchise. ... Hardly missing a step when David West went out, the underrated Carl Landry stepped in for the Hornets and has averaged 20.8 points and six rebounds the last five games. ... Benefitting from the trade of Aaron Brooks, though I think Brooks eventually will do well as a Suns backup, was perhaps the Rockets with seven wins in their last nine and especially another underrated player, Kyle Lowry, who averaged 19.8 points, 8.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds in March.

-- The most interesting physical part of the Lakers/Mavs brouhaha last week wasn't Jason Terry and Matt Barnes but a female streaker. Ya gotta love L.A. ... Since ties often go to the guy who wins on TV, Lamar Odom may have won the Sixth Man award that night with Terry melting down and Odom hitting multiple big shots. ... National media began getting their ballots last week for post season awards and you can gather your own sense as most writers eventually reveal their picks in columns. Charlotte's Rick Bonnell wrote he'd vote for Dwight Howard. OK, it won't be unanimous. ... Shaun Livingston in Charlotte finally missed a game, but he'd played in 74 straight in a comeback most doubted was possible from terrible injuries.

-- Suddenly with the Thunder stumbling a bit, the Nuggets stunningly get a shot at the division with two games against the Thunder this week as the Nuggets may be planning to retire Carmelo Anthony's jersey as a thank you for forcing his way out. They are an amazing 15-4 without Anthony with Sunday's road win against the Lakers. ... When the Timberwolves last week faced the Heat right after the Bulls, Kevin Love gave his playoff prediction to reporters: "At the end of games, you know who's going to have the ball in their hands and it's going to be Derrick. There's no talk about whether it's going to Bosh or whether it's going to Wade or whether it's going to James." ... There was some "what if" in Oklahoma City last week when the Warriors were there as the Thunder passed Stephen Curry in the draft for James Harden. I didn't question that one as much as I did passing Brook Lopez for Russell Westbrook. But they had it right. GM Sam Presti is deliberate and private, but he's done very well patiently building a team and waiting for the right piece to fall, so we'll see if it's Kendrick Perkins. They have a chance to pull a surprise in the Western Conference, though Kevin Durant's shooting has been falling, 45 percent since January and about 43 percent the last 10. ... Kyle Weaver hooked on with the Jazz on a 10-day deal and coach Tyrone Corbin is hopeful. Said Corbin: "I loved his attitude. He's a hard-worker, a good defensive player. Hopefully, we can get him up to speed." Though it seems the veterans have packed it in, Weaver had 19 points in 30 minutes and was one of three Jazz players in the Sunday loss to the Kings with a plus rating for the game. ... To consider the plight of the Jazz this season with Deron Williams immolation of the franchise, at least temporarily, no team in NBA history has ever started a season 15-5 like the Jazz and not made the playoffs and no team has reached 27-13 and not qualified for the postseason. Like the Jazz. Lamented Raja Bell to the Salt Lake Tribune: "I don't think there was a doubt in anybody's mind we were going to make the playoffs. At that point in time, we were trying to figure out if we were one of the top few teams in the West. We were in that next tier of teams that you were trying to figure out if any of us could compete with your Lakers and maybe San Antonio." So better enjoy what you have when you have it, eh? On Jan. 14, the Jazz was tied with Oklahoma City for the division lead and sixth overall in the NBA. ... It also will be interesting to see what happens with Al Jefferson. He had a little dustup last week with Corbin being benched as the Jazz played their young guys, including Derrick Favors, their big piece in the Deron Williams deal. Are Jefferson and Favors compatible? Though Jefferson is putting up good numbers this season at 19.1 points and 9.7 rebounds, he wants to continue to play center and seems much too small. Given draft picks and Favors, Jefferson would seem a prime piece to build a deal for the Jazz. ... And among those Jazz decisions: To take Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette. A popular consensus is building, which reminds me of the pressure Indiana faced with Steve Alford. Donnie Walsh resisted, was scorned locally, and made his best draft pick, taking Reggie Miller.

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