It’s the Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers Friday in the United Center, one of those early season so called “measuring stick” games, as much as the coaches always will deny that, and perhaps a chance to get a closer look at two league Most Valuable Player candidates.
That’s right, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Together again after being friendly adversaries, friendlier champion teammates and now amiable division rivals, one chasing history and a back to back championship, the other stabilizing and perhaps upgrading his hometown team.
“I do, I want to see (where we measure up),” Wade said after Bulls practice Thursday. “We’re playing at home; they’re coming off a back-to-back (against the Clippers Thursday). But they’re the world champions. They are the measuring stick. Any team that LeBron has played on the last thousand years has been a measuring stick for the most part in the Eastern Conference. So for us coming off a bad loss I want to see how we respond. I won’t be one of those cliché athletes to say it’s just another game. It’s never just another game for me to play against those guys (like James). I enjoy playing against LeBron more than anybody just because of the things I know he’s going to bring to the game. Great people bring greatness out of you. It’s early on in the season, and how we respond as a team will tell me a lot about where we are. I look forward to it.’’
Oh, yes, the Wade MVP thing. Thought I forgot, eh?
James, of course, is the top contender. Thursday, the NBA announced he was November Eastern Conference Player of the Month. Russell Westbrook won Western Conference Player of the Month. James bringing that first championship to Cleveland also merited him Sports Illustrated SportsPerson of the Year.
Nearing the quarter point of the NBA season, I would vote for James as MVP. That even as he’s averaging the second-fewest points per game in his career and second lowest shooting percentage in his last seven seasons.
Which gets to my larger point of what does Most Valuable really mean?
Jimmy Butler is averaging more points per game than James, a career high 25.6 per game, 10th in the NBA. He’s certainly in the current conversation for league MVP and if the Bulls remain a highly competitive team this season, Butler should be among the leading vote-getters by the end.
In that sort of meaningless, “Who’s Team is It?” debate, it’s sort of agreed it’s Butler’s. And he has become the primary scorer.
But one can as much make the case that Wade is the Bulls Most Valuable Player.
The NBA’s Most Valuable Player, an award without any actual definition, basically has come to a consensus these days of the player having a great statistical season for a team among the elite in the league, generally defined as more than 50 wins and in contention for at least the conference finals.
It’s why Anthony Davis, despite leading the league in scoring at 32.1 per game along with blocks and seventh in rebounding, has virtually no chance because his team will struggle to even make the playoffs. It’s also why Westbrook’s chances could diminish if his team falls back toward .500 even as he is currently averaging a triple double, something no one has done since Oscar Robertson in 1962. Of course, Robertson didn’t win league MVP that season. Kevin Durant probably is a contender with the streaking Warriors as voters probably are tired of giving the award to Stephen Curry. Kawhi Leonard will be included as long as the Spurs remain a contender. Perhaps James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and, of course, Butler.
Michael Jordan didn’t win his first MVP award until 1987-88 when the Bulls won 50 games for the first time in his career. The previous season in one of the great offensive seasons in league history, Jordan was probably the best offensive and defensive player in the NBA as he also was second in steals. But the Bulls were 40-42. He finished second to Magic Johnson for MVP.
That’s the way the award became in the 1980s, though it wasn’t always so. Valuable was defined more in how much value you were to your team, an obviously subjective judgment, as well.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was MVP in 1975-76 playing for a 40-42 Lakers team. But he’d resurrected the franchise. Moses Malone was MVP in 1978-79 with a 47-win Houston team, Bob McAdoo was MVP in 1974-75 for a 49-win Buffalo team that became the Clippers. In the most amazing statistical season in NBA history when Robertson averaged a triple double and Wilt averaged 50.4 points per game, Bill Russell was league MVP.
Which is the Wade case for MVP, which, it should be noted, he is hardly lobbying for, expects, seeks or has really even ever considered. He says he’s happy to be where he is, and despite all the dislocation, the departure from Miami, and split with James, he does seem sincere.
“I never thought I would play with LeBron,” Wade admitted. “I enjoyed the All-Star Games, the Olympics, but I never thought that we would play together. That’s why I look at young guys now and what they say because you never know what the future is going to hold. So keep your comments to yourself on the future. I will keep my comments to myself for whatever (about reuniting with James some day). For me, I’m here and I’m happy to be here, but I was happy in Miami as well. It just happened. You never know what happens in this game, so people should never say never.
“That’s not saying that I want to play with LeBron,” Wade was quick to add with a laugh, internet headlines streaking through his mind. “Let me clearly say that. I’m not saying that I want to be somewhere that I’m not. But also I understand how this league works, how this thing goes, and people need to know just don’t say nothing.’’
These media sessions with Wade, whether practice or after games, are some of the most illuminating, open, frank and revealing I’ve heard in the NBA. They remind me of times with Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, verbose and open dialogues with players also like Kevin McHale, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, David Robinson, Julius Erving, Dave Bing, Ray Allen, Gail Goodrich, Steve Kerr, Tom Meschery and Joe Caldwell. They seem almost like therapy sessions with such expressions of candor and rectitude to almost find yourself taken aback. Certainly in a public setting.
That’s what Wade has done for the Bulls with his earnestness, his authority and accomplishments as a three-time champion and 12-time All-Star.
Butler is a better player now; but Wade has made things work so much better for the Bulls.
Not that last season was the horror it has often been depicted as given a historic level of injuries. But that group had its time. It’s not unlike what occurred with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They had their chances and didn’t cash in. So Westbrook and Durant had enough of one another. You either succeed or you split, especially when you have competing and similar abilities.
Derrick Rose and Butler did.
It’s why Scottie Pippen was so ideal for Michael Jordan, why Russell was perfect for those 60s dynasty Celtics.
Russell couldn’t score; everyone else could. Similarly with Pippen. He did everything great other than what Jordan did better than anyone. His place was secure. Successful teams need a pecking order. The Bulls achieved that thanks to Wade. They didn’t need another scorer as much as they needed someone to bring the pieces together, to help sort out roles and responsibilities while contributing significantly as well, someone respected and admired who could take a leadership position without the accompanying resentment, who could lead almost by virtue of his presence.
It was not exactly like Wade’s partnership with James, already an MVP, but elements were similar, especially Wade’s sacrifice.
The Bulls are 10-7 with a tough stretch ahead starting with Cleveland Friday, the first of four in five nights. Then it’s the Spurs at home and Wade’s second reunion with the Heat, though in the United Center. Perhaps the Bulls will fall back in the standings. But Wade’s presence has not only produced a team chemistry that seems like it can withstand setbacks, but it has imbued players with not only confidence but an understanding that the team transcends the individual.
When James makes his first appearance in the United Center this season Friday, he’ll be watched as carefully when he arrives, wearing Cubs garments to pay off a World Series wager with Wade. But also as the symbol of success that prospered and endured, in large part, because of Wade’s personal restraint. Wade, already a league scoring leader, famously compressed his output and his contribution to enable James to be in the appropriate place as the so-called sole alpha. Wade and Chris Bosh were necessary, but the ball needs to stop somewhere. Wade’s similar sacrifice with the Bulls—he could easily have come in with his resume and demanded the ball and scoring load—has enabled Butler to prosper as much as he has. Rarely has a superstar, a sure Hall of Famer and one of the best at his position ever, sacrificed so often and offensively without complaint.
Such value is immeasurable for a team.
“Once you get over that, people writing and saying you’re arguably the best player in the game, what does that do for you?” asked Wade, an unusual public declaration for such an accomplished star. “How many years can you go into the summer early and say, ‘Oh, he’s one of the best players in the game?’ I led the league in scoring and nobody was knocking down my door for anything. It was just like, ‘Oh, good year.’ And then we went into the summer. It was like, ‘I don’t get no trophy presentation, no car, no nothing?’ For me---and I think the same thing happened with LeBron as well---it came a point for both of us where it was the goal to play team basketball and to win at a high level. That first year we both had great individual years. We went to the Finals. We lost. I felt some hesitation as well on his part. I took it upon myself to take that hesitation away from him, to allow him to be what he was and what he is---the best player in the game, arguably one of the top three to five players to ever play the game---and not think too much about stepping on my toes. The reason I did that was my ultimate goal was to win championships. There was no point in us coming together and doing these things if we’re not going to reach that ultimate goal. I felt that was the best way I could help.
“You think you know. But then once you start playing together, you realize it’s harder than what you thought,” said Wade. “We all knew that we had to sacrifice. Chris Bosh, too. We sacrificed points, maybe article hits. But what we gained was championships and friendships and a brotherhood that lasts a lifetime.”
That’s as eloquent a description of what’s necessary for team success as you’ll hear; we never quite heard it stated that way in the gulag that was the Miami Heat public and media outreach, though it was obvious to all watching closely what Wade had done.
Now, he’s brought that message and example to the Bulls, and it’s what may sustain this Bulls team.
I liked the way Wade described James as a teammate because you can see that in his teams.
“As someone who gets as much attention as he gets, I think he does an unbelievable job of making his teammates feel like they’re him, in a sense,” said Wade. “They all walk with that same swagger and confidence. He takes them along the ride with him. I definitely learned some stuff from his leadership, from the way he prepares. Not many people can prepare the way he prepares because your body is not built like he is. He’s great for a reason.”
Now these are lessons Wade is transferring to the Bulls. It’s a master’s degree in mastering the game few can obtain anywhere. It makes everyone better, coaches, players, management, media. Yes, Wade makes it easier to write. You can’t mess up those sentiments.
“When we decided to play together for those four years, we did what we wanted to do,” said Wade. “Now I don’t think about that. I just think about what I have to do on my side. I’m sure he focuses on what he has to do on his side. We’re friends along the way and enjoy being friends. We had some amazing memories that will last a lifetime. Now, he’s in the Finals the last two years. I’m in a different environment, arena, city. I’m trying to do something different here.”
Something that is truly valuable to a team, perhaps the most valuable part of the game.