Ettinger: Let’s not anoint Rose just yet

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m gonna have to go with Stan Van Gundy on this one.

Stan and I are in perfect agreement about who should be the NBA’s 2010-’11 MVP: Dwight Howard. We also agree that he’ll finish second in voting to Derrick Rose.

Let me first make clear that this is in no way a knock on Rose. The dynamic point guard was the most exciting player in the league this year. He was the best player on the best team in basketball. He turned in an MVP-caliber season and is absolutely worthy of the honor he’ll soon receive. But in my book, Dwight Howard is just a little bit more worthy.

It’s pretty easy to cherry-pick simple statistics that make Howard look like the superior player. Rose scored 25.0 points per game to Howard’s 22.9, but Howard did it on remarkable 59.3 percent shooting (second in the league, second among centers) while Rose did it on 44.5 percent shooting (85th in the league, 14th among point guards). While Rose dished an impressive 7.7 assists per game (10th in the league), Howard managed to grab a whopping 14.1 rebounds per game (second in the league).

Meanwhile, Howard was a defensive dynamo, managing 2.38 blocked shots (fourth in the league) and 1.37 steals per game (best among centers) en route to his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award. Rose, not known for his defense, managed just 1.05 steals per game (20th among point guards). These simple stats do paint a convincing picture: Howard and Rose are similarly productive (albeit difficult to compare) on offense, with Howard playing more efficiently for his position. Howard, however, is an elite defender, while Rose is league-average at best.

But these basic statistics don’t do much good. It’s too easy to paint a biased picture. More useful is an all-encompassing statistic like John Hollinger’s PER (player efficiency rating). The PER, a per-minute measure of a player’s statistical production, is by no means perfect. But it’s a pretty good place to start. Hollinger designed the statistic to tally up the value of a player’s offensive and defensive contribution and cram it all into one easy-to-read number. The results are telling. Howard’s PER, 26.13, is second in the league only to LeBron James (27.34). Rose, meanwhile, turned in a respectable but inferior 23.62, good for ninth in the league.

By comparing a player’s PER to the league average at his position, Hollinger is able to convert the rating into an EWA, which estimates how many wins a player adds to his team beyond what a “replacement level” player would contribute. Howard comes in second once again with 22.7 wins, while Rose places fifth at 19.0.

Are these statistics completely objective? No. Do they describe a player’s contribution with perfect accuracy? No. But in general, they do a pretty good job of uniting offensive and defensive value into one simple number. In the end, these statistics tell a pretty simple story: Dwight Howard positively affects more possessions on both ends of the court than Rose. And it’s not even that close. In the end, the two players are comparable offensively, despite playing dramatically different roles. The difference, however, lies in defense, where Howard is the class of the league and Rose is actually a liability.

So why all the hype for Rose? After all, he’s not just a popular MVP pick — he’s a consensus MVP pick. In a panel of 32 ESPN experts, 26 selected Rose as their choice (only two selected Howard). What gives?

In my mind, the most convincing argument for Rose is that he is the best player on the best team. Rose’s Bulls finished 62-20, edging out the Spurs for tops in the league. The Magic, meanwhile, had a somewhat disappointing season, going 52-30 and landing at fourth in the Eastern Conference. In the end, shouldn’t the Most Valuable Player be the one who guides his team to the top of the league?

History says yes. Of the last eight MVPs, five have come from the team with the league’s best record. The best player on the best team seems to be a pretty simple convention that goes a long way in predicting MVP voting. Rose’s Bulls were clearly the best team in the NBA, and he the best player on the team.

I have a couple of problems with this argument. Most importantly, we need to look a little more closely at WHY the Bulls were the best team in basketball. This year, the Bulls ranked 12th in the league in offensive efficiency. Chicago, however, came in at first in defensive efficiency. Indeed, the story of the Bulls’ meteoric rise to the top of the NBA is a story of team defense, not individual offense. As incredible and energetic a player as he is on offense, Derrick Rose is simply not an elite defender. The Bulls were actually MORE efficient on defense this year when Rose was OFF the floor. In fact, in terms of plus/minus, Rose was the worst defender on the roster for the second time in three years. Simply put, Rose is not the reason that the Bulls came out on top.

In the end, I think the strength of team argument actually works against Rose. Rose managed 62 wins with a team that featured Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. In comparison, Howard managed 52 wins with a team that started Jameer Nelson, Brandon Bass and Hedo Turkoglu. Which feat is more impressive? No offense to Nelson, Bass and Turkoglu, but it seems to me that Howard made more with less. The Magic can’t match the elite roster of the Bulls, and it was Howard’s ability to drag his pieces to a 52-win season that makes him the league’s most valuable player.

Another minor issue with the “best player on the best team” argument comes from strength of schedule. The Bulls played in the NBA’s weakest division, Central, which sported a combined .440 winning percentage and only one team (the Bulls) that managed more than 37 wins. The Bulls took advantage of the easy competition, going 15–1 in division games. Orlando, meanwhile, played in one of the toughest divisions, the Southeast, which also included powerhouses Miami and Atlanta and played at a combined .513 clip.

In the end, I agree with Hollinger’s assertion that the consensus formed around Rose is simply a product of an elaborate game of connect the dots. Rose is the best player on the best team in basketball. His youth, energy and hometown roots make him a feel-good story in a town desperate for return to basketball glory. His stunning athleticism makes him the most electric player in the game — nightly fodder for highlight reels. He spent his offseason working tirelessly to improve his game and expand his repertoire. He’s the perfect candidate for the MVP award. The only problem is that he was not the league’s most valuable player. That distinction belongs to the big guy — Dwight Howard.

John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.

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