This is the time of year in the NBA when trends become facts -- when it's still too early to say anything is a sure thing, but too late to dismiss all evidence to the contrary of your gut feelings.
Through roughly half of the NBA season, my gut had LeBron James winning his third straight MVP award this season, and deservedly so. Now, at the three-quarter mark, it has become impossible to ignore the mounting body of work being meticulously assembled by James' biggest threat in the MVP race -- and maybe, the Heat's biggest obstacle to making the NBA Finals.
|Bolstering Derrick Rose's MVP candidacy is the Bulls' performance against the NBA's elite teams. (Getty Images)|
I had resisted Rose's formidable candidacy to this point because I found James' unabashed takeover of what had been Wade's team too impressive to dismiss. To team up with a great scorer and still be the focal point and stay in the race for the scoring title has been a significant and somewhat unexpected result of Miami's superteam status. Through 61 games, James' scoring and assists averages have dipped only slightly from last season, his rebounding average has gone up, and he's still shooting close to 50 percent from the field.
At the beginning of the year, I thought LeBron or Wade would split too many votes for either to win the award. Their pairing, I thought, would be the political equivalent of a third-party candidate stealing votes from one candidate and delivering a presidential election to the other.
But Rose has emerged as the MVP favorite in my estimation for a couple of reasons. For one, Miami's struggles against top-tier opponents and their woeful performance in crunch time means that many voters will view neither James nor Wade as MVP-worthy. As it turns out, they'll both be eliminated by the fact that they don't deserve the award -- not because each deserves it equally.
The other reason is all about Rose himself. Some eyebrow-raising ensued when Rose openly wondered before the season, "Why can't I be the MVP of the league?" The odds were stacked against him, but not as much as in the past.
When Allen Iverson was the MVP in 2000-01, he became the shortest player to win the award since the 6-foot-1 Bob Cousy in 1956-57. In between, only one point guard won MVP honors -- the 6-8 Magic Johnson, who played a lot more like LeBron than Iverson, or even Rose, for that matter.
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But that signature season for Iverson ushered in an era when more restrictions on perimeter defense made it possible for a little man to play MVP-big. Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs a few years later, and now it could be a point guard's turn again.
Add the notion that Rose is so much more than a point guard, plus the impressive list of top teams the Bulls have toppled on their way past Miami for the second playoff position in the East, and you have an MVP candidacy that doesn't require much imagination at all.
Rose is in the top 10 in scoring and assists (though not steals), and he's tied with Evan Turner for sixth in rebounding average among guards. Despite getting a legit post scorer this season in Carlos Boozer, Rose's scoring average has increased by nearly two field goals per game -- to 24.6 from 20.8 last season.
But more than that, it's the Bulls' performance against elite teams -- and what Rose has done in those games -- that clinches it for me. Miami is 1-9 against San Antonio, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and the Lakers -- the top five teams in the league. Replace the Bulls with the Heat and Chicago is 8-4 against those teams -- including a 7-0 record since Dec. 10. In those 12 games, Rose is averaging 28.6 points and 6.8 assists -- including a 42-point barrage in a 10-point victory over the Spurs on Feb. 17.
The Bulls haven't lost to a top-five team since the Lakers beat them on Nov. 23. They haven't lost to Orlando since the Magic blew them out on Dec. 1 -- and that was Boozer's debut with his new team and it happened before Orlando made two significant trades that reshaped its roster.
This is the work of an MVP in the making, an elite player who must be growing happier by the minute that James took his talents to South Beach instead of Chicago.
And with that, as the horn sounds with three quarters of the regular season complete, here's the rest of the quarterly report, which has not been audited by any independent accounting firm:
Coach of the year: Rose's coach, Tom Thibodeau, has made a strong case by bringing the Celtics' stifling defensive system to the Midwest and keeping the Bulls' engine purring without Joakim Noah for two months right in the middle of the schedule. The Bulls already are two games ahead of their 2009-10 win total with 21 games left, and if they hang onto the second or third playoff spot, the conference finals could wind up being a doozy of a rematch of that epic 2009 first-round playoff series between Boston and Chicago.
But the favorite at this point has to be Doug Collins, who already has squeezed 32 wins out of essentially the same roster that won 27 all of last season (with the notable addition of No. 2 pick Turner.) Sadly enough for the Sixers, Collins righted the ship just enough to persuade management not to trade Andre Iguodala and/or Elton Brand, so Philly will be stuck around the .500 mark for the foreseeable future. Still, none of that diminishes the coaching job Collins has done.
East bottom feeders: The East isn't quite as top-heavy as in recent years. Three of the four teams battling for the final three playoff spots -- the Knicks, Sixers and Pacers -- might actually present some significant issues for their first-round playoff opponents. (You can't consider the Bucks any more of a threat than the Pistons at this point, and Charlotte already has raised the white flag by trading Gerald Wallace.) The hottest of the three is Philly, which is 17-7 since Jan. 11. My prediction: The Sixers give the Knicks the sense of urgency they need, and New York hangs onto the sixth seed. The Sixers stay right where they are, and the Pacers -- who've lost seven of 10 since getting an initial burst out of their coaching change -- hold off Charlotte and back into the eighth spot.
West bottom feeders: After the Big Four in the West -- San Antonio, Dallas, the Lakers and Oklahoma City -- all bets are off. Anyone from the Denver ex-Knicks to the Phoenix ex-Magic have a shot at the fifth to the eighth seeds. My prediction: The Nuggets continue to surprise and protect the fifth seed; Portland catches New Orleans for sixth; and the Hornets find a way to hold off Memphis for seventh. Phoenix has too tough a schedule to sneak in -- a 10-10 home-road split, including the Spurs and Mavs twice and Lakers and Bulls once. The Grizzlies and Rockets both finish with 11 of their last 18 games at home, but Memphis has been the better home team.
Unwanted guests: The team in each conference that nobody will want to see in the first round? Interestingly, it's the two teams that pulled off the biggest trade at the deadline: Denver and New York. The Nuggets are 5-2 since trading Carmelo Anthony -- 4-2 since the ex-Knicks debuted on Feb. 24 -- and George Karl is energized about coaching the versatile, tough-minded crew Masai Ujiri imported from the Knicks. New York is only 4-3 since Melo arrived and remains a poor defensive and rebounding team. But the trio of Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups could do some damage and simply outscore a better team in a playoff series.
Biggest surprise: Blake Griffin, Clippers. This supposed race between Griffin and John Wall for rookie of the year? Charles Barkley might as well race LeBron in the 40. It's been no contest. But even if you had Griffin pegged as more Kevin Durant than Greg Oden in terms of rookie expectations, I don't think anyone can say they expected Griffin to have this much of an impact this soon -- a rare rookie All-Star selection, a dunk contest title, and a seemingly endless stream of highlights that have made the NBA a better place than it was before he got here.
Biggest disappointment: Utah Jazz. What kind of odds would Vegas have given you back in September if you wanted to throw down a few greenbacks on the Jazz having a coach other than Jerry Sloan and point guard other than Deron Williams before Valentine's Day? I respect Jazz management for getting out in front of D-Will-a-palooza and trading him to the Nets rather than being victimized by another superstar with wanderlust. But had the Jazz not already lost 10 of 14 when Sloan stepped down, neither of these franchise-altering decisions would've been necessary.