As the regular season grinds toward its merciful conclusion, it's tempting to wipe it from your memory and move on to what really matters: the playoffs. As gratifying as that would be, there is important business to be handled first.
And by that, I mean the most difficult MVP vote in years.
First, to those wringing their hands that we might get this one wrong: relax. The Earth won't swallow us up if we pick the wrong MVP for the 2010-11 NBA season. As proof, no natural disasters occurred when the media chose Steve Nash over Shaquille O'Neal in 2004-05, or when the groundswell of support for Allen Iverson overwhelmed an equally (or more) deserving Tim Duncan in 2000-01.
|Don't look now, but Dwight Howard currently sits second in Ken Berger's MVP race. (AP)|
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy might be right: Some in the media may have already made up their minds that Derrick Rose is the MVP, all evidence be damned. Personally, I haven't. Even if you're like me and have been leaning that way for a few weeks, there is plenty of time for careful, thoughtful, and informed analysis before the ballots are due in the NBA office April 14 at 3 p.m. ET.
Van Gundy's assertion has been followed by a flurry of anti-Rose opinion writing, mostly by the vitally (though not exclusively) important faction of the professional NBA writing community that relies on advanced stats to form opinions. Based on numbers alone, the list of arguments against Rose as MVP is much longer than the case for him.
Rose's detractors, such as the skillful Mark Haubs of The Painted Area blog, cite the fact that the Bulls win with defense and rebounding -- two areas Rose has little to do with -- and also point to the fact that Rose is shooting 42 percent since the All-Star break and is a high-volume, low-percentage 3-point shooter (a shade under 30 percent on 131 attempts since the break). By contrast, Dwight Howard is almost entirely responsible for the two factors that contribute the most to Orlando winning -- which also happen to be defense and rebounding.
When it comes to what I consider to be one of the hallmarks of an MVP candidacy -- clutch performance -- Rose destroys Howard and is right there with several other top contenders, such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. According to 82games.com, Rose is seventh in the league with 43.2 points per 48 minutes of clutch time (defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with neither team ahead by more than five points). Bryant (53.4) leads the league, followed by James (48.7), Durant (46.3), and Amar'e Stoudemire (45.7).
The danger in putting too much stock in "clutch" stats is illustrated by the fact that Mo Williams, who has logged only 51 minutes of clutch time with the lowly Cavs and Clippers, is sixth at 45.5. But our eyes tell us that the Magic can't and don't go to Howard late in games because A) he's not their clearest path to points when they need them, and B) he's a poor free-throw shooter. The numbers support the visual evidence; Howard is averaging only 25 points per 48 minutes of clutch time, right there with the always lethal (especially for his own team) Andray Blatche.
You can break it down further by looking at team and individual fourth-quarter production. The Magic score more in the fourth, but at a faster pace, while Rose unsurprisingly shoots a lower percentage in the fourth than Howard (.420 vs. .581), but scores more (6.3 points vs. 5.1) and leads directly to more offense with his 1.8 assists. Curiously, Orlando (23.4) gives up more points in the fourth than Chicago (21.5), according to Hoopsstats.com.
Then comes the eyeball test, which is where Rose gains an overwhelming advantage. As the point guard, and often the Bulls' only player on the floor who can create offense for himself or others, Rose has been so dominant, so often that it's impossible to ignore. His impressive closing performance against Miami on March 6, plus other fourth-quarter heroics such as orchestrating a 12-0 run in the final three minutes of a 95-87 victory in Milwaukee on March 27, simply scream MVP. Maybe the Bulls are so good defensively, in part, because Rose does so much offensively that coach Tom Thibodeau can close games with a mostly defensive lineup and let Rose carry the load at the other end.
Howard anchors one of the best defensive teams in the league despite being surrounded by average-to-terrible defensive players. Rose has the Bulls in the top spot in the East despite playing 54 games without either Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, or both.
And on and on. However the debate ends, what's important is that we're having the debate -- and that it isn't limited to Rose vs. Howard, nor should it be. Unlike when O'Neal got robbed by Nash in the 2004-05 MVP voting, Howard's team doesn't have the best record in the conference -- a fact that detracts from Howard's candidacy, since winning is the objective of all this. But what about the team that's winning in Miami? Did anyone think LeBron could hook up with one of the elite wing scorers in the game in Dwyane Wade and still be second in the league in scoring -- while also averaging more than seven assists and seven rebounds and shooting more than 50 percent from the field?
Advanced stats and metrics are useful, but also dangerous. You still have to use your eyes. With the MVP vote this season, the most difficult to evaluate in years, it'll be a little bit of both. Whoever wins, we should at least feel good about the (mostly) intelligent discourse. For the record, I haven't decided yet, but my unofficial (and thus meaningless and incomplete) rankings as of today are as follows: 1) Rose (unchanged from last week); 2) Howard (up from third); 3) James (up from fifth); 4) Bryant (down from second); 5) Durant (down from fourth).
Offseason carousel: With a lockout looming, the coaching and GM carousel may not stop spinning for months. But there's nothing to prevent the spin from beginning. At least two teams -- the Lakers and Pistons -- are likely to be conducting coaching searches when the post-lockout dust settles, while several other situations are very much in flux. With about 10 days before the chopping block heats up, here's an educated stab at the hot seat index:
John Kuester, Pistons: With organizational gridlock finally set to be freed soon when the sale to billionaire Tom Gores is finalized, the first order of business almost certainly will be a coaching change. To be fair, Kuester was victimized by generational friction on a roster that has been frozen all season as president Joe Dumars' hands were tied by the ownership limbo. Given that, Dumars probably is safe. Kuester won't be so lucky.
Time to sweat
Rick Adelman, Rockets: Everyone's contract is up in Houston, including Adelman's. There's no doubt he's one of the game's finest coaches. But with Yao Ming's future up in the air, it could be time for Adelman to move on. When Portland gave Nate McMillan an extension last month, it opened the door for the Rockets to do the same with Adelman. But sources say communication and trust aren't great between Adelman and owner Leslie Alexander, who may conclude that it's time for a different direction. Then there is the uncertain future of GM Daryl Morey, whose contract also is up and whose status was described by one industry source as "questionable."
Bryan Colangelo, Raptors: The Raptors' complicated ownership group has to decide whether to pick up options for Colangelo and coach Jay Triano, and the early indications are that the coach has a better chance of staying. Although ownership was on board with Colangelo's plan to deal with the aftermath of Chris Bosh's departure -- rebuild with youth and picks rather than sacrifice the future -- there's a level of disappointment that the team hasn't accomplished more at this stage of Colangelo's tenure. One source described Colangelo's future as "definitely up in the air." There's also a feeling that Triano has done his part under difficult circumstances to develop young players -- such as Jerryd Bayless, DeMar DeRozan and especially Ed Davis -- and that if someone is going to get blamed, it won't be Triano. That leaves only one other candidate.
Keith Smart, Warriors: If Golden State hadn't waited so long to replace Don Nelson, Smart would've had more organizational capital heading into an ownership change. But Joe Lacob has proven to be not shy at all about volunteering his opinions, and has struck coaching industry sources as an owner who is itching to put his stamp on the franchise. GM Larry Riley has been a good company man and gets along well with rival execs, so it'll be status quo for him, sources say. While it wouldn't be wise to underestimate Lacob's determination to clean house, timing will be everything. There will be little reason to make a move before it becomes clear how many games the lockout will swallow. One source cautioned, "I don't think it's 100 percent" that Smart will be gone.
Kurt Rambis, Timberwolves: Rambis, not the best communicator or the feistiest general on the sideline, will have to make some changes to bolster belief in some segments of the organization that he's the right long-term fit. The choice of a successor to Phil Jackson in L.A. certainly plays into it, but Rambis appears to have developed the talent he's been given well enough to warrant coming back. The organization is pleased with the fact that Rambis was able to get through to the headstrong Kevin Love and resurrect the career of Michael Beasley -- the latter being no small task. In view of that, and with indications that Ricky Rubio has informed GM David Kahn that he plans to be in Minnesota next season barring a lockout, one industry source characterized Rambis' situation as "very salvageable."
Flip Saunders/Ernie Grunfeld, Wizards: Not everyone in Washington is pleased with Saunders, but the fact that he has two years and $9 million left on his contract gives him a stronger hand than he'd otherwise have. Owner Ted Leonsis has written in his blog that he's pleased with the direction of the team and is on board with the cost-cutting and rebuilding plan. Leonsis generally does not say one thing and do another, so it would appear that speculation about Grunfeld being in serious jeopardy is overstated. Saunders and Grunfeld are linked, however, and a change at the top would mean all bets are off for Saunders.
Larry Drew, Hawks: Atlanta could've hired either Dwane Casey or Mark Jackson, but instead promoted Mike Woodson's assistant in a transparent attempt to save money. Drew makes $1 million this year and $1.5 million next season -- depending on how many games are lost to a lockout. Among Drew's strengths reportedly was a strong relationship with Josh Smith, but the two have been at each other's throats all season. The Hawks are 11-12 since the All-Star break and appear headed for a brief playoff appearance that could necessitate a change. The question Atlanta ownership will have to ask is, who's the problem? Smith or the coach?
Frank Vogel, Pacers: The youngest coach in the NBA got off to a fast start, but the Pacers have come back to reality and will barely make the playoffs. But the fact that Vogel was able to bring the team back from losing eight of nine bodes well for his chances. "Exit interviews will be huge for him," said one source. If the players felt he was a good communicator and made them better, chances are the Pacers will give Vogel another chance. Everything, though, depends on team president Larry Bird's future. As of now, all indications are that if the Pacers make the playoffs -- which presumably, they will -- Bird will be back.
Paul Westphal/Geoff Petrie, Kings: Uprooting the franchise and moving it to Anaheim represents the best possible time to make sweeping changes in the front office and on the sideline. But industry sources do not believe Petrie will be shown the door, making this the ultimate test of the Maloofs' loyalty to him. Westphal also has regained support within the organization, and will be helped by the fact that his option already has been picked up for next season. What probably has saved Petrie is the trade that brought Marcus Thornton in from New Orleans. The team has played more cohesively lately, winning three straight on the road last week. Thornton's offense has taken pressure off Tyreke Evans, and psychologically he's become what one source described as the "cartilage" between Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, who have butted heads all season. "That trade may have saved everybody," a source said.
Mike D'Antoni/Donnie Walsh, Knicks: Ten days ago, speculation bubbled up that D'Antoni would be fired if he didn't figure out how to win with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Now, the Knicks have won three in a row and there's talk of an extension. Both scenarios are premature. But D'Antoni's future can't be considered solidified until Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan decides what to do with Walsh, the executive who laid the groundwork for the Knicks' first playoff appearance in seven years. Thus far, Dolan has given no inclination that he'll exercise the 2011-12 option on Walsh's contract by April 30, preferring to deal with it after the 69-year-old's contract expires June 30. My strong opinion is that Walsh and D'Antoni both will be back. There's no mistaking Walsh's role in restoring dignity to a franchise that had been decimated by Isiah Thomas' tenure, and D'Antoni has done exactly what he's been asked to do: deal with a rebuild for two years, and make the playoffs in Year 3. His critics conveniently forget that it was D'Antoni who infused the players traded to Denver for Anthony with enough value to make the deal palatable to the Nuggets, who have thrived with the Knicks' castoffs since the trade.
Tweet of the week: "That's B.S. with Jay-Z. Michael Jordan can tell UNC players I will get you whatever shoes you want if you make to the Final 4." -- @bennorthernuk on the apparent double-standard regarding NBA owners fraternizing with college players who are not yet draft eligible. (The league is continuing to investigate the presence of Nets part-owner Jay-Z in the Kentucky locker room after a victory that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four. Sources say there's no rush to impose a penalty, which is expected to be little more than a nominal fine.)
Email of the week: "This may be the most stupid thing I have ever heard of: Professional athletes of today going on strike because they are not getting paid enough??????" -- CBSSports.com user Jay, illustrating why fans rarely side with athletes in labor disputes. To set the record straight: A) NFL players aren't on strike, they're being locked out by owners who want to make more money; B) NBA players won't go on strike, either. They, too, will be locked out if a new labor agreement can't be reached by July 1; and C) Most fans don't know the difference, and the rest don't care. Their instinct is to always blame the players.