In the 1996-97 NBA season, Karl Malone was named the league MVP. It was, by the numbers anyway, a semi-reasonable decision. Malone had a great year. He averaged 27 points a game, grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out 4.5 assists. He led his team, the Utah Jazz, to the best record in the Western Conference — by quite a lot, actually — and the Jazz also tied for the league in the NBA in scoring. It was a heck of a season by one of the best power forwards to ever play basketball.
There was little question in anyone’s mind that Michael Jordan was the player any real or pretend general manager on planet earth would take.
This may not have mattered much in the abstract. Heck, Michael Jordan won five MVP awards. Worldwide, he was probably the most famous American athlete since … ever? He was in every other TV commercial, earning him more money than any athlete before. He was one of the very few players in the history of American sports who was widely accepted to be the best ever WHILE PLAYING. Ruth had that. Jim Brown had that. Mays had that in a certain way. Unitas, perhaps. Wilt or Russell, depending on your preference, might have had that in the younger days of the NBA. Nicklaus had that. But it’s a small group, and — again, in the abstract — it didn’t matter that they decided to spread the wealth a little bit and honor an amazing player like Karl Malone rather than just give the MVP award to Jordan every year. What difference did it make?
Trouble is: Jordan didn’t live in the abstract. He played for blood, we all know that, and he used every slight to fuel his already raging competitive spirit. And when the Bulls played the Jazz in the NBA Finals that year, with Jordan and Malone on the same floor, there was this roaring undercurrent that you could almost see on Jordan’s face: “Really? Malone’s the MVP? Really? That guy? He’s MVP over me?”
The Bulls won in six games. In the four Bulls victories, Jordan scored 31, 38, 38 and 39 points. He averaged nine boards and seven assists. Malone had one exceptional game when he scored 37 and grabbed 10 boards. The other five, he shot less than 50% in each one (he shot 55% for the season), he was barely a defensive presence at all. In six games, Jordan had made a mockery of the award. It still didn’t matter in the abstract. But in the bright colors of reality, nobody on earth could have thought for one second that Karl Malone was move valuable than Michael Jordan. The point was proven.
I bring this up because on Twitter Thursday night, with pain in my heart, I wrote this:
Derrick Rose is a marvelous player. But this series made things pretty clear — Jordan:Malone, LeBron:Rose.
Now, Twitter is only 140 characters. And so many people took several unintended messages from that. They didn’t get the MVP reference (which, to be fair, I didn’t mention). They seemed to think that I was already relegating Derrick Rose to Karl Malone’s close-but-no-championship career. They seemed to think that I was saying that LeBron will own Rose for the rest of their careers. They seemed to think that I was prematurely judging a 22-year-old’s basketball legacy. I didn’t mean ANY of that, though I certainly can understand why readers would get that impression. I was thinking about something specific and did not do a very good job getting that across. I suppose it’s no secret that I need curiously long posts to get my thoughts across.
Here’s what I meant: Derrick Rose was named MVP this year. And you could certainly make his case. Again, the numbers are special: 25 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, a steal, a block, he had a remarkable season. His Bulls — and they are very clearly his Bulls — had the best record in the NBA. The guy was great, and incredibly fun to watch. There have been only a handful of players in the last 25 years or so who could make me stop what I was doing and watch an NBA regular season game that I would otherwise have no interest in. Derrick Rose is one of those guys.
I think it’s fair to say that very, very, very few GMs — real or imagined — would have taken Derrick Rose this year over LeBron James.
There’s no joy in me saying that. There’s no secret how I feel about LeBron James. But as a basketball player? Peerless. Nobody on earth can touch him. He averaged 27 points, 8 rebounds, seven assists, shot 51%, was in the Top 10 in the NBA in steals. I don’t know what to make of basketball win shares, but he led the NBA in offensive win shares and was third in defensive win shares (and led the league overall for the third straight season). He’s a force of nature. You can’t be a basketball fan and not understand that.
LeBron’s not Jordan. He doesn’t think the same way. He isn’t driven by the same demons. The way he teamed up with mega-talented buddies to win a championship was as non-Jordan as you can get. And the way he left Cleveland, sure, it left a bad taste. It’s funny, people like to say: “Oh, leave LeBron alone — free agents leave all the time.” But is this really true? Who was the last free agent to leave:
1. A team he had played for an entire career.
2. A city that adored him.
3. A team that so desperately wanted to keep him that they offered as much or more money than anyone else.
There aren’t many in sports history who have checked all three of those boxes. Even Shaq, who draws the most comparisons, was initially low-balled by Orlando. Think hard about it and see how many players you can come up with who left despite the love and despite a better offer. LeBron James’ decision was something different from what we have generally seen.
But that should not cloud the more obvious point — LeBron James is the best player in basketball. I had no problem with Derrick Rose getting the MVP because, again, in the abstract, who cares? James had won the last two MVPs — you don’t want to just give it to him every year. There were times during the season, especially early, when James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh seemed to have trouble playing together, so that could be figured in. And Rose is such a breakout superstar, and he’s the soul of a brilliant young team. No, in the abstract, it was fine.
But, apparently LeBron James doesn’t live in the abstract either. Because after Game 1of the series — when Rose played brilliantly and James drifted — it was plain pretty much every single moment of every single game that LeBron James was the best basketball player on the floor. Even more, he was the DECISIVE player on the floor. He made the crucial shot in Game 2. He clamped down on Rose in the final seconds of regulation in Game 4. He made two three-pointers in the wild final minutes of Game 5, in Chicago, when the Bulls seemed to have put away the game. He twice had double-digit rebounds. He once had double-digit assists. He blocked 10 shots. He made 12 steals. It was a virtuoso performance by the man who had something to prove.
Rose, meanwhile, well, he often struggled. This can’t be only about him. His teammates weren’t good enough to help him — I thought Carlos Boozer, in particular, had a dreadful series, and Luol Deng was wildly inconsistent. Still, Rose missed the big shot, and he missed a couple of big free throws, and he committed 19 turnovers, and though he did some amazing things, well …
… one more time, nobody on earth could have thought for one second that Derrick Rose was more valuable than LeBron James.
Now, as for everything else — Rose IS only 22, he’s only in his third year, he’s an amazing basketball player. There is every reason to think that he will keep getting better, that the Bulls will keep getting better around him, that they will be a championship threat every year for quite some time. I’d sure as heck build a team around the guy, no question about it … unless 26-year-old LeBron James was available.