So after last night's game, in which he scored 30 points while holding Rajon Rondo to seven points and six assists, Derrick Rose has to be the MVP, right? The best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference, despite lengthy injuries to its second and third best players? The stat-heads don't think so, pointing out that he's seven games behind LeBron James in estimated wins added, or that he's not as irreplaceable as Dwight Howard.
Others point out that the bulk of the credit for the Bulls' improvement should go to Tom Thibodeau, as Basketball Prospectus explains, and they're probably the best defensive team in the league; on some of the advanced defensive metrics, a couple unexpected Bulls show up along side Howard and Kevin Garnett: Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer (!?).
But basketball stats are fungible and still pretty primitive; Rob Mahoney of the New York Times uses stats to argue that Rose has been an elite defender this year, a massive improvement on his biggest weakness to go along those in every other aspect of his game. He's made a huge leap forward, as Jonathan Eig describes.
The knock on Rose is that he's just the most interesting of all the MVP candidates: more fun to watch and in a bigger market than Dwight Howard, able to star on his own team in a way that teammates LeBron James and Dwayne Wade can't, more novel than Kobe Bryant, and on a better team with a better record than Kevin Durant. And then there's the hometown story, and the fact that he's the most exciting thing in Chicago sports (by Chicago's advanced analysis, the third best thing about Chicago right now), perhaps since Michael Jordan.
But isn't that part of the point? Basketball is a spectacle, and it feeds on the fans, quite literally: "The larger and more vocal the crowd, the bigger the influence on the measured statistics. In other words, home advantage grows with attendance." The award goes to the league's most valuable player. Rose might not be the first player you'd pick to build a team around; he might not be more important to his team's won-loss record than other players are to their teams; he might not be the best player in some abstracted basketball league. But he plays in this one, and he's brought as much excitement and passion to the game, in one of the best sports cities in the country, than anyone since the sainted MJ. If that's not value, what is?
Photograph: Esther Kang