[Note: This was originally written for a different forum- I'm posting it here so that an unabridged copy will exist on the interwebs. So yes, fellow BlogABullers, feel free to rip it apart.]
Basketball players often come to represent concepts and ideals far beyond anything they signed up for. Support Tim Duncan and you are casting your vote for staid fundamentals and mind-numbing humility. Steve Nash was once the harbinger of a radical, exciting brand of hoops, but since the destruction of Seven Seconds or Less he has come to epitomize the good soldier, a man who keep working away at the Sisyphean task of making the Suns relevant again instead of demanding a golden parachute to the sunnier (if not literally) climes of Florida, LA or Dallas. Die-hard Kobe backers gain the luxury of feeling like a persecuted minority while rooting for the most successful active player in the league.
Derrick Rose supporters are still in the process of figuring out what that says about us.
Chicago’s high-flying point guard is a study in contradictions. A man so soft-spoken and self-effacing that he is referred to in some circles as “humble-bot” is also seen as an inveterate chucker. A so-called “shoot-first point guard,” the ultimate backhanded compliment, Rose is universally praised by his teammates as selfless, and frequently urged by his coach to assert himself more. A master of the highlight reel dunk and twisting layup, his favorite shot is a pull up 15-footer from the elbow, the very shot that old-fashioned curmudgeons have been pining for more of since Jordan. And a man who, frankly, doesn’t seem particularly intelligent or articulate becomes a savant with a basketball in his hand.
Full disclosure: I love Derrick Rose. If I could get a job as the man’s personal sock sniffer, I would. I grew up in Chicago, and Jordan’s six titles spanned my career from preschool to 3rd grade. I only have memories of the last few, but I have a general nostalgia about my dad letting me stay up and play in his room as he shouted and celebrated every May and June. I moved to the suburbs and then to California right as the Bulls took their nosedive into irrelevance, suffered through the frustratingly mediocre Baby Bulls, and nearly got myself committed shouting with joy on an airport shuttle in Tempe, Arizona when my dad texted me the news that the Bulls had won the lottery in 2007. When Rose exploded in that first round series against Boston his rookie year, I wore my Bulls t-shirt to school every day for a week. Derrick Rose has the Bulls back to national prominence. I am not a “liberated fan” in the Free Darko mode- I love my Bulls. So I’m all in on D-Rose.
At the same time, however, I have become a devotee of the great basketball blogs: TrueHoop, The Point Forward, Off the Dribble, Basketball Prospectus, HoopSpeak, Free Darko, NBA Playbook. All of these and more have widened and deepened my basketball knowledge, introduced me to new and better ways to understand the game.
About a month ago, I was watching the Bulls play the Bobcats in Charlotte, with the Charlotte announcers. As opposing announcers often do these days, Del Curry and Steve Martin were gushing over Chicago. Curry complimented their control of the boards, saying “They’re an excellent rebounding team, in fact, number two in the league.” Instinctively, I corrected him (out loud, because yes, I talk back to commentators while watching basketball games). We are the best rebounding team in the league by rebound rate; the Timberwolves only get more boards because they play faster. Having that sort of information makes me, in my opinion, a better fan, and better able to understand the game.
So what am I to do when the very writers who have shaped the way I view the game rise up to attack my favorite player? When John Hollinger tells us that Rose is an Iverson-esque chucker with no conscionable case for MVP, the kid who’s still bouncing happily on the couch as Jordan hits the game-winner in Utah goes ballistic, while the coolly analytical basketball fan, the half of me that the reactionary Bulls fan hates, says that actually, the stats back Hollinger up. When Zach Lowe talks about Rose’s lack of contribution on D, especially compared to the bench, as a knock on Rose’s case, I feel torn again. And I know I’m not alone. The blog I frequent most, BlogABull, has become something of a bastion for anti-advance statistics sentiment. Many derisive and profane insults have been hurled at the “nerdospere.” Is this because Bulls fans in particular are stubborn and phobic about math? I don’t believe so. The Bulls fans who flock to this site are, by definition, savvy and committed. And yet, we are all at war with competing narratives in our fandom. After all, these advanced stats are unfamiliar, and threatening one of our core beliefs as Bulls fans: that Derrick Rose is a god.
Unfortunately, that dichotomy is rapidly becoming Rose’s persona: Rose fans are the crazy, stat-denying loonies, the Tea Party of the blogosphere. It doesn’t help that the quote-unquote “mainstream media” are also on the Rose bandwagon, making us seem behind the times and painfully un-hip.
Speaking as a Bulls fan, let me say: I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be an enlighted acolyte of basketball sabermetrics.
Henry Abbott is the best of the new age bloggers, and I read him religiously. But if he has a foible, it’s his insistence on the ease with which advanced statistics and new narratives can be adopted. In a perfect world, perhaps we could all be some beautiful combination of Bethlehem Shoals, John Hollinger and Beckley Mason, clever, quick and enlightened, embracing our inner stat geek and rejecting all narratives that work against those beautiful numbers. But there’s still a 6-year-old kid in me who bought a Jordan jersey that was so big it was basically a dress, and wore it twice a week anyways. If you can explain Rose’s PER shortfalls to that kid, you’re a better man than I.
I live on the Peninsula, and I was here from the beginning of the Balco case to the end (if there ever is an end). One of the most curious parts of that situation was the bunker mentality adopted by Giants fans. Every one, to a man, believed that Bonds was innocent, and was willing to grab onto the most absurd rationalizations about the cream, the clear, and the inexplicably ballooning of his cranium. As a non-Giants fan, I would crack steroids jokes that were greeted by dead silence and stone faces.
It was clear that this guy cheated, but they refused to turn their backs on him. And when I asked why, and these fans were willing to examine their motives, they all came down to one word: loyalty. They felt they owed him. They told personal stories, about watching games with their families and friends. They said that when Bonds rocketed a ball into the bay, he gave them a reason to be proud of their city and a way to connect to the strangers who surrounded them. He had done so much for them, they said. How could they abandon him now?
There are probably those who say that they were misguided. There’s a strong argument to be found in that direction, just as there’s a strong argument to be found in dismissing the MVP chances of Derrick Rose. But when I talked to those Giants fans, I sensed a nobility of purpose in their defense of their hero. Bonds broke the law and demeaned the game he played: all Rose does is take ill-advised three-pointers and turn the ball over more than you’d like. How can we abandon him, after all he has given us?
Maybe one day the transition will be over, the best guys in PER, Win Shares, and adjusted plus-minus will be the only MVP contenders, and the NBA landscape will be a better place for it. If I had an MVP vote, and a responsibility to the league and to the judgment of history, I would vote for Dwight Howard. But this year, Derrick Rose is going to win the MVP trophy, and there’s going to be a 6-year-old kid in Chicago dancing on the couch with his dad as Number 1 hoists that trophy in the air. And at the risk of becoming one of the Philistines who get shouted down on ABPR-Metrics message boards: that’s alright with me.