During the Chicago Bulls’ media day in September, Derrick Rose asked a simple question: “Why can’t I be MVP?”
That may have been an surprising comment from the Bulls’ guard then, but now that’s what everyone is asking. And what many are chanting for.
When Rose steps to the foul line and it doesn’t take long for the chorus to start. The home crowd erupts in unison, chanting “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
It’s a sentiment that’s hard to ignore.
Not only is Rose dominating in a way Chicago hasn’t seen since Michael Jordan was soaring around town, the Bulls are running away from the Central division and challenging for the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed. At 34-14, they are enjoying by far their best season since “His Airness” and Scottie Pippen finished off that second championship three-peat in 1998. Leading the way is the point guard from the city’s South Side.
As Rose put it before the season, why not?
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that he deserves to be up there in that group and deserves to be considered a very, very, very strong MVP candidate,” Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
The Bulls were counting on big things from Rose when they drafted him with the No. 1 pick out of Memphis three years ago, and he’s come through in a big way.
It’s been a steady ascent from Rookie of the Year to All-Star reserve last season to MVP candidate this time around. It’s been an steeper climb when you consider Rose grew up a few miles from the United Center, in the rough Englewood neighborhood.
Now, he’s the face of the franchise, and its first All-Star starter since Jordan in 1998.
“Hopefully, people see me as one of the elite players in the league,” he said. “I’m just trying to play, stay focused and win games. Winning gets you everything in this league.”
Rose isn’t doing it by himself. He’s had help.
Luol Deng is having arguably his best season. Joakim Noah was averaging 14.0 points and 11.7 rebounds before undergoing thumb surgery in mid-December, and Carlos Boozer (19.8 points, 10.2 rebounds), their big free-agent pickup, is delivering as expected.
The thing is, the Bulls are still something of a mystery. They’ve been short-handed for most of the year, with Boozer missing the first 15 games because of a broken bone in his right hand and Noah out until after the All-Star break, so it’s unclear just how good they can be. But it’s no secret what they have in Rose.
“I’m very impressed,” Pippen said. “I think that he’s just one of those players where you could tell – he’s put his work in.”
His scoring has climbed each season from 16.8 points per game as a rookie to 20.8 to 24.6 – seventh in the NBA through Thursday. He is contributing 8.2 assists, two above his career average entering this season, despite Boozer’s injury and the lack of a reliable threat at shooting guard.
Rose has become a solid shooter. His defense is better, too. And so are his all-around instincts.
As for the MVP?
Well, Kevin Durant might have something to say about that. The same goes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire.
Rose has something to say about that, too: “There’s no point in playing this game if you’re not trying to be the best.”
If he isn’t the best, he’s getting closer.
Rose was leading all point guards in scoring through Thursday, ahead of Russell Westbrook (22.4 ppg.) and Deron Williams (21.9), and was tops in blocked shots with 34. On the glass, he’s among the best at his position. Only Westbrook (5.1) and Jason Kidd (4.8) have higher rebounding averages than Rose (4.6).
He’s shooting 37.9 percent on 3-pointers after hitting just 24.2 percent through his first two seasons, and he already has as many double-digit assist games this year (13) as his first two combined.
His instincts are spot-on this season, too.
Whether he’s knocking one down from the outside, driving for one of those highlight-reel up-and-under layups or passing to a teammate, Rose is making the right reads.
“I don’t think he’s ever satisfied,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s driven to get better every day. You see his commitment, and I think you’re going to see him continue to get better because of the work that he puts in and his attitude and approach to the game.”
Thibodeau got his first look after he was hired in June. Rose was constantly at the practice facility, usually two or three times a day, when he wasn’t preparing for the world championships with the U.S. National Team.
When he was away, he made a point of checking in, asking about his teammates and what he should be doing. All the while, he was gaining invaluable experience. Particularly helpful was veteran guard Chauncey Billups.
“This is a guy who’s won a championship, been in a lot of playoff games, and I thought that would really help Derrick,” said Thibodeau, who saw some of the national team’s practices.
Rose called Billups “a cool guy.”
“No matter what the situation you’re in, he’s just making sure that you’re poised and doing the right thing, especially when you’re on the court with him,” he added.
At the moment, Rose is making the right moves, and it could pay off for him if his hometown Bulls keep winning.
“He can have a very lucrative career in endorsements,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting company Sports Corp. Ltd. “He could have blue chip sponsors that are with him for a decade of his career.”
At the moment, Rose has endorsement deals with adidas, 2K Sports, Skullcandy headphones, Powerade, Force Factor sports drinks and a suburban Chicago Nissan dealership, but he’s nowhere near his cap. The hometown angle, Ganis said, “becomes a nice five- or six-word sentence in a Chevy commercial, but it’s not why he gets the Chevy commercial.”
He needs deep playoff runs and maybe a bit of a demeanor makeover.
“He’s not viewed as an open, gregarious fellow,” Ganis said. “People have always underestimated the impact of Michael Jordan’s physical beauty to his marketability. This was a very attractive, stylish man who could grace the covers of Sports Illustrated and GQ in the same month. Never underestimate the importance of style, articulation and a perception of being open or accessible for an athlete’s upside. Michael had that in spades; Derrick does not seem to have that at the level of superstars that you might think. That doesn’t mean he won’t grow into it, but he doesn’t have it right now.”
His value on the court can’t be denied, though.
If he keeps this up, he just might see his uniform No. 1 hanging from the rafters. He might even get a statue at the arena, just like you know who.
“He’s not like myself,” Pippen said. “He’s not like Michael. He’s not like a Jerry (Sloan). He’s not like any player. He’s his own player. I think he will find his own place in history.”
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