By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Pro basketball is anything but fluky. It is, in fact, in many ways the most certain of our major sports.
We know as each year begins which teams can win the title, almost always because they have one or more of the very best players. Best-of-seven series reduce the chances for upsets, and teams with an all-time great player can keep giving that guy the ball.
There’s no batting order that gives everyone a turn, no new pitcher the next day, no funny bounce from a puck on a slippery surface when one score can mean everything and no one-and-done. As noted philosopher Rasheed Wallace observed, “Ball don’t lie.”
So it has always been with NBA Most Valuable Players, with no outliers ever claiming the honor with some unlikely season. Of the eligible 22 winners of the award since it was first given out in 1956, every one of them is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, with the recent announcement that Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal would be part of the next group inducted.
There’s no Ken Caminiti, Jeff Burroughs or Dick Groat on that list, is the point. There’s not even the equivalent of Rich Gannon or Shaun Alexander or even Jose Theodore. It’s a collection of unquestionable historic greats.
So let’s look closer at the nine remaining players who have been the NBA MVP, all but one of whom are still active. One of these, you will see, isn’t like the others.
Tim Duncan was next after Iverson, and he just became the third ever NBA player to notch 1,000 regular season wins, joining Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He has five titles and is a 15-time All-Star. Kevin Garnett has also been named to 15 All-Star teams.
Then come the consecutive awards for Steve Nash, an eight-time All-Star whose 10,335 assists rank third in the history of the league, behind only those of John Stockton and Jason Kidd. In 2007, it was Dirk Nowitzki, he of the 13 All-Star appearances and 29,408 points that place him just behind Wilt Chamberlain. The next winner was Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s third all-time scoring leader, 18-time All-Star and 10-time member of the All-NBA first team.
LeBron James won the first of his four MVPs the year after that.
Derrick Rose won his in 2011.
Then it was two more for James before Kevin Durant got his in 2014. Durant this year could be the first to average 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists or more for a season since Michael Jordan did it in 1988-’89 and at age 27, he has already made seven All-Star teams, five all-NBA first teams and has an Olympic gold medal.
Last year’s winner and one of this year’s top contenders is Stephen Curry, who has obliterated 3-point shooting records and is widely believed to be the best pure shooter to ever walk the planet. A three-time All-Star, Curry’s college career is also applicable for his Hall of Fame consideration, so it matters that he played three seasons at Davidson, averaging 25.3 points per game and twice being named an All-American.
So unless something miraculous happens for Rose, he could end up with the dubious distinction of being the first and only NBA MVP not enshrined.
At 22 years and 6 months, he was the youngest MVP, but the ensuing years haven’t been kind to his Hall of Fame candidacy. Marred by multiple major injuries and inconsistent play, his scoring average since winning has been only 18 points per game, shooting at a percentage of .418. What’s more, his one year of college play was less than otherworldly – he averaged 14.9 points per game in leading Memphis to a loss in the title game in 2008.
An influx of athletic lead guards to a rapidly evolving pro game has also changed the context in which we view what once seemed to make Rose special, and that will alter the way his body of work is ultimately viewed.
It’s not impossible for Rose to find a mid-career renaissance that once again places him on a trajectory alongside the game’s greats, and simply playing long enough would help him accrue some of the counting stats that burnish his credentials and perhaps allow him to participate on a real title contender somewhere.
But the player that we see and hear right now appears on pace for a more unfortunate recognition.