Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!
(That third exclamation point was not necessary)
Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.
This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.
7 Years, 4 quality, 3 All-Stars … 1 Top Ten MVP Finish (’11), 1-time All-NBA (’11), ’09 Rookie of the Year, ’11 NBA MVP … 4-Year Playoff Peak (’09-’12): 25-5-7, 43% FG, 83% FT (29 Games) … ’11 Regular Season: 25-4-8, 45% FG, 33% 3PT, 86% FT (81 Games) … Missed entire ’12-’13 season, plus 119 Games since ’13-’14 season
Overall Averages: 19.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 35.0 minutes, 44% FG, 17.0 FGA, 30% 3PT, 2.9 3PA, 81% FT, 4.4 FTA, 406 Games Played
3-Year Regular Season Peak: 22.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 36.7 minutes, 46% FG, 18.5 FGA, 32% 3PT, 3.1 3PA, 82% FT, 5.7 FTA, 198 Games Played
I know I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but the selection process for this countdown was not the least bit easy. It wasn’t easy determining just how successful or memorable or transcendent a players career was in comparison to someone else’s, especially when those two careers are not remotely similar. Many guys on this list have a prolonged period of excellence (or at least relevance) that I could look at and do my best to evaluate and apply the criteria I created to. Some players, like Derrick Rose, don’t have such a vast body of work to examine and that complicates things a great deal.
It’s even trickier when circumstances like Rose’s come into play; an injury robbed Rose of a career that would have been far more significant and successful than the one we know as reality. He didn’t suddenly fall off or stop improving for reasons that were unclear. He didn’t become a shitty teammate or stop caring because he got paid. He didn’t lose a step out of nowhere. He tore up his knee and was never the same afterward. Again, that sucks … it sucks that just five years removed from an MVP season Derrick Rose is a punchline more than anything else, but it’s the reality of the situation.
I realized pretty quickly that examining the career of Derrick Rose would essentially be reconsidering everything I thought about his 2010-11 MVP season since it’s hard to call Rose’s first two seasons “prime” seasons since he was clearly still on the upswing during his 3rd season, his MVP season. Rose was Rookie of the Year and an instant classic Round 1 Playoff series against the Celtics in 2009 served as a nice showcase for the young point guard. He was even better the following season and earned himself his first All-Star appearance. And then in year three Rose was the league’s MVP just like that. It would be a lie to say it was expected that Rose would make that massive leap from year two to year three. Heading into the season Rose had the 8th best Vegas odds to win MVP. You could hardly say that people were expecting it to happen. It would be like if Karl-Anthony Towns won MVP this year (oh shit, my pick for MVP this year is Karl-Anthony Towns, so maybe I’m not making the strongest point here).
Rose missed nearly half of the strike shortened season in 2011-12 and then had his postseason cut short and his entire career altered when he tore his ACL in the final minutes of an already locked up Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1 of the Playoffs. There ends the story of the version of Derrick Rose that fans will hopefully remember many years from now when Rose is no longer in the league.
It’s not easy for me to judge Derrick Rose’s career in this capacity since one of my long-running hot takes has been that Rose, while a terrific player and breath-taking to watch, was in fact overrated. It’s easy to say that now, when Rose is a shell of himself, but I was saying it at the time. I didn’t think he should have won MVP in 2011 (my non-existent vote that year was for Dwight Howard, and I’ve heard the whole, “The numbers favored Dwight but the eye-test favored Rose” counter-argument … everyone needs to stop acting like Dwight wasn’t a force of nature and at the peak of his two-way powers), and I also continuously argued that if you swapped him for Russell Westbrook that neither the Thunder or Bulls would be all that different (remember, this was coming off a FIBA tournament where Westbrook was better than Rose, and all of the “Westbrook takes too many shots away from Durant” noise was just beginning … to me it made sense that if you switched Westbrook and Rose not much would change).
Five years later do I still believe Dwight was better than Derrick Rose in 2011? Yes, to this day I still feel like Dwight should have won the MVP. Is it problematic that he didn’t win it? No, not at all. Should Dwight have probably gotten more than three first place votes? I think so. Would I be mad if anyone insisted that Rose was the rightful winner? Not really … Rose was truly special that season (we’ll get into this momentarily) and the Bulls had the best record in the NBA. It made sense that Rose won.
Do I still believe a Westbrook for Rose swap would have changed nothing? Well, knowing what we know now about Rose’s inability to stay healthy, it’s hard to say nothing would have changed. Did I slightly overrate Westbrook at the time? Absolutely. Did I foresee him becoming the destroyer of worlds that he is today? Not exactly, but I think I was buying more Westbrook stock in 2011 than others were. Would the Bulls have went to an NBA Finals if they did, for whatever reason, swap Rose for Westbrook immediately following the 2011 postseason? I’d say their chances would have been better, but that’s unfair because if Rose never tore his ACL in 2012 it’s really hard to imagine that Chicago wouldn’t have made a Finals in the past five years (though, to my credit, before the 2012 postseason began I picked Boston to upset Chicago in Round 2 and make the Eastern Conference Finals).
Where does that leave me? Right back at square one, trying to find proper perspective on the career of Derrick Rose, which is basically saying “I need to figure out just how good Derrick Rose was at his peak.” So that’s exactly what I did, and the following notes are all of the things I thought were important to remember when justifying why a guy whose “peak” didn’t even last 200 games and whose post-peak career has been unspectacular, should be included in the top 30 of a list that is made up of the best basketball players of the 21st Century to date.
-It would have seemed odd to leave the youngest MVP in NBA history out of the top thirty. The other ten guys to win an MVP in the 21st Century (Shaq, Iverson, Duncan, Garnett, Nash, Nowitzki, Kobe, LeBron, Durant, and Curry) are, SPOILER ALERT, ten of the top twelve guys on this list.
-Rose and Wes Unseld are the only two players to ever win the league MVP without receiving a single MVP vote prior to the year they won it. It would have been impossible for Unseld to receive any MVP votes before he won the award since he won both MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.
-There’s something to be said of the fact that MVP voters and fans alike were so attracted to Rose in 2010-11. It obviously had something to do with his play, and I promise, I’m inching closer to talking about his on-court production, but there were plenty of other candidates who posted MVP-worthy seasons and came with narratives that were just as interesting, if not more interesting than Rose’s. Remember, in 2011 the other MVP candidates were Dwight (coming off of his best two-way season ever), LeBron (coming off “The Decision” and a B+ first year with Miami), Kobe (in search of a third straight ring and a second MVP), and Durant (coming off of an annihilation of the rest of the world in the FIBA World Championship the previous Summer). The league wasn’t in desperate need of a fresh face at the top of the sport.
Were voters possibly tired of Kobe and penalizing LeBron for leaving Cleveland in such controversial fashion? Was Dwight too boring to win MVP? Did it turn voters off that Durant’s scoring numbers dipped from the previous season? I suppose you could argue that Rose benefit from all of those things, but then we’re forgetting to acknowledge how great Rose was.
-And there’s no way to argue that he wasn’t great. He was the best player on the team with the best record in the league for two straight seasons, and in those two seasons the Bulls were hardly the juggernaut they were when he was on the floor when Rose was either on the bench or not playing because of an injury.
It’s easy to say that prime Rose was similar to any other dynamically athletic shoot-first lead guard, but Rose had a style that allows him to stand alone from other guys. There was something different about the way Rose, 6’2″, would elevate so quickly off the ground, cock the ball back behind his head even more quickly, and jam it home even quicker than that over any defender who got in his way. He didn’t discriminate. He ruined the nights of countless rim protectors who came in all shapes and sizes.
Rose was obviously at his best when he was attacking the basket. He put his body on the line without second thought and was able to finish over size and from all sorts of impossible angles in the paint. But what made Rose such a load to handle when he was at his best was a deadly mid-range jumper. During his MVP year Rose was among the most accurate mid-range shooters in the NBA. In fact, nobody hit a higher percentage of mid-range jumpers than Derrick Rose in 2010-11. It hurt him that he never developed a consistent three-pointer (30% for his career), but when he had his legs it didn’t matter how much space defenses gave him or how badly they dared him to shoot threes; Rose was quick, explosive and slithery enough to get to his sweet spots even if all five defenders were doing whatever they could to disallow him from doing so.
Rose had a knack for the moment and showed up to compete every single game. It’s morbid to think this way, but it’s not terribly surprising that he eventually broke down. The way Rose would cut so hard and explode off the ground with such force and give his body each and every game definitely cut into his prime. If a young Derrick Rose would have been able to find a gear right below the one he was seemingly always playing at then maybe his knees would have held up. Years later it’s both a blessing and a curse. Even though he isn’t that guy anymore, we’ll remember him fondly because he was once willing to lay it all on the line every time he stepped on the floor.
That’s why today it doesn’t matter as much that at the time we probably gave Rose too much credit for Chicago’s ascendance to the top of the league (meanwhile, we forget that the Bulls upgraded from Vinny Del Negro to Tom Thibodeau and signed Carlos Boozer in free agency), and didn’t criticize him enough for being so incapable of responding to the challenge LeBron James laid out in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals (before LeBron melted down in the NBA Finals, he swallowed Derrick Rose whole for five games in the Conference Finals). It doesn’t matter because very briefly, Rose set the NBA on fire and became the one of the league’s best and most notable stars at a time when the NBA was on the verge of seeing an influx of young stars.