Derrick Rose will win MVP. There are better choices.

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Stan Van Gundy is right — Derrick Rose is going to win the MVP award this year. He has everybody including Michael Jordan’s endorsement. Influential media members are lining up behind him.

The question is: Does he deserve it? Or, more accurately, do others deserve it more?

You can make a good argument for Rose — he is the team leader and best player on the Chicago Bulls, the team that right now is (and very possibly at the end of the season will be) the top seed in the East. His ability to get to the rim and finish — through at times impossibly small spaces — is the best in the league. He carries the Bulls offense averaging 24.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. And where would the Bulls be without him?

But the argument against Rose — and really for others — goes like this: What makes Chicago great is their defense, and Rose is not an integral part of that (the Bulls defense gets better when Rose goes off and C.J. Watson comes on). Rose is integral to their offense, but the Bulls offense is 13th in the league (in points per possession). It’s average, it’s not efficient. Rose averages 24.9 points per game but he has to take 20.2 shots per game to get there.

Basically, this is the 2001 Allen Iverson wins MVP scenario all over again, argues Neil Paine over at Basketball-Reference.

All told, Rose and Iverson’s MVP campaigns are almost eerily similar. Each player was worth approximately 6-7 points of on-court offensive rating above average for a middling offensive team, and each was essentially an average defender on a very strong defensive squad. Each man’s role was to carry the offense (almost single-handedly — with apologies to Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, & Aaron McKie) and let his surrounding role players handle their defensive duties.

Iverson’s 2001 Sixers team made the NBA finals. Bulls fans would welcome a similar outcome.

The guy who will come in second in the MVP balloting this season is Dwight Howard, but statistics and Stan Van Gundy say he is more deserving. (To be up front, if I had a vote this would be my guy.) He is averaging 23.1 points and 14.2 rebounds a game shooting 60 percent (Rose is 44 percent), but he is also the primary reason the Magic are an elite defensive team. He is integral to everything the Magic do. Where are the Magic without Howard?

But the Magic will be the four seed, the Bulls will be the one seed. That influences people. So does the fact that Rose makes plays with real flair and style, much more so than Howard. Much like Iverson used to.

But if you’re going to consider Rose the MVP, then you also have to consider Russell Westbrook, since they have about the same stats and impact on the game, argues Tom Ziller at SB Nation.

The basic per-game statistics for Rose and Westbrook are seriously similar. Rose averages 24.9 points and 7.8 assists per game; Westbrook is at 22.2 and 8.3. Each shoots 44 percent from the floor and a touch below average — 34 percent for Rose, 33 percent for Westbrook — from long-range. Westbrook draws almost eight free throws a game and shoots them quite well; Rose draws seven FTs on average, and shoots them quite well. Westbrook averages 4.6 rebounds per game; Rose, 4.2. Westbrook gives up 3.9 turnovers, Rose 3.4. Just under two steals for Westbrook, just more than one for Rose.

Use advanced metrics and the same numbers play out, maybe Rose is a little better than Westbrook but not much. And if so, why is Rose the runaway winner and Westbrook not even considered? Ziller’s argument is that Rose is the MVP because he has a good narrative — we like the resurgence of the Bulls (we really do), we like that he has stepped up to be the leader on that team and improved his game. We like what he and the Bulls symbolize — hard work and defense — in a season that was supposed to be about the Miami Heat and their egos, about Carmelo Anthony and his trade demands.

But is that what MVP should be about, Ziller asks?

If you’re handing your support to Rose without considering Westbrook and the others strongly, know that you’re not awarding the Most Valuable Player trophy, you’re awarding a kindergarten gold star for a totally awesome story or the Man Booker prize or something. Awarding MVP trophies based on warm fuzzies should be reserved for youth soccer, not the highest levels of sport.

LeBron James is the two-time defending MVP and is putting up monster numbers again. Dirk Nowitzki gets overlooked but he is having a huge year and the Mavericks are in the thick of things in the West. Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant can and should be in the discussion.

And that’s my issue — that this discussion seems over. Rose is the guy. When he wins it will not be some great travesty of justice — he has had a good season on a very good team. But there are better choices to be considered.

James Harden is playing with a bruised right knee

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James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets are on a 13-game winning streak. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. But it’s not all rosy in Space City.

Harden suffered a bruised right knee against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, and almost had to sit out the Rockets’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters after the win over the Bucks, Harden said that he was in some pain but a doctor told him he would be able to play and that he would not make the condition worse.

Via ESPN:

“I wasn’t feeling well at all, but the doc came in and just told me that there’s going to be pain for a bit, but you can play through it,” Harden said. “It can’t get worse, but it’s going to be pretty painful until obviously you give it some time. Once he said that, I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

“I wasn’t moving like I usually move, but we won,” said Harden.

If Harden wasn’t feeling well, it sure didn’t show. He had 31 points, although on 8-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee. Chris Paul chipped in with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

It doesn’t sound like Harden will be missing a game any time soon, which is par for the course for him. He’s played in a minimum of 89 percent of his team’s regular season games since entering the league in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are blasting their way into 2018. They play the Warriors next on January 4.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: ‘It would mean a lot’

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).