Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 50 points against the Pacers on Tuesday night, making 17 of 21 shots. That kind of thing can happen when you are 6-11, have a wingspan of 7-4, can jump 40 inches from a standing position and are ridiculously talented. The Bucks star leads the NBA in scoring at 29.4 points a game.
This might seem like an odd time to make a case for the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan as league most valuable player.
But here I am, head down, shoulder into a gale of conventional wisdom that howls, Any guy who shoots midrange jumpers can’t be the MVP!
Let’s start with what the award is. It obviously should go to the best player in the NBA. But when voters look at MVP contenders, they look at additional factors, including winning. A romance novel lacks real meaning. So does putting up 40 points a night for the Pistons. DeRozan is fourth in the league in scoring (27.9) and plays for a team that, as of Wednesday afternoon, was tied for the Eastern Conference lead with a 37-21 record.
So he meets the MVP criteria. But it’s other things, the slightly more subtle stuff, that make him the most attractive candidate at this point in the season. One is his aforementioned midrange game, which is looked upon as hopelessly out of touch. Stats geeks see the midrange jumper as a negative, but fans of the concept that it takes all types see it as a positive. The NBA has devolved into an exercise in three-pointers and dunks. The 15-foot jump shot is considered a three with self-esteem issues and a good way to get your team beat. Why would anyone take a shot worth two points when there’s one behind the line that’s worth three?
Because when DeRozan takes it, it’s a good shot. It’s a good shot because the Bulls are winning. A lot. If he’s the exception to the analytical rule, fine. But it’s one of the things that makes him so compelling as an MVP candidate. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Kings, he had seven straight games with at least 30 points, including a 40-point effort against the Spurs on Monday. He took one three-pointer in that game, missed it and nobody died.
His game has a higher degree of difficulty than those of players who camp out behind the arc and wait for a pass. He has to work harder for his shot off the dribble.
Antetokounmpo had seven dunks in his 50-point game the other night. That’s incredible. Having the ability to do that is also an incredible advantage. Don’t get me wrong: He should be celebrated for that — and he is, almost nightly, in every highlight show. But maybe DeRozan should be celebrated a bit more for playing the game unconventionally.
The Greek Freak is fifth in the NBA in dunks with 120. DeRozan is 111th with 21.
He has taken the MVP road less traveled, and it’s very cool watching him amble along. It’s as if he’s playing in the 1980s while everyone around him is busy doing 2022 things. He’s a walking, shooting anachronism.
His effect on the Bulls this season makes him an even more attractive candidate. His arrival helped transform a franchise still looking for itself into one with good reason to believe that lots of good things are ahead. After 58 games last season, the Bulls were 24-34. Granted, it was a weird, COVID-darkened season. But the best way to explain a 13-victory swing from one season to the next is to point to the August sign-and-trade that brought DeRozan from the Spurs to the Bulls.
Nothing seems to bother the guy. Injuries to teammates Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine? No problem. Just give him the ball. Need a last-second shot? Again, the ball, please. DeRozan hit back-to-back game-winning threes at the buzzer earlier this season. He’s second in the league in clutch scoring, which the NBA defines as points racked up when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
The Bulls’ turnaround has made them one of the best stories of the season. And in some ways, that’s what the MVP award is about: good stories. The Greek Freak already has won the award twice (2019 and 2020). Voters are like the rest of us restless consumers. They get bored with the same story. Perhaps they’re looking for something fresh.
Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, LeBron James and Steph Curry, among others, are in the running for MVP. We hear about them, season after season.
But how about DeRozan’s season? Now that’s a story.