The price of the Bulls' success

Just over a year ago, my colleague John Hollinger wrote a piece making the statistical argument that Derrick Rose should not be the league's MVP. (Insiders can still read it here.) Needless to say, he ticked off a lot of Bulls fans who celebrated Chicago's best-in-the-league record (the Bulls finished a game better than San Antonio last season) and Rose's coronation as the NBA Most Valuable Player two months later. Some argued with Hollinger during one of his chats, and that chat ended up on other blogs, such as SB Nation.

This year, Rose has missed more than a third of the season because of injury, and the Bulls again have the best record in the league. So I wonder if those irritated fans are having any second thoughts yet.

A handful of things to note here as the 2011-12 regular season winds down. I believe Chicago's Tom Thibodeau deserves to repeat as NBA Coach of the Year. As far as I'm concerned, the Bulls' Luol Deng earned his selection as an All-Star Game reserve this season. But -- and here comes the uncomfortable part -- Chicago is still a championship contender, and if the Bulls haven't missed much of a beat without Rose for much of this year, it's worth revisiting whether Rose truly was the most valuable player last year. In other words, if an MVP player is someone a team can't do without, why is Chicago still so darn good?

Obviously, the Bulls would rather have him. But they haven't been hurting the way a team minus the most valuable player in the league for a good chunk of the season should be hurting. In fact, in some ways, they've been thriving while he's been on the bench. The fact that the team is 15-7 without him, including a current 8-3 stretch, can't be ignored. Some of those Rose-less wins are over Miami and a resurgent Boston squad. Chicago's .768 winning percentage this season is actually better than the .756 it posted last season.

Still not convinced?

Well, the scoring differential is better (from 7.3 last season to 8.0 thus far this year) and the Bulls' defensive rating -- the estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions -- is better (from 100.3 to 99.3).

Then there's this point from Hollinger: As of the end of March last season, which is when his story appeared, the Bulls were losing just 1.49 points of offense per 100 possessions when Rose wasn't playing. But they were still outscoring their opponents by 6.78 points per 100 possessions, and that translates to a 55-win team.

Conversely, look at the impact the previous three MVPs had on their teams through March of last year. The Heat were 10.49 points per 100 possessions worse without LeBron James, the Lakers were 6.20 worse without Kobe Bryant and the Mavs were 16.68 points worse without Dirk Nowitzki. The Phoenix Suns are sub-.400 without two-time MVP Steve Nash since the 2004-05 season.

In other words, when previous MVPs were not playing, their teams suffered. The Bulls have been without Rose for 22 of their 56 games so far and have the best record in the league.

Doesn't that give you pause?

And by "pause" I don't mean to suggest that anyone should reconsider their conviction that Rose is among the best players in the league, or that the Bulls are better off without him on the floor. I know there are things a player such as Rose does that stats don't reveal and the TV cameras don't catch, like instill confidence in his teammates or make sacrifices that help a team win. But I am saying that maybe Hollinger was right when he suggested that fans got caught up in last year's fantastic storyline about a team from which no one expected great things. The Bulls exceeded our expectations, and that perhaps skewed our estimation of Rose's impact. Maybe because of that storyline, we didn't give the other MVP candidates in the league a fair look -- Dwight Howard, for example, who was second in the league in player efficiency rating (PER).

The reason Cleveland had the No. 1 pick in last year's draft was that LeBron had left the Cavaliers. The reason Miami is among the favorites to win it all this year is because Lebron is there. He and Dwyane Wade are Nos. 1 and 2 in PER this season, but the Heat are 9-1 when Wade sits and Lebron plays. A big part of the reason is that James' scoring goes up five points per game and he averages one more assist per game when Wade isn't available. The Heat's point differential without Wade is more than five points higher than it is with him.

Maybe Miami wins those games whether James plays or not.

Maybe. But no other player on Miami's roster is in the top 30 in PER.

In any case, Chicago is finding ways to win a lot of games without Rose. Just look at the standings.