Posted by Neil Paine on May 15, 2011
For the first time in three years, LeBron James did not give an acceptance speech at the Most Valuable Player's press conference. Now, as he faces his successor at the podium, Derrick Rose, in the Eastern Conference Finals, James is hoping his Heat can do exactly what the Magic and Celtics did to him -- prevent the reigning MVP from advancing to the NBA Finals.
In the NBA, the Most Valuable Player carrying his team to the brink of a title is the rule, not the exception. Since the league began handing out the hardware in 1956, the MVP's team has appeared in the championship round 28 times, good for a 51 percent rate. And during the NBA's halcyon era of Magic, Larry, and Michael, the clip was even higher: from 1983-2003, the MVP made a Finals appearance in 16 of 21 seasons, more than 75% of the time. In a world where current players are largely measured against those three names alone, it makes headlines when a reigning MVP fails to reach the league's grandest stage.
Perhaps this is why the drought of recent winners has been met with so much scorn. Since 2004, only one MVP (Kobe Bryant in 2008) has led his club to the Finals. The others -- Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and James -- flamed out in the Conference Finals (or in the cases of the latter two, earlier), provoking backlash from the Skip Bayless set and anyone else preoccupied with legacies or comparisons to long-retired legends. That it has been viewed as a blemish on James' otherwise staggering resume is undeniable.
Yet now he has a chance to inflict the same criticism on Rose, the youngest MVP in league history. It's strangely fitting, because their paths have run parallel ever since the Rose-for-MVP talk rose from a whisper at the lunatic fringe of Bulls fandom to a din heard across the entire country. In the wake of 'The Decision', the media tried to talk itself into casting Kevin Durant as James' foil, but Rose out-Duranted everyone, ranging from his own sharp improvement to the Bulls' unexpected #1 seed and the endearingly humble manner in which he carried himself (culminating in a truly beautiful moment at his MVP presser). In the minds of many, he embodied the yin to James' preening yang.
For these reasons, the media will doubtless go easier on Rose than they did James, should the Bulls' season end early. And by the same token, the fact that James felt he needed two other big names, one of whom is nearly his equal in the universe of NBA megastars, to reach the Finals again will continue to dog him if the Heat prevail. But even if his legacy cannot be fully repaired through victory, it's clear that in a twist of fate, the only way James can gain some measure of redemption for his "incomplete" MVPs of 2009 and 2010 is to stamp Rose's 2011 award with the same stigma.