The Difference Between LeBron James and Derrick RoseFive inches and 50-70 pounds--that is the short answer to the question, "What is the difference between LeBron James and Derrick Rose?" Their skill sets are very similar: they are both explosively quick, they are both great leapers, they are both great finishers, they are both great passers, they are both good rebounders for their positions, they are both players who opposing defenses would much prefer to see shooting jumpers than driving into the lane. James is a better defender than Rose but Rose is improving at that end of the court, much like James made strides defensively during the early stages of his career. However, if one does a "scouting report" regarding each player there is no way around the fact that, as one of my article titles declared two years ago, Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA. James is at least five inches taller than Rose (they are officially listed at 6-8 and 6-3 respectively) and James is significantly heavier than Rose (they are officially listed at 250 pounds and 190 pounds respectively but I suspect that James weighs at least 260 pounds while Rose weighs at least 200 pounds).
Rose's Chicago Bulls have been a gritty opponent for the James' Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals but the series likely swung decisively in Miami's favor during the fourth quarter and overtime of game four, which the Heat won 101-93 to take a 3-1 series lead. James finished with 35 points, six rebounds, six assists, three blocked shots and two steals but those numbers do not tell the real story (though his 11-26 field goal shooting certainly suggests that the narrative about James' supposedly improved jumper is yet another fairy tale created by the media); the real story is that down the stretch of a closely contested and vitally important game James completely dominated the action at both ends of the court: James had 13 of his points in the game's final 17 minutes (perhaps closing the case that Dwyane Wade is/should be the Heat's "closer") but, just as significantly, James smothered Derrick Rose on defense and thus essentially shut down Chicago's entire offensive flow. It is possible to debate the skill set merits of James versus Rose but James' extra inches and pounds makes that debate irrelevant: watching Rose try to evade James' defense was like watching someone's little brother get his shot swatted by his big brother: Rose cannot get around James nor can he shoot over him. In less than 20 minutes, we witnessed a savage and brutal refutation of the idea that Rose is a better and/or more valuable player than James. I do not believe in overemphasizing what happens in a small sample size--but unless Rose figures out how to grow significantly (or how to shrink James) he is not going to be a better player than James any time soon. People can say all they want about a supposedly new wave NBA that is a point guard dominated league but the last small (i.e., 6-3 or under) point guard who was clearly the best player on a championship team was Isiah Thomas in 1989 and 1990 (Tony Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP, but Tim Duncan was the best player on that San Antonio team, while Chauncey Billups won the 2004 Finals MVP as "first among equals" for a Detroit team that had several solid All-Stars but not one truly elite player); NBA championship teams are almost always led by dominant big men and/or elite, all-around wing players who are at least 6-6.
James should have won the 2010-11 regular season MVP but the media members who vote for that award chose Derrick Rose, placed Dwight Howard second and bumped James down to third. Perhaps the voters did not want to give the MVP to the same player again (the "Michael Jordan Effect," also known as the reason that Charles Barkley won the 1993 MVP and the reason that Karl Malone won the 1997 MVP), perhaps James' infamous "Decision" rubbed them the wrong way or perhaps they underestimated the Bulls so severely prior to the season that they assumed that Rose must be the best player in the league if he could lead Chicago to the best record (which is how Steve Nash won his two MVPs).
I have been very critical James for quitting versus Boston during the 2010 playoffs and for turning his free agency process into such a narcissistic extravaganza but I have never wavered in my stance that he remains the best regular season player in the NBA--and I only questioned his status as a playoff performer because of how indifferently he played against Boston and because his erratic jump shot is a weakness that elite defensive teams can exploit. This year, James has been very energized and active throughout the playoffs and he has yet to run into a team that has successfully exploited his erratic outside shooting; one by one, the potential challengers to the Heat have fallen by the wayside: the Magic took themselves out of contention in December with two ill-advised trades, the Spurs dropped out in the first round, the Lakers departed in the second round and the Heat vanquished the aging Celtics in the second round. The Bulls have a solid defensive game plan but they have killed themselves with their offensive ineptitude--bad shots and turnovers have fueled Miami's transition game and thus made it less important for James or Wade to consistently hit midrange jumpers in a half court set.
If Miami plays Dallas in the NBA Finals, the media is going to focus on the rematch of the 2006 Dwyane Wade-Dirk Nowitzki showdown but the series will almost certainly be decided by the performance of the league's best player--LeBron James. I say this not as a fan of James, but as an objective observer; as a fan--not of a particular team but rather of the sport in general--I much prefer Rose's basketball values and character to James': after James quit during last season's playoffs, he brushed aside questions about his obvious lack of effort by saying that his greatness had "spoiled" Cleveland fans and then this season he offered a halfhearted apology for the "Decision" but insisted that he had to leave Cleveland because he could not win a championship "by himself"--as if he had been playing one on five and as if we are all supposed to forget that he is the one who quit when the Boston series was up for grabs. In contrast, when the Bulls lose Rose always says that it is his fault and that he must play better; Jeff Van Gundy recently observed that Rose and Kevin Durant seem to be focused on winning, not on "building their brands." Van Gundy did not mention James by name but it seems obvious that he was thinking of James (back in December, a veteran NBA scout told me that the difference between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is that James is focused on "his brand" while Bryant is focused on winning championships). As a true fan of the sport, I can identify with competitors like Bryant, Rose and Durant much more than with a "brand-builder" like James--but as an objective analyst I realize that James is a great player at the height of his powers and that if James continues to be focused at both ends of the court then his team will be very difficult to beat.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM