The Whiteboard: Ja Morant is putting off Derrick Rose MVP vibes

Memphis Grizzlies, The Whiteboard

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There is no hotter team in the NBA right now than the Memphis Grizzlies, who knocked off the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night to stretch their league-best win streak to 10. And with 29 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in last night’s win, Ja Morant has begun to play his way into the MVP conversation.

Basketball-Reference’s MVP projection model, which incoporates box score stats and team record, currently has him ranked 10th with a 3.1 percent chance of winning. But his resume bears a striking resemblance to a former MVP and examining history could reveal a pathway for Morant to end up at the top of the mountain.

Ja Morant’s MVP resume looks a lot like Derrick Rose in 2010-11

Derrick Rose’s MVP win for the 2010-11 season was controversial at the time but looks even worse considering the way injuries ravaged his career immediately after — a perspective that isn’t necessarily fair to Rose.

Rose won the MVP that year in a landslide, taking 113 of 121 first place votes. There was significant support, on the internet at least, for Dwight Howard (22.9 points, 14.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.4 blocks per game for the 52-win Orlando Magic) and LeBron James (26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.6 steals per game for the 58-win Miami Heat). But Howard’s excellence could be recognized with the Defensive Player of the Year Award, which he won with 98 percent of the first place votes, and there seemed to be a negative bias towards LeBron in his first season with the Heat.

Rose averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game that season. The NBA world wasn’t as savvy about scoring efficiency at that point, and he wasn’t really dinged for his ho-hum 55.0 true shooting percentage. The narrative of being the best player on the best team (the 62-win Bulls) was enough to secure him the MVP.

Morant’s individual numbers this season are almost indentical to Rose’s. He’s averaging 24.9 points, 6.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, although he’s doing it in roughly five fewer minutes per game than Rose. He’s also much, much more efficient. In his MVP season, Rose posted 44.5/33.2/85.8 shooting splits for a 55.0 true shooting percentage. Morant’s splits this year — 48.9/37.9/76.7 — work out to a 57.5 true shooting percentage.

On a per minute basis and with a focus on efficiency, Morant’s numbers are similar but more impressive. But Rose didn’t win MVP just on the strength of his box score stats — his case was bolstered by his team’s record and there were powerful reasons to discount the resumes of some of his primary competition.

Of the nine players listed above Morant in Basketball-Reference’s MVP projection model, at least a handful have narratives that may depress their votes. Kevin Durant and James Harden are could split the Brooklyn vote and there’s a decent chance (42.8 percent, per Basketball-Reference) they don’t even finish with a top four seed in the East. The Suns are likely to finish with one of the best records in the league but Chris Paul and Devin Booker may similarily split votes. Ditto for Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in Utah.

LeBron James has been typically phenomenonal but the Lakers are struggling to stay above .500. Nikola Jokic has been even better than last year but the Nuggets are also barely above .500 and probably won’t finish with a top-four seed. Steph Curry, who can make a claim as the best player on the best team in the league, is shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc and is on track for the worst shooting season of his career. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the leader in Basketball-Reference’s model but he’s already won two MVP awards in the last three years and there could be some significant voter fatigue.

That leaves Morant and DeMar DeRozan. Comparing their individual statistics we find Morant with a bit more well-rounded contributions, with DeRozan scoring a bit more and a bit more efficiently. But while the Bulls are likely to finish with the best record in their conference, the Grizzlies are actually projected to finish with a better record, by both Basketball-Reference and 538.

And the Grizzlies’ actual record is a bit depressed by their slow start. Over their last 15 games, their 12-3 and rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If they were to continue to climb the Western Conference standings, passing at least one of the Suns, Warriors or Jazz, it would make Morant’s case infinitely stronger. Basketball-Reference’s model gives them a 35.6 percent chance of finishing with a top-three seed in the West, a scenario that would almost certainly have them finishing with a better record than anyone in the Eastern Conference.

Roll all those narratives and metrics together and you could plausibly make Morant the frontrunner. He would have the requisite stats to get himself into the conversation and with a better team record than anyone in the Eastern Conference. One could argue he carries more primacy than anyone on the Suns or Jazz and had been more consistent than Curry over the course of the season. And then there would be the bonus of doing all of this with a roster with a minutes-weighted average age of just 24.1, making them one of the best young teams in NBA history.

It took a lot of stars aligning for Derrick Rose to win an MVP at the age of 22 in just his third season. But look up and you can see how the same thing could happen for Ja Morant.

Other NBA stories:

As the Bulls and Nets prepare to face-off for the third time this season, take a look back at how different paths this offseason set up their battle atop the Eastern Conference standings.

Scottie Barnes was a gamble for the Toronto Raptors but it looks like they hit the jackpot.

A slew of unlikely candidates can make strong All-Star cases this year. Jarrett Allen’s might be the strongest.

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