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Derrick Rose and the Limits of Efficiency

Bob Stanton/USA TODAY Sports

I used to think Kobe fans were completely crazy. To be clear, they are crazy, but thanks to a January night in the Bay Area, I now understand part of where they’re coming from.

The Bulls were in town attempting to hand the juggernaut Warriors just their second loss at Oracle on the season. As if that wasn’t hard enough, Chicago would be without both starting wings, as Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy were only suiting up in the Barney Stinson sense. Though Andrew Bogut sat out for Golden State, Kirk Hinrich was pressed into 38 minutes of duty (Tom Thibodeau didn’t exactly have to be coerced into giving extra minutes to Captain Grit), so the chips were stacked against the Bulls.

If this game doesn’t ring a bell, it was known for two things:

1. Derrick Rose’s stats, with a box score only Swaggy P could love: 13-33 from the floor, with 11 turnovers juxtaposed against a single assist.

2. Derrick Rose doing this:

For the first time, I found myself agreeing with the Kobe stans, who would frequently argue that his deflated shooting percentages, either in one game or over his whole career, didn’t tell the whole story, and that his desire to have the ball in crunch time and be unafraid to fail is a huge element that analytics can’t really capture.

The next day was replete with all sorts of hot-takery, even from esteemed members of Basketball Twitter. Casual fans argued Rose’s ineffiency was irrelevant because they won the game (a close cousin of the infamous RINGZ argument), while bloggers who cover the league sighed at yet another chucker getting credit for hitting a shot his team only needed because he had wasted so many possessions prior. Regardless of which side the opinions fell on, most missed the point.

It wasn’t just them, though. As efficiency has gradually embedded itself as the ideal way to play not just basketball, but just sports in general, a key distinction has been neglected: that it is merely that, an ideal.

Perhaps the best way to elaborate on that is turn to another sport. In baseball, Reds superstar Joey Votto came under fire in recent years for taking too many walks. Old school writers felt that a team’s slugger isn’t paid to take pitches, he’s paid to club the ball into the bleachers. Meanwhile, the saber crowd’s stance is that generally any plate appearance that doesn’t result in an out is a good one because if a team doesn’t commit outs, the inning never ends.

Again, each side was too extreme. Despite the “back in my day” crew failing to understand the value of walks, the occasional circumstance could arise where driving in a critical run is more likely to happen if the slugger looks to drive a ball into the gap rather than take his base and leave the task to a lesser hitter behind him. The optimal ways to play in each sport are considered as such because they lead to winning, and on the rare occasion that they might not, the evaluation of such performances needs to adapt as well.

Much like LeBron James in this year’s Finals, Rose’s contributions could not be fully articulated by the box score. Chicago had no spacing (did I mention Kirk Hinrich played 38 minutes?) and he was their only credible shot creator. His line would’ve been more efficient had he attacked less and perhaps ceded a few more post-ups to Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, but that’s where one has to objectively consider if inefficient possessions from Rose were going to be less inefficient than their alternatives, making him comparatively efficient for the team as a whole.

It’s fair to acknowledge that the victory wouldn’t have been possible had the Warriors not gone sub-zero from beyond the arc (0-13 after halftime), while also noting that Rose’s assertiveness was the driving engine for the Bulls. Only one other team (the Spurs, because the answer to these types of things is always the Spurs) scored a regular-season road victory against Golden State. Luck and belief were both necessary. The Warriors supplied the luck; the latter was largely due to Rose.

That Rose hit the game-winner didn’t substantially improve his performance, nor would missing it have meant he’d failed, because the result of one shot, even if it’s the most important one, didn’t impact the effect he had on the game.

This isn’t intended as a dig at analytics, as I’m much more tilted to that side of the sports landscape (anti-stats writers giving Mike Trout’s MVP to Miguel Cabrera over the stats-based Triple Crown will never not be irksome). Sometimes it just seems as if efficiency is treated as a direct correlation to winning, when we know it’s not. Even the most ardent statheads wouldn’t suggest LeBron was more impressive in the 2011 Finals than the 2015 Finals just because of true shooting percentage.

There’s value in finding alternate ways to win, as seen from Kobe, LeBron and Rose, among others. Just because something can’t be quantified doesn’t mean we can’t recognize it when we see it. Sometimes a situation requires a unique formula to win, and the subsequent evaluations have to adapt in kind.

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