The Chicago Bulls’ sign-and-trade with San Antonio in August, in which they acquired DeMar DeRozan on a three-year contract worth $85 million in exchange for Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a future first-round pick, was not well-received by most NBA media members. In fact, NBA front offices didn’t seem to care for it, either; a poll of 10 NBA executives and scouts conducted by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps revealed the DeRozan deal ranked as the worst move of the offseason.
Doesn’t it feel good knowing how wrong they were?
DeRozan, at age 32, is having the best season of his career, making his fifth All-star Game and third start in the event. After scoring 38 points in a win against Sacramento on February 16, he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record of six-straight games totaling 35+ points on at least 50% shooting, on his way to earning Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
DeRozan has scored 124 points in clutch time (within five points in the final five minutes), second-most in the league.
As Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams, and others have missed time, DeRozan has been Chicago’s constant, keeping them at or near the top of the Eastern Conference all year with his remarkable play. Bulls’ fans have not been shy about sharing their opinion that he should take home the MVP this season, so let’s examine his case against the current top-3 on NBA.com’s ladder: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Despite Jamal Murray (ACL) missing the entire year to this point and Michael Porter Jr. (back) playing just 9 games, the Nuggets are somehow 38-26 and in 6th place in the Western Conference. Due to those injuries, Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, Monte Morris, Jeff Green, and Facu Campazzo have played the most minutes for Denver behind Jokic. So, how are they doing it? It sure doesn’t hurt that Jokic is averaging 25.8 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 8.0 assists on 57.1%/36.3%/81.1% shooting splits. The Nuggets are +16.9 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, more than double the league-leading Suns’ overall mark of +8.1. When Jokic sits, Denver is -7.8, essentially the same mark as 28th ranked Orlando.
If you like advanced stats, he’s currently having the second-highest PER season of all time and leads the league in Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player, according to Basketball Reference. Defense was a weakness of Jokic’s early in his career, but he’s made huge strides as he’s gained experience and gotten into better shape; according to FiveThirtyEight’s Defensive RAPTOR ranking, he is second in the league behind only Rudy Gobert. You can take that with a grain of salt, but the eye test leaves no doubt that Jokic is much improved defensively and a positive on that end of the floor.
Just like Jokic, Embiid found himself looking at a depleted roster for most of the season. Ben Simmons requested a trade during the offseason and did not play a game for Philadelphia before the 76ers sent him to Brooklyn for James Harden. Playing without his best teammate and enduring all the drama that surrounded the Simmons situation, Embiid has managed to carry Philadelphia to a 39-24 record and 2nd place in the Eastern Conference. He currently leads the league in scoring at 29.5 points per game, in addition to 11.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.1 steals.
Embiid ranks third in Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player, according to Basketball Reference. He has been an absolute menace on both ends of the floor and the addition of Harden has seemingly unlocked yet another level of Embiid’s game. In the four games they’ve played together, Embiid has averaged 30.0 points and 15.5 free throw attempts per game as Philadelphia has gone 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 17.0. It remains to be seen if the 76ers can prove it against better competition, but if they continue to roll and climb the standings, Embiid will only improve his case.
The Bucks appear to be suffering from a bit of a hangover as the defending champs, but at no fault of Giannis’s. The two-time MVP is averaging 29.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.0 steals while shooting 54.4% from the field. As mentioned above, Jokic is on pace for the second-highest PER ever recorded for a season; Antetokounmpo’s current mark of 32.2 would be the only one better. NBA.com currently has him atop their Defensive Player of the Year ranking and if he does indeed take home the award, he would be just the 11th player to win it multiple times.
Giannis is second in Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player, trailing only Jokic in each category. He is the hub for Milwaukee’s offense, and his versatility and dominance on the defensive end allows the Bucks great flexibility in their lineup constructions. Despite all that, Milwaukee has been slightly underwhelming coming off their title run, which hurts his case. Even with Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton having played at least 50 games each, the Bucks are currently on pace to win 49 games. Unless Milwaukee can make a late-season push, Antetokounmpo will likely find himself on the outside looking in at a two-man race.
DeRozan is having a truly incredible season, and nobody should attempt to diminish what he’s meant to the Bulls. His numbers of 28.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game on 51.2% shooting speak for themselves, but his impact on the franchise goes beyond the on-court production. Chicago wouldn’t be anywhere close to their 39-25 record without him, and he’s single-handedly rescued the Bulls from the jaws of defeat with his late-game heroics. He has played a massive role in bringing Chicago back to relevancy and has potentially laid the groundwork in making them a more appealing destination to future free agents.
Having said all that, Jokic, Embiid, and Antetokounmpo are two-way superstars who can dominate a game in multiple ways. DeRozan ranks 8th in Win Shares, 30th in Box Plus/Minus, and 20th in Value Over Replacement Player, according to Basketball Reference. As dominant as he’s been in terms of his scoring, all three players mentioned above either exceed or match his production in that category, while also bringing elite levels of rebounding, playmaking, and defense to the table. DeRozan should certainly lead the next tier of candidates, which likely includes Ja Morant and Luka Doncic, among others. There should be no shame in admitting that Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis are truly special players who exist in a class of their own.
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