Last season, the title of "Best Player in the Central Division" changed hands in a very unnatural, frustrating manner. The reigning Central kingpin, Derrick Rose, missed the entire 2012-13 campaign coming off offseason knee surgery. In the meantime, a relatively unknown Indiana forward named Paul George rose to take the crown in Rose's absence.
Now that Rose has returned, many would like to assume that he has already reassumed the mantle from George. But Rose has struggled, George has excelled and the question doesn't seem resolved. Why should the basketball world simply assume that Derrick Rose will be the best player in the division this season?
You Can Lose Your Title to Injury
There's an old saying in team sports: A player can't lose his job due to injury. It's a quaint, old-fashioned notion, one that doesn't really jibe with modern sports culture. In today's game, sentimentality equals weakness, and results are all that matter.
And the results simply haven't been there for Rose so far this season. Many in the basketball world were ready to proclaim "Rose is back" after his last-second circus shot to beat the New York Knicks. But "back" is a fairly nebulous term. Is a superstar point guard "back" if he shoots 7-of-24 with more turnovers than assists?
He followed up that "Rose is back" game with a horrid performance Saturday night against the Philadelphia 76ers: 4-of-14 shooting, six assists, eight turnovers. On the season he is shooting 28.8 percent from the field with 13 assists, 17 turnovers and zero steals.
Of course, the odds are that Rose will dramatically pick up his game this season. But until he does, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to claim that he's automatically better than this next guy.
Meanwhile, in Indiana...
Indiana Pacers forward Paul George is having himself an opening week for the ages. The Pacers are 3-0 on the season, and George is sporting the following per-game line:
George put together an impressive resume last season, making his first All-Star Game and winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
Crucially, George raised his profile in the basketball world in last year's playoffs, excelling in a tough seven-game series against LeBron James and the eventual-champion Miami Heat. Though he couldn't quite match LeBron (who can?), he played the Heat tougher than Rose did in the Chicago Bulls' 2011 playoff loss to the Heat in Rose's MVP season.
Let This Season Speak for Itself
In a vacuum, Derrick Rose has had a much better career than Paul George. But Rose's knee injury clouds the entire issue. The NBA is a tough place. Nobody cares what you used to do. Rose will continue to struggle for the next few weeks to assimilate himself back into the Chicago lineups and get himself back up to speed.
Rose clearly still has the athleticism and tenacity to regain that elite level, but he's not there yet. Paul George is already at that level. The Bulls and Pacers will face each other four times this year and will battle all season for the division crown. When all is said and done, the world will clearly see who is best.