A total of 29 men have won the Most Valuable Player awards in the four major American sports before their 24th birthday. As you might expect, achieving such a level of excellence at such a young age is usually a precursor to a great career. Indeed, the majority of the guys on this list are in the Hall of Fame for their sport or will be when their careers end. But some of them have had rather disappointing careers; and of those, no one career might be more disappointing than that of Derrick Rose.
Still the youngest MVP winner in NBA history, Rose has only played a total of 237 games since winning the award in 2011, and his performance in those games has seldom been even close to average. In recent seasons he has been near the bottom of every point guard ranking, partly because of his atrocious defense but also because he can’t shoot. As the game has evolved to value shooting more and Rose has lost his ability to break down defenses with his quickness, he really doesn’t have a weapon that scares anyone. The fact that he can’t be relied upon decreases his value further, probably ensuring that he will be regarded as the greatest disappointment of any young MVP in history.
Am I writing Rose off too soon? Well, he’ll be 30 before next season starts, so even if he was a normally healthy NBA player his decline phase would be starting within the next couple of years (and we know that Rose isn’t a normally healthy NBA player). Rather, the routine nagging injuries that hamper nearly every player in his 30’s seem likely to render Rose unplayable, given his reaction to his previous injuries.
Even if injuries don’t get him, is there any way this season ends well enough that a team will offer Rose a starting job next year? Here are the potential outcomes to Rose’s season, in decreasing order of likelihood:
- He gets hurt again, or never recovers from his current ankle injury.
- He returns to the active roster but only gets garbage time behind Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade – and possibly Jose Calderon.
- He is a throw-in on a trade to make the salaries line up or create a roster spot.
- He ends up playing a significant amount of time because Thomas and Wade get hurt, which brings us back to the fact that the Cavs are 4-3 with Rose and 15-5 without him.
Of the 29 guys who have won MVP before their 24th birthday, 20 – Jim Brown, Dan Marino, Walter Payton, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo, Wes Unseld, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, Stan Musial, Hal Newhouser, Johnny Bench, Sergei Federov, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bryan Trottier, Booby Clarke, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, and Nels Stewart – have been elected to the Hall of Fame for their respective sports, which pretty much exempts them from any discussion of flop careers. Six others – Rose, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper – are still active. Ovechkin and Crosby would be Hall of Famers if their careers ended today. Trout would be close except for the stipulation that requires a 10-year career. Harper and McDavid are clearly on trajectories that will get them to the Hall of Fame for their sport.
Aside from Rose, then, that leaves three baseball players who have won an MVP award before the age of 24 but have not made the Hall of Fame: Fred Lynn, Vida Blue, and Jeff Burroughs. Oddly enough, they all won the award in a five-year period in the ’70s. Did any of them have a more disappointing career than Derrick Rose? Let’s look.
Fred Lynn won the American League MVP as a rookie in 1975. Like Rose, his career was curtailed by injuries, brought on in part by a reckless playing style. Also like Rose, Lynn got a reputation for missing more games than some thought were warranted by the severity of his injuries. After that rookie season, Lynn was in the top 10 of the American league in OPS four more times, including first in 1979. He also won four Gold Gloves and played in nine All-Star games. Lynn was considered a star through most of his prime, but he only played in 140 games once after he turned 27, and he didn’t reach any statistical milestones that generally ensure Hall of Fame induction, falling short of 2000 hits and hitting 306 home runs. But his career is definitely not disappointing.
Vida Blue won the MVP and Cy Young for Oakland in 1971. The first half of his season was as sensational as any pitcher in memory. He leveled off in the second half but still finished 24-8 and struck out over three hundred hitters. Blue held out the next year and only went 6-10, but his ERA was still 2.80. He never got back to his 1971 level, but he was a productive pitcher for over a decade. He was part of the rotation for three consecutive World Series winner in Oakland, and he finished in the top 10 in pitcher WAR six times, ERA six times, and Cy Young voting six times. Blue was caught up in some of the drug scandals of the ’70s and ’80s, which probably kept his career from being even better, but he won over two hundred games and is in the top 100 all-time in innings pitched.
Jeff Burroughs was the American League MVP in 1974. This seems like a mistake in retrospect. He was third in the league in OPS and third in offensive WAR, but his defense was so bad that he was not in the top ten in overall WAR. But he led the league in RBI by a wide margin, and his team (Texas) improved their record by 27 wins. In those days, that was a strong case for MVP. Burroughs finished in the top ten in OPS twice more in his career and only made one more All-Star game. For the most part he was on crappy teams, and his last decent season was at age 27. Like Rose, his MVP award is not supported by analytics, and he probably comes as close as anyone to having a more disappointing career.
Here’s another fun fact that Rose probably won’t put on his Facebook page: every retired player who has ever been voted NBA MVP was eventually voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, except for Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, and Kobe Bryant, none of whom are eligible yet. None of these players, however, will have to wait past their first year of eligibility to be enshrined. Among active players, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Rose have won MVP. If all of them retired tomorrow, the first four would be lock Hall of Famers. Westbrook might not get in on his first shot, but he will ultimately make it. That likely leaves Derrick Rose as the only Most Valuable Player in NBA history who doesn’t make the Hall of Fame, another indication of how far short of expectations his career has fallen.
In retrospect, there is a lesson here, at least for me. During the first few years of Rose’s career, I was more concerned with hoping he would fail than with appreciating his electric talent. That happens a lot with players whose teams stand in the way of your team in the playoffs. It’s hard to believe that in 2011, we all assumed the Bulls would own this decade. Now that we’ll never see peak D-Rose again, I wish I would have just enjoyed watching him a few times, rather than dreading what he might do.