Bear with me, here.
DeMar DeRozan is in the MVP conversation. I just put him there, by saying it. Watch this: Josh Okogie is in the MVP conversation. It's powerful, what language can do.
We apply a strange, superfluous meta layer to this stuff, like asking if we can ask a question. When Tracy McGrady claims that DeMar DeRozan belongs in the MVP conversation, he's appealing to some higher power, implying that there is a conversation—more influential, apparently, than the one he's having with the roughly 1.5 million people who are watching TNT on a Tuesday night—he doesn't have access to. An übercoversation that reaches everyone and communicates absolute truth. Of course, McGrady doesn't intend any of this. He's filling dead air on a TV show, and what he actually means is that DeRozan should receive, say, a dozen fifth-place votes for an award he has zero chance of winning. But that sounds like a lame and inconsequential argument, so T-Mac has to suggest a Pynchonian they that doesn't want you to know how devastating DeMar DeRozan has been from midrange this season.
(Shaq, responding to McGrady: "The word conversation means something different to me. It means one or two." You will find no more sensible or drowsy authority on the matter.)
None of this chatter is malignant, or all that annoying. It's just curious that we tend to frame really good players through the twin prisms of the sport's individual pinnacle, the MVP award, and the vaguely defined discourse around it. The exercise is tortured, and it has the absurd bent of a heated argument over how the number eight is slightly less than the number nine, but you're kidding yourself if you don't think the number eight isn't pushing number nine, in terms of being a bigger number. And at the same time, players are not fixed entities. They are in many respects indefinable, stats wreathing around but never quite touching their intrinsic qualities, which are themselves perhaps an illusion. This fact seems to make people as anxious as anything else, as anxious as they get when they want to say that DeMar is better than Giannis, but can't, because it feels like a lie.
What else does DeMar DeRozan belongs in the MVP conversation get at? A civic pride that borders on belligerence. You may have heard: the Bulls are back. You hear it because it's roughly true, the Bulls have been terrific this year, but more deeply because Chicago is never more alive than when it is insistently correcting the record. This is a city understandably annoyed by New York's self-importance and bizarre ideas about where the rest of the country buys its soft drinks and toilet paper, and one that also willingly levels itself with relative small towns like Cleveland and Green Bay just to get a profane word in about LeBron or Aaron Rodgers, who have been destroying Chicago's favorite teams for over a decade. I don't relate to this impulse because I live in but am not from here. But then I also sometimes find myself perversely proud of how screwed up I am, as a person. So maybe I get it. Maybe you announce that DeMar DeRozan is the best player in the league only to get other people to tell you to knock it off, and then you go home and quietly treasure that stinging shame, how intensely at odds with the world you are.
There are richer stories to tell about DeRozan. Katie Heindl has done so already, on this site. I think this line is lovely: "[Toronto to San Antonio to Chicago] are roughly three arcs of a circle and this next stretch in Chicago will close it. It won’t be his entire career by any stretch, but it will be, up to now, the best and most deserving kind of deliverance a player like DeRozan is owed." Katie always writes with empathy, even when she is projecting, and that is what makes her good at what she does. Her work illumines possibilities, things we could be talking about instead: there is what a player is, which we debate endlessly without resolving, and then there is what they are owed, which is a question not any more or less answerable but because it's obviously rooted in subjectivity, we don't spend nearly as much energy trying to resolve it.
So what is DeMar DeRozan owed, in this 2021-22 MVP race? You could say he's owed some fifth-place votes, but that is like saying someone is owed a certain amount of imaginary currency. He definitely doesn't deserve to win the thing, at least not as matters currently stand. (There's still time for Embiid, Jokić, and Giannis to slip in the shower.) But owed is an emotional term, it gestures toward a cosmic justice that may or may not come to pass.
Is this it? DeMar DeRozan is owed recognition. He is owed your favorite podcaster or columnist talking at length about how splendid he has been. No, that's not it. And it's not exactly what MVP votes represent. If the MVP measured the volume of discussions, or even appreciation, it would be a Laker or Knick every year.
No, I've got it, here it is: DeMar DeRozan, who has labored for so long and is playing so well, and in a way that's peculiar to his character, is owed a place in our memory. That's what the MVP is about, fundamentally, is recording who the best players in the league were in a given season. (Yes, All-NBA teams do that too, but with less authoritative heft.) Nobody truly cares who finishes fourth in a recently concluded MVP race, but they do mention, when they harken back to an outstanding season a player had awhile ago, that he got a few MVP votes that year. It is a way of saying that he touched greatness, that for a spell he was about as good as anybody else. And memory is fuzzy, memory is generous. Its appoximateness is appealing. If you like DeMar or the team he plays for, you want him to be able to live in that flattering haze, years down the line. The wonderful thing is that he will, in the mind of anybody who feels strongly enough to argue for it right now.