As playoff time draws near, NBA's MVP race is a jump ball

April 20, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

If you're an NBA fanatic, you're ecstatic that March is over - for that level of the game, that month isn't Madness, it's maddening - and that April is finally here. That the madness that lasts two months, not just one, is about to begin: the playoffs, when the truly best basketball on Earth is played.

There's one significant problem with April and the NBA, though - two, if you count the fact that the first round tends to run right into May. The big problem is that the Most Valuable Player votes are due today, the day after the regular season ends.

Every other pro sports league awards its version of the MVP based on regular-season performance, just like the NBA. It's hard to work up an argument to do it any other way; the postseason has its own individual awards. Yet in no other league is the true most valuable player, lowercase, determined in the postseason the way it is in the NBA.

If you haven't done it under the brightest and hottest of lights, the belief generally has been, your MVP credentials might be in serious question.

Ask Karl Malone, who is in the record books as a two-time Most Valuable Player but whose 1997 trophy, at least, pales in memory to the fact that he contributed mightily to the Jazz's two NBA Finals losses - to the Bulls and Michael Jordan, who probably should be a six-time regular-season MVP instead of five.

Or David Robinson, who won in 1995 and actually received the trophy in the middle of a conference finals series in which he was schooled embarrassingly by the incumbent MVP and soon to be repeat champion, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Or Charles Barkley in 1993. Or Allen Iverson in 2001. Or Kevin Garnett two years ago, or Steve Nash one year ago ...

Five of the aforementioned players, by the way - all except Robinson and Olajuwon - are the only ones in the 50-year history of the MVP award who did not win a championship during their careers. Don't even look to see if any other big sport can match that. Barry Bonds has seven MVPs, for goodness' sake, and his one and only trip to the World Series is as tainted as everything he's done since BALCO entered his realm.

Which brings us to this season's MVP race, which is as deep, close and open to debate as any ever has been. At the same time, though, it likely will continue this very recent trend: The winner will watch another team celebrate a championship, this year and possibly for the rest of his career.

The best individual performance of the year does belong to one of two leading candidates with championship rings. But Kobe Bryant might very well be done in by one of two factors: His Lakers barely nudged above .500, and while he's the main reason they are, he's also the main reason they're not in the title hunt (thanks to his dismantling of the dynasty two summers ago).

The other ring-bearer is Chauncey Billups, but as has been the case for the three years that the Pistons have been in the title conversation, it's too hard to separate one player out of that team for glory over the others, and voters likely won't try too hard.

Amazingly, making a case for any other player among the three teams that ran away from the league this season is unusually difficult. Billups is the best candidate on Detroit. On the Spurs, Tim Duncan's season-long injury struggles opened the door for Tony Parker to elevate his game, but he'll likely finish back in the MVP pack. (Then again, he's still with Eva Longoria, so he has already won.)

Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki, who has been brilliant all season. But he hasn't been in past postseasons. He may have to reach the Finals to enhance his chances in the future. It's just how it goes.

Of the young guns, Cleveland's LeBron James and Miami's Dwyane Wade - they're young. Some solace for them: Jordan's 1986-87 season featured his first scoring title, the highest scoring total and average since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963, his first slam-dunk title and his complete takeover of American culture. He won the MVP the next season.

That leaves the reigning MVP - the player who, like so many recent winners, has not won a title, or reached the Finals. Who would only make the Finals this season by a miracle. Who, a case could be made, didn't deserve to win it last year (it still says here that Shaquille O'Neal should have won).

But Steve Nash carried Phoenix in ways no one really imagined he could with so many of his teammates from last season injured or departed. He was no fluke; this year makes it a lot harder to knock last year.

And if he can even be a candidate two straight years, much less win it, then why rule out him taking the Suns to where so many of his brethren have taken their teams before? After all, the trophy and jewelry historically have made a great matching set.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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