Postseason flops fouling up legacy of NBA MVP award

May 06, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

The selection of Dirk Nowitzki as the NBA's Most Valuable Player is not official, announced or even confirmed.

What is confirmed, though, is that if the honor goes to him, a heavy dose of dishonor will come with it.

It's not his fault. Seriously. The stipulations for the NBA MVP voting are the same as they were when the first was awarded in 1956. It's a regular-season award. Nowitzki had a worthy regular season.

However, this is the only league that could justify awarding this prize after the playoffs are done. Nowitzki, sitting at home in shame, is the main reason for that, but not the only recent one. The NBA MVP has to make his mark in the postseason. Preferably by winning a championship.

The predecessors of his likely honor have rarely, if ever, laid a stink bomb of the magnitude of Nowitzki's in the Dallas Mavericks' just-concluded debacle against the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

By the numbers, it's the biggest upset in league postseason history. By the numbers, Nowitzki led the way, particularly with that sixth and final game, in which he would have contributed more had he curled up in the fetal position under the scorers' table and stayed out of everybody's way.

Blame him for that taint on his reputation. But the taint he'll likely leave on the reputation of the award itself -- don't blame him for that.

It's simply established precedent. NBA MVPs are iconic figures, and they become those figures largely by being winners. Their legends are set in stone during the playoffs and garnished with championship rings. Theoretically, a player can collect a garage-full of regular-season awards, and if he doesn't back it up with at least an unforgettable moment in a heart-wrenching defeat to another MVP-led team, he really doesn't belong in that exclusive club.

But that's just theoretical. Historically, players like that don't even get a sniff of the award, and if they get it once, they have a hard time getting it again, and their failures are only magnified for eternity.

Just ask Karl Malone. If you can, ask him before shooting free throws, the way the Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen did in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, the year Malone won the first of his two MVPs and lost the first of his two championship series as a member of the Utah Jazz. (Pippen infamously told him, "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays." Malone then proved that he had, in fact, shown up without his bag.)

It's not Nowitzki's fault that until 1993, every MVP had won at least one championship, from Bill Russell leading the Celtics to 11 to Bob McAdoo coming off the bench for two. No one-hit wonders, no single-season supernovas. Just an endless string of Cousy and Chamberlain and Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar and Bird and Magic and Jordan.

Elsewhere, you can pretty much live with being an MVP and never winning a title. Ted Williams did. For the most part, Barry Bonds has (he did have one super playoff run). In the NFL, quarterbacks feel heat over that award, but not always. Barry Sanders, meanwhile, gets more sympathy than derision for never getting to the Super Bowl.

The NBA is different. And the past decade and a half has shown how different because for some bizarre reason ringless MVPs are piling up like warm-up pants at the end of the bench.

Since 1993, when Charles Barkley won, five MVPs totaling seven awards have gone without a ring, with two ending their careers without one. It has happened in six of the past 10 years, with Malone and Steve Nash winning two and Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett one each.

Garnett and Nash, collecting the past three awards, haven't even reached the Finals. Nowitzki, at least, has done that.

They're all great players, and eventually they'll all end up in the Hall of Fame. But they're all perceived as watering down the product.

Barkley and Iverson at least were valiant in defeat. Nash, if he never wins a title, will be viewed the same way, and he'll be graded on a curve because point guards don't win MVPs often -- but at least getting to the Finals would help. It would be somewhat of a shock if he and the Phoenix Suns even get out of this next round against the San Antonio Spurs.

Thus, players seemingly destined for MVPs -- LeBron James, the post-Shaq Kobe Bryant -- shouldn't expect to get a serious look until they make deep postseason runs.

David Robinson escaped infamy by capitalizing on Tim Duncan's arrival in San Antonio; otherwise, he'd be on this list, doomed to perpetual replays of Hakeem Olajuwon schooling him in the 1995 playoffs.

Malone, though, has to live with those free throws. And with Jordan stripping him in the final seconds of the final game in 1998.

And Nowitzki has no choice but to give the game an image of postseason greatness worthy of an MVP. Something to replace him getting a face full of a Matt Barnes dunk, or running away from the ball in the second half of a make-or-break game.

It's the legacy of the award. It's not his fault.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points after

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