Steve Aschburner
Tuesday March 17th, 2009

Tiger Woods knows a thing or two about winning -- who can win, who should win, who will win -- and has been the PGA's Most Valuable Performer since the day he cashed his first earnings check. So his thoughts the other day on the NBA's MVP race ought to carry more weight than your average Orlando Magic season-ticket holder's.

"Well, D-Wade has now definitely gotten himself into the conversation,'' Woods said of the Miami Heat star during the WGC-CA Championship in Doral, Fla. "He's doing more with less, obviously. But I think it's probably going to come down to LeBron and Kobe. You can't take anything away from D-Wade, but MVPs are usually given to the guys who actually have a better surrounding cast for some reason."

Woods was saying what a lot of NBA observers are thinking these days (your average Magic fan, meanwhile, would make a more impassioned case for Dwight Howard). James and Bryant are duking out the MVP contest like titans on twin peaks, their 53-13 teams perched atop respective mountains in the Eastern and Western Conferences. Their magnificent individual performances are largely responsible for their teams' success, too, with the Cavaliers and Lakers in position for No. 1 playoff seeds. There is very little, on the court, not to like about either as a 2008-09 MVP favorite.

Wade, in some ways, might be doing even more. He leads the league in scoring (29.9 ppg), amassing 93 more points than James (28.5) and 122 more than Bryant (28.0) through 66 games. He tops that trio in assists with 7.6 to James' 7.2 and Bryant's 4.9. Wade's average of 2.26 steals is second only to Chris Paul's 2.81, and at 29.4 in overall efficiency, he ranks third behind James (30.7) and Paul (29.7), with Howard (27.4) and Bryant (25.3) next in line.

The Heat's shooting guard has won games at the horn this season. He has scored 50 points twice and at least 40 on nine more occasions. He has won two of the past three Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards, and somewhat remarkably, Wade has stayed healthy without tangibly changing the attack intensity of his game.

And yet Miami, in most folks' assessment, isn't nearly the championship contender that Cleveland or Los Angeles is (or, for that matter, Boston, San Antonio or even Orlando is). The No. 5 team in the East at the moment, the Heat wouldn't even open the playoffs at home. Which means that, as far as an MVP trophy on his mantel to go with the 2006 Finals version, Wade's got almost no shot.

Now, if he were playing shortstop or left field, his prospects would improve dramatically. Baseball never has been as hung up on an elite performer's ability (or inability) to lift his team via his personal excellence. Andre Dawson was the National League's MVP in 1987 with the last-place Chicago Cubs. Ernie Banks won that award in 1958 and '59, despite Chicago's sub-.500 records both seasons. Alex Rodriguez won the AL MVP in 2003 while playing for the 71-91 Texas Rangers.

But the NBA doesn't roll that way, or at least hasn't for a long, long time. It isn't likely to start this spring when the assorted writers' and broadcasters' votes are tallied (ballots are due at the end of the regular season). Consider:

• The last 26 NBA MVPs have been awarded to players whose teams won at least 50 games (or were on pace to do so -- Utah's 37-13 mark when Karl Malone won in the lockout season was the equivalent of 61-21). The Heat's .545 winning percentage through Monday projects to 45 victories.

• Only seven times has an MVP's team not won (or played at a pace to win) 50. Three of those came from 1956-60, four more from 1975-82 and none since. Miami would have to close 14-2 to finish 50-32 -- and still would end up well behind the Cavs and Lakers, by won-lost record.

• Twice, the MVP actually came from a losing team. But both of those were relative ancient history. Bob Pettit's St. Louis Hawks went 33-39 when he won it in 1955-56, the award's debut season. Pettit's club went 49-23 when he won it again three years later. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the fourth of his six MVPs with the 40-42 Lakers in 1975-76, which at least represented a 10-game improvement for L.A. -- and a 31-game swing in the standings overall, if you include Milwaukee's swoon from 59 victories to 38 in the Bucks' first season after trading Abdul-Jabbar.

As supreme as Kareem was, his case was helped by the lack of any obvious competitors for the award. Golden State, at 59-23, posted the NBA's best record but had no individual in the top 10 in scoring or rebounding (Rick Barry averaged 21.0 points, 11th best). The only other team to win more than 49 games that season was Boston and the Celtics had no one among the league's top 20 scorers. Curiously, the reigning MVP -- Bob McAdoo won it in 1975 -- led the NBA in scoring for a second-straight season. But his Buffalo club slipped from 49-33 to 46-36 and his scoring averaged dipped from 34.5 to 31.1 and that, apparently, was enough to cost him.

It's worth noting, too, that through the 1979-80 season, the MVP award was determined by a vote of NBA players; the media took over in 1980-81. That might explain a shift away from any informal "Player of the Year'' aspect, giving more weight to the individual than his team's results, toward the various stabs at assessing each candidate's "value'' in wins and losses.

That didn't take hold immediately -- when Moses Malone won his second of three MVPs, in 1981-82, six teams had more victories than Houston's 46. Boston, in fact, went 63-19. But Malone averaged 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds, to rank first and second, respectively. Larry Bird was the Celtics' best player but ranked 11th in scoring (22.9) and seventh in rebounding (7.9).

Bird won two years later -- and controlled the MVP award for three years running (1984-86). Since then, it has been won by players from elite teams, by eventual Hall of Famers or by both. Of the 14 players who have won the past 25 MVPs, six won it multiple times. Michael Jordan's team in Chicago, 50-32 in 1987-88, had the most modest regular-season record.

So while Wade might qualify as a Springfield inductee someday, the Heat ain't elite.

"He's on a playoff team that's playing very well,'' said Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale, who played with one MVP (Bird), drafted another (Kevin Garnett) and competed against a bunch. "But I actually think it should go to a guy on a top team. I think it should go to a guy whose team is in the top five, anyway.''

Wade's team, by comparison, is like the fat guy you see all the time at the gym. To some, the question is, "Why does he bother? He's still fat." To others, it's, "Can you imagine what he'd look like if he didn't work out?" In this case, you wonder where Miami would be without its top player. Most likely, lottery bound, another bailout candidate in AIG territory. You can't even go by the Heat's record without Wade because, for a change, he's been around for every game.

Meanwhile, there are a handful of viable, world-class MVP alternatives, no asterisks or qualifiers necessary. That's why, as much as this has been Wade's best year, it's not the year's best year.

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