For a welcome change the NBA offers more than just a few contenders
April 16, 1989

The balloting for the NBA'S Most Valuable Player usually carries with it all the suspense of an April showdown between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers. For whatever reason, there have been only three close MVP races in the last 15 seasons, and only one involved more than two candidates.

"I don't know whether it's emotional or what, but the MVP award has been about bandwagons," said Los Angeles Laker coach Pat Riley. "I'm not saying there haven't been good choices, but the award should have more candidates."

Well, Pat, this may be the year. As the regular season moves toward its denouement, there are at least half a dozen viable candidates for the award and perhaps two or three more who might steal a first-place vote from the writers and broadcasters who fill out the ballots. That hasn't happened since 1976, when the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Buffalo Braves' Bob McAdoo and the Boston Celtics' Dave Cowens all finished within five first-place votes of one another, Abdul-Jabbar winning with 52.

"The perennials, Magic [Johnson] and Michael [Jordan], are still there," says Detroit Piston coach Chuck Daly, "but the addition of a whole bunch of other guys is making it interesting."

Adds Atlanta Hawk guard Doc Rivers, "This is one of the few years there isn't a clear-cut favorite." Another player with more than passing interest in the voting, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, says, "This is the year somebody else [besides Magic, the 1987 winner, and Jordan, the 1988 winner] could break through."

Why has the race opened up? For several reasons. The teams with the best records in the NBA, Detroit and the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not have serious MVP candidates. (Perhaps that's why they have the league's best records.) The resurgence of the New York Knicks has forced voters to consider a player from the media capital, something that hasn't happened since the Knicks' Bernard King finished a distant second to Boston's Larry Bird in 1985. Magic and Jordan have established such consistently high standards for themselves that, without a dramatic rise in their personal stats or in the performances of their teams, it is easy to take them for granted.

Then, too, the formidable trio of the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley. Utah's Malone and the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon has now been around long enough—i.e., paid the "dues" that the voters unconsciously demand—to be considered for the award. All three are having terrific seasons. Finally, with Bird on the shelf after surgery on Nov. 19 to remove bone spurs from his feet, there are no Celtic MVP candidates, and Celtics have won the award 10 times in 33 seasons (Bill Russell has five MVPs, Bird has three, Bob Cousy and Cowens one each).

It is a virtual certainty that this year's MVP will not come from a bad team. He rarely does. The only two MVPs to be chosen from sub-.500 teams were the St. Louis Hawks' Bob Pettit in 1956—the first winner of the award, which is named for Maurice Podoloff, the NBA's original commissioner—and the Lakers' Abdul-Jabbar in '76.

Centers dominated the MVP balloting for many years—Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic and Jordan are the only guards to have won; Pettit, who was MVP twice, Philadelphia's Julius Erving and Bird, a three-time winner, are the only forwards—but that ceased to be the case as the game got faster and forwards became more prominent.

The voters like players who score—since '56 eight MVPs have been leading scorers, including Jordan last year. They also have liked rebounders. Eleven league-leaders have been MVPs, and rebounding was the major consideration in some of the more surprising selections: for instance, rookie Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets in 1969 and Cowens in 1973.

So who will win in '89? Well, it might be easier at the outset to name a few worthy players who won't win.

Mark Price won't, even though he has propelled Cleveland to a 54-21 record. Offensive balance can be overrated—after all, Indiana, with eight, has the most double-figure scorers in the NBA—but not in the case of the Cavs, whose top players (Price, center Brad Daugherty, forward Larry Nance and guard Ron Harper) average within two points of one another. That's good for the Cavs, bad for MVP attention.

Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers won't win. They are the main reasons why the Phoenix Suns are better than anyone thought they would be this season. Kudos to both players, but neither will do much in the balloting. Chambers can score, but he doesn't rebound with the other big boys, Karl Malone and Olajuwon. And is Johnson a better point guard than Price? A tough call. Or Magic? Get serious. Or that kid in Chicago who took over the point guard position on March 11? (A little hint: His initials are M.J.)

Isiah Thomas won't win. If any other player had staged the phenomenal 43-point show he put on for the Pistons in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals, then returned to play on a severely sprained ankle in Game 7, that man would have been a candidate for canonization. But there is something about Isiah's style—his seeming lack of interest in games against weaker teams, his occasional carelessness with the ball—that prevents him from being a serious MVP candidate, although he is the leader of the NBA's best team. How much of a leader? Detroit will find out because Thomas, who broke his left index finger in a game against Chicago last Friday, may miss the rest of the regular season.

John Stockton won't win. Is it he, the point guard, who deserves the credit for what Riley calls the "symbiotic relationship" that exists between Stockton and Malone on Utah's fast break? Or is it Malone, the rim-rattling finisher? Tough question. Were the Mailman a one-dimensional player—purely a scorer or purely a rebounder—then Stockton, who leads the NBA in two categories (13.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game), would be the most important Jazzman on the floor. But Malone is not one-dimensional, and that makes Malone and Stockton 1 and 1A.

So who is the winner going to be?

It is surprising that the balloting is traditionally so one-sided, because no MVP criteria are specified by the NBA. "There should be two awards," says Riley. "One for most valuable and the other for most outstanding. They're two different things." The phrase "most valuable" is hopelessly subjective; a graduate philosophy seminar could gnaw on it for a semester. What is value? To one degree or another, the following qualities should be taken into consideration:

•The Stat Factor. The MVP should have double-figure numbers, or be close, in at least two categories. Or, like Jordan and Olajuwon, he should be impressive in three or more categories.

•The Standings Factor. The MVP should come from a team that is within shouting distance of the leaders or, at the very least, a team that is living up to expectations.

•The Big-Game Factor. The MVP should rise to the occasion. The exhausting NBA season has a natural ebb and flow, and the best players know how to read it.

•The Captain-of-the-Ship Factor. The MVP should keep his team on a steady and true course by making his teammates better players on the court and by holding them together off it. True, that is a difficult quality to measure, but it is of crucial importance.

And, so, in alphabetical order, here are the leading candidates:

Charles Barkley, Philadelphia. He is eighth in the league in scoring (26.0), third in rebounds (12.4) and tied for second in field goal percentage (.574), with Boston's Robert Parish. He has brought the Sixers (42-33 at week's end) back to perfect fast-break pass from Stockton; in fact, in that situation no opponent even wants to be on the same court.

Akeem Olajuwon, Houston. With averages of 24.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.3 blocked shots and 2.7 steals. Olajuwon joins Jordan as the only players in the top 10 in four of the eight major statistical categories. He is the first player in NBA history to get 200 steals and 200 blocked shots in one season. He likes the bright lights and the big city, too. In two games against the Knicks and Ewing, he averaged 28.5 points and 20.5 rebounds. (In five lifetime games in Madison Square Garden, Olajuwon has averaged 30.0 points. 21.4 rebounds. 3.0 blocks, 3.0 steals.) His all-around ability-speed, body control, strength, jumping-has seldom been seen in a center.

CONCLUSION: It would have been nice to recognize Olajuwon's individual accomplishments by making him the No. 1 choice for the MVP award. But the word "pass" is still not in his dictionary, and some of his biggest games came in Rocket losses. Put him sixth.

It would have been great to reward Barkley, about whom Knick coach Rick Pitino says, "If people would stop considering him a character, he would go down as one of the greatest all-around talents in the history of basketball." But his Sixers will finish seventh in the Eastern Conference, and the image of Barkley as "captain of the ship" still does not come into focus. Put him fifth.

A nod of approval to Ewing, whose work ethic fuels the Knicks as much as their full-court press and three-point shooting does. But does he deserve to be MVP more than Olajuwon? No; put him fourth.

It would have been pleasant to assure Utah that its main man, Malone, is not being overlooked because he plays away from the nation's media centers. We want the Mailman on our team, no matter which forwards are available. But he could not lift the Jazz above the Suns or the Lakers in the West (granted, he could still do it in the playoffs), and anyway he must divide his own team MVP pie with Stockton in some fashion, even if it's a 65-35 split. Put him third.

And so it's down to, yes, M & M.

Once he was moved to the point, was there anything more that Jordan could have done to chip away at the one criticism of his game, namely that he doesn't make his teammates better? (Shake your head no.) Is there any area in which he could have improved this season? (No again.)

Still, Jordan has figured out how to be the idol of millions, but he hasn't figured out how to lead the 11 individuals who really matter, his teammates. The mantle of leadership weighs heavily on Jordan Perhaps it's not his fault. One thing is certain: Jordan's MVP year will come again. Put him second.

And so the winner on my ballot is Earvin Johnson. It's easy, you say, to push the buttons on a team as talented as the Lakers? Forget it. Guard Byron Scott is up and down like a yo-yo. A.C. Green's game at power forward is limited. James Worthy is terrific, but he needs someone to recognize his openings and get him the ball. And have you heard that Kareem turns 42 on April 16? Yet the Lakers gallop on and on with Magic in the saddle, holding the reins with a jockey's touch, sometimes going to the whip, sometimes letting up.

"The MVP depends on what you do for your team, what you do to make everybody else play better and, above all else, whether or not you win," says Thomas. "Who's done that better than Magic?"

Nobody we know, Isiah.

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEINNO. 1: Big-game man: Magic (32) averages 22.3 points, 12.8 assists. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERNO 2: Jordan (23) has nine triple doubles since moving to the point. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN[See caption above.] PHOTOTIM DEFRISCO/ALLSPORT USANO. 3: Malone definitely has had the right stuff all season for Utah. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERNO. 5: Barkley's well-rounded game has earned respect for Philly.

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