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MVP Field Is SRO

Last year's MVP balloting produced the closest race in NBA history, with Magic Johnson (636 votes) edging out Charles Barkley (614) and Michael Jordan (571) to win his third Maurice Podoloff Trophy in four years. Those three superstars will again figure prominently in the MVP voting, but the field of challengers is larger this year. Here's our early MVP line, starting with the long shots:

•Joe Dumars, Pistons, and Patrick Ewing, Knicks. Odds: 20-1. Dumars showed his mettle (not that he hadn't done so before) when backcourt mate Isiah Thomas left the Pistons in late January to have surgery on his right wrist. In Thomas's absence, Dumars has averaged 22 points per game while handling most of the point-guard responsibilities and continuing his bulldog defensive play. Had the Pistons won steadily during this trying stretch, the kid from Natchitoches, La., would be a stronger MVP candidate. Nevertheless, Dumars has done an amazing job. Ewing has the right numbers (26.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.38 blocks) in the wrong year. The Knicks' desultory play will keep him back with the also-rans.

• Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler, Trail Blazers. Odds: 14-1. Even Portland coach Rick Adelman can't choose between his two backcourt starters for the MVP. The Blazers should consider it an honor to have two such high-caliber players.

•Karl Malone, Jazz; Kevin Johnson, Suns; and Larry Bird, Celtics. Odds: 12-1. The Jazz are at last winning some big games on the road, and the Mailman is the major reason. He still faces the "Stockton problem"—i.e., how can a voter separate Malone's success up front from that of point guard John Stockton, who is responsible for getting him the ball? That's why Malone, despite having MVP numbers, won't win.

Neither will KJ. Though Johnson is having a brilliant season statistically (22 points, 9.9 assists, 2.29 steals), the Suns have had chemistry problems, some revolving around KJ's ball distribution.

And while Bird's three-point shooting, defensive rebounding and inestimable presence have been major ingredients in the Celtics' renaissance, he is shooting too erratically and getting burned too often on defense to be the MVP.

•Dominique Wilkins, Hawks. Odds: 8-1. The attention given to the "new Nique" is entirely justified, given the level to which Wilkins has elevated his all-around game. But then compare him with Jordan in terms of his role on the team, his size and his playing style: Wilkins accounts for 24% of the Hawks' points, 20% of their rebounds, 14% of their assists, 18% of their steals and 18% of their blocked shots; Jordan's percentages with Chicago in those categories are 28, 15, 20, 29 and 17, respectively.

•David Robinson, Spurs. Odds: 4-1. There is no doubt that he is capable of dominating as completely as anyone in the NBA today. (And maybe as completely as anyone since Wilt Chamberlain.) Right now, though, there are disturbing lapses in Robinson's game—stretches where he doesn't make it upcourt to join the offense, or times when he is not aggressive enough in calling for the ball. He will be an MVP, but not this year.

•Magic Johnson, Lakers. Odds: 3-1. L.A. is still a big, beautiful float in the NBA parade, and Magic still drives it. Though there have been years when his court savvy more than matched the astonishing physical talents of Jordan and Barkley, this isn't one of them. Magic seems to sense it, too. After his eight-point performance in a 99-94 loss in Milwaukee last week, he said this to an L.A. reporter: "I had nothing left to give. I'm out of it right now. Sometimes you reach that point in a season and I've reached it. It's like I'm running in quicksand."

•Barkley, 76ers, and Jordan, Bulls. Odds: 3-2. The question is not whether Barkley's occasionally outlandish behavior on the court works against him in the MVP race. It does. The question is, Should it work against him?

No, says Portland guard Danny Ainge: "The things Charles does do not affect his play negatively. In fact, they help his play."

Yes, says Denver forward Orlando Woolridge: "An MVP doesn't consistently get himself thrown out of games so he can't help his team."

Still, though Barkley remains unpredictable on the court, he has cut down on his technicals (10) and ejections (one) this season. Night after night, he shoulders as much of his team's burden as anyone in the league, Jordan included. Everyone expected the Sixers (33-27 at week's end) to fall into the Schuylkill River when point guard Johnny Dawkins went down in the fourth game of the season, but Charles has kept them afloat.

Jordan, meanwhile, has been routinely sensational. Over the past six seasons he has been called the best player, the most talented player, the most dominating player, but he has been called the most valuable only once (in 1987-88). This is largely because his leadership qualities have not measured up to Magic's or Bird's, and his team has generally not measured up to the Pistons or Lakers. Well, the chemistry among this year's Bulls isn't nearly as bad as some reports have made it out to be, and Jordan's hold as team leader is as secure as anyone's in the league. And he is still the best basketball player in the world.

Barring injury or precipitous decline, Jordan is our MVP choice for this season. And, Charles, it has nothing to do with personalities.

A Singular Honor
Detroit News columnist Shelby Strother, a distinctive voice in sports journalism and a distinctive human being as well, died of liver cancer on March 3. He was 44. Some of his best columns were written about the Pistons, and the team decided to honor him by wearing black patches on its uniform jerseys for the rest of the season. That is a rare honor for a sports-writer. NBA public relations director Brian McIntyre is considering another unusual remembrance of Strother: The press credentials for this year's Finals might be imprinted with the pattern of a Hawaiian shirt, Shelby's choice of attire seven days a week, 365 days a year. "If we can find the right printer," said McIntyre, "we'll do it."

Rating the Trades

An important chunk of the Western Conference put on a new face in the preseason. Who looks good? And whose makeup is a little smudged? Here are our ratings of how the major trades and free-agent signings have worked out, in the order of their impact.

Danny Ainge to the Blazers. Portland wanted outside shooting when it got Ainge from the Kings in exchange for guard Byron Irvin, two future draft picks and cash, and Ainge has slid seamlessly into that role. The Blazers will probably win more regular-season games than last year's 59, and Ainge will make them even more dangerous in the playoffs.

Jeff Malone to the Jazz. Utah rescued Malone from the NBA dead zone known as Landover, Md.—the Bullets play there, by the way—and Malone has been everything his new team hoped for when it made the three-way deal also involving the Kings. He might never again be an All-Star if he stays in the West, but his .516 field goal percentage, the best of his career, has taken loads of pressure off both Stockton and Karl Malone.

Sam Perkins and Terry Teagle to the Lakers. Perkins, a free agent from the Mavs, has given L.A. exactly what it wanted—steady offensive production and versatile defense. Teagle, who came in a trade with the Warriors for a 1991 first-round draft pick, has not; he is shooting .424 from the floor, and the hope that he would spell James Worthy at small forward for long stretches has not been fulfilled (Teagle isn't much of a passer either; he's averaging just 1.1 assists per game). Perhaps Teagle will heat up in the playoffs and turn this deal into a winner.

Paul Pressey to the Spurs. With the improved play of both Robinson and small forward Sean Elliott, Pressey's presence with San Antonio has been somewhat overlooked. That is, until point guard Rod Strickland went down with a broken hand on Feb. 2. Pressey, who arrived from Milwaukee in a deal for frontcourtman Frank Brickowski, promptly changed into his point forward costume. When you trade for a versatile player like Pressey, you generally don't lose.

Fat Lever and Rodney McCray to the Mavericks. The Ides of March find the Mavs fighting off such challengers as Orlando and Minnesota. Ah, an asterisk, please. After all, Lever hasn't played since Nov. 7 because of a knee injury. And McCray, a classic complementary player, suddenly finds himself short of complements, what with Lever and Roy Tarpley (the victim of another knee injury) in street clothes. Maybe next year, Mavs.

Spud's No Dud

The NBA's 1986 slam-dunk champion has had exactly two jams the entire season. Aching knees and five years of being tossed around like a leaf in a windstorm have diminished the aerial magic of Spud Webb. In one respect, that's good. Any lingering suspicions that Webb was just a novelty act have been eradicated by his steady, ever-developing all-around play at point guard for the Hawks.

In this week's poll we matched the 5'7" Webb against the other prominent NBA player known for his lack of stature, Charlotte's 5'3" Muggsy Bogues. It was no contest: Spud 19 votes, Muggsy two.

Bogues is known, and deservedly so, for taking care of the ball—his assist-to-turn-over ratio of 5.9 to 1 is best in the league—and he stalks his taller opponents tenaciously if not always efficaciously. "Muggsy's a bigger pest," said one of the two Bogues balloters admiringly. A weightlifting program helped turn Webb into a three-point threat—he has 36 treys this season, Bogues has zero—and Webb is the NBA's 11th-best foul shooter, with an .879 percentage.

Webb's biggest problem is staying healthy. After he was knocked to the floor four times in two games recently, someone told him that his teammates will eventually learn to protect him. Said Spud, "I don't think I can last that long." He was only kidding; Webb has lasted longer than anyone thought he would.



Barkley shoulders many burdens as the Sixers' main man.



In the estimation of the voters, Webb towers over Bogues.