The Envelopes, Please
As the regular season draws to a close, the races for the individual awards are so close that it might be fairest to chop up the trophies and spread them around. For instance, Most Valuable Player honors could be divvied up as follows: the M to the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, the V to the Spurs' David Robinson and the P to the Bulls' Scottie Pippen. There hasn't been a season in recent memory with so many photo finishes, but, well, the time has come to name our winners:
MVP: Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets
Notwithstanding the unequivocal pronouncement on the cover of a certain magazine (SI, March 7) that Robinson is the Man, no one has come closer to single-handedly carrying a team than Olajuwon, who at week's end was third in the league in scoring (27.3 points per game) and tied for third in rebounding (12.0). Robinson, the scoring leader at 29.2, has been brilliant, but he has had rebounding maniac Dennis Rodman to relieve him of some of his responsibilities on the boards and even to guard opposing centers from time to time. Pippen has played like an MVP, but he has had lapses in which he hasn't comported himself like one, such as the night he reacted to booing by Chicago fans by pointing out that teammate Toni Kukoc hadn't received similarly harsh treatment despite having missed all of his field goal attempts.
Rookie of the Year: Chris Webber, Warriors
Webber nips the Magic's Anfernee Hardaway, mainly because Golden State threw him into the deep end of the pool right away—often playing him at center instead of his natural position at forward—yet as of Sunday he was still averaging 17.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.18 blocks. Statistically, Hardaway has been comparable, averaging 15.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists, but he has had the luxury of being brought along a bit more slowly than Webber, breaking in at off-guard for the first 45 games before the Magic put him in control at the point. Hardaway was allowed to be a complementary player while Webber, as the Warriors' only serious inside threat, was the focus of opposing defenses.
Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson, Bulls
Think back to when Michael Jordan retired last October, a month before the start of the season. If you had known then that the defending champion Bulls would go into the final week of the season with a chance to improve on last year's 57-25 mark and wind up with the best record in the Eastern Conference, wouldn't you have conceded this award to Jackson right then? Jackson has stopped up the Jordan gap with journeymen Pete Myers and Steve Kerr; he has coaxed more out of newly acquired centers Bill Wennington and Luc Longley than anyone knew they had; and he has introduced Kukoc, the rookie forward from Croatia, to life in the NBA. That's five new players in the Bulls' rotation, not one with an impressive NBA rèsumè. Granted, it's hard to argue against Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, who took over the Hawks this season and made them championship contenders. But running the Bulls during the first post-Jordan year was as big a challenge as a coach can have, and Jackson has handled it in masterly fashion.
Defensive Player of the Year: Scottie Pippen, Bulls
Nugget center Dikembe Mutombo (4.17 blocks per game, at week's end) has swatted away every shot in sight, and Olajuwon (3.65 blocks) has been his usual intimidating self. Sonic guards Gary Payton and Nate McMillan have spearheaded Seattle's smothering defense. But no one has been more versatile defensively than Pippen, who has stopped guards on the perimeter and big men in the low post and has ruled the passing lanes—which is why he was second in the NBA in steals at week's end, with 2.90 per game.
Sixth Man: Dell Curry, Hornets
Curry, who hasn't started a game all season, comes off the bench to stretch the defense with his outside shooting. Through Sunday he was averaging 16.4 points in only 26.8 minutes per game. His main competition for the award is virtually everybody on the Sonic bench, especially McMillan and Ricky Pierce, who might have edged Curry if injuries hadn't forced him to miss 31 games.
Most-Improved Player: Don MacLean, Bullets
When the Bullets traded Harvey Grant to Portland for Kevin Duckworth after last season, the small-forward job fell to MacLean, a 1992 first-round draft choice who averaged only 6.6 points per game his rookie year and was promptly labeled a bust. MacLean has responded by tying for the Bullets' scoring lead, with 18.5 points per game as of Sunday. Warrior second-year guard Latrell Sprewell deserves some consideration, but he was already a solid player before he blossomed into an All-Star this season.
No Magic Act
The great Magic Johnson coaching experiment, begun on March 27 with the hope that Magic's inspirational presence during the final 16 games of the regular season would spur the Lakers to the playoffs, ended the way many assumed it would. Last week Johnson decided that his time would be better spent as an entrepreneur, husband and father than in pacing the Laker sideline.
Johnson didn't hide the fact that he found it frustrating to deal with players of the '90s. "There's no question that it's hard to coach them," he said. "When you get that much money coming out [of college] and somebody says something to you, you can either take it or leave it. And then there are things like coming to practice on time. They don't care. That's the attitude now. It's changed a lot. Everybody cares about me. 'Where's my minutes? Where's my shots? What's wrong with my game?' It's a lot of that now, and I don't like that side of it."
What next, then, for the Lakers, who are shopping for their fifth coach in five years? College coaches Rick Pitino of Kentucky, Roy Williams of Kansas and Bob Huggins of Cincinnati have been mentioned, along with L.A. assistants Michael Cooper and Larry Drew. The Lakers' likely preference will be to try to entice former Knick coach Pitino, who will earn a $1 million bonus from Kentucky if he stays through the year 2000. Clearly, the Lakers' next coaching move is crucial for this storied franchise, which will miss the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
Line of the Week
Muggsy Bogues, Hornets 18 assists, one turnover, three steals.
His assist-to-turnover ratio for the season of 4.51 to 1 is tops in the NBA, but in a 112-108 Charlotte win over Orlando on April 14, the 5'3" guard outdid even himself. By the way, he also had eight points and three rebounds.
The way Olajuwon (left) and Webber bore their solitary burdens is award-worthy.
A dud as a rookie, MacLean elevated his game enough to merit most-improved honors.