Crown Shaquille O'Neal as MVP and Steve Francis as the top
The NBA won't start handing out its official awards until next
month, but why wait? SI has its list of trophy winners ready.
The envelopes, please.
Most Valuable Player
Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers. He said he'd be the MVP
someday, but even he didn't predict such a landslide victory.
The most dominating player on the league's most dominating team,
O'Neal leaves runners-up Gary Payton, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and
Kevin Garnett in Shaq Diesel fumes. What's nearly 400 errant
free throws when you're first in the league in scoring (29.7
points per game through Sunday), second in rebounding (13.6),
first in field goal percentage (57.4) and fourth in blocks (3.05)?
Rookie of the Year
Steve Francis, Houston Rockets. No disrespect to Bulls forward
Elton Brand, who had a fine year, but this kid is going
places--in a hurry. With Charles Barkley retired and Hakeem
Olajuwon slowed by injuries, Francis gave Rockets fans reason to
smile. What's more, he played with such joie de vivre, we
forgive him for holding the Grizzlies hostage and forcing them
to trade him to Houston.
Coach of the Year
Doc Rivers, Orlando Magic. Lakers coach Phil Jackson certainly
gives you pause, but the bottom line is, most NBA previews
projected the Magic to be among the three worst teams in the
league. Instead, Orlando battled for a playoff spot into the
Sixth Man Award
Rodney Rogers, Phoenix Suns. Who says former Clippers can't turn
Most Improved Player
Tracy McGrady, Toronto Raptors. Last season he was an
overmatched 19-year-old kid. This season his distant cousin and
teammate Vince Carter got more plaudits, but McGrady served
notice that he's an up-and-coming star as well. It's just a
question of where he'll be playing when he reaches stardom.
Defensive Player of the Year
Alonzo Mourning, Miami Heat. He anchors the defense on a team
that thinks about little else. Now if only his teammates could
siphon more of his intensity.
Executive of the Year
John Gabriel, Magic. It doesn't matter if he ends up with
neither Tim Duncan nor Grant Hill. He gutted a franchise
destined for years of mediocrity and salary-cap headaches and
provided it with valuable options.
Worst Career Decision
Bison Dele, erstwhile Detroit Piston. With Patrick Ewing (age
37), David Robinson (34) and Rik Smits (33) all headed for a
chaise lounge in the next three years, the 30-year-old Dele
could have become one of the top big men in the game by default.
Instead, he bolted for Beirut, walking out on the last five
years of a seven-year, $45 million contract.
Biggest Waste of Talent
Shawn Kemp, Cleveland Cavaliers. What has happened to Kemp, who
should have been an All-Star lifer? The shame of it is that even
at half speed he puts up numbers other power forwards would kill
Most Intriguing Player
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks. Don Nelson was right after all.
This guy's the real deal, and he's only 21. A year after
spending his rookie season adjusting to the rhythms of the NBA,
he's well on his way to eclipsing Detlef Schrempf as the best
German to play in the U.S.
Vancouver Grizzlies coach Brian Hill, fired on Dec. 17 after the
Grizzlies, coming off an 8-42 season, started the year 4-18: "I
think I deserve an explanation."
When Charlotte guard David Wesley looked in his rearview mirror
and watched in horror as friend and teammate Bobby Phills lost
control of his Porsche.
When San Antonio's Sean Elliott pulled off his warmups on March
14 and became the first athlete in professional sports history
to compete with a transplanted kidney.
Let the Mind Games Begin
It's a rite of spring. As the regular season draws to a close
and the playoffs loom, NBA coaches begin playing mind games in
hopes of galvanizing their teams for a final push that would
carry over into the postseason. From Heat coach Pat Riley
threatening to bench his veterans after a 90-73 loss at
Detroit--a defeat Riley called "absolute bull"--to the Trail
Blazers' Mike Dunleavy bemoaning Portland's lack of a
"natural-born leader," many of the league's bench bosses last
week took motivational jabs at their players.
In some cases, though, the psychological tactics were directed
against opponents. George Karl, whose underachieving Bucks were
scrapping with the surprising Magic for the Eastern Conference's
final playoff spot, excoriated Orlando's management. "We talk
about players' not having loyalty," said Karl. "[Magic general
manager] John Gabriel and his organization aren't going to have
any loyalty. There's a chance only four or five players will be
back on the team. What a great reward to guys who have busted
their butts all year." Orlando coach Doc Rivers took the high
road. "I just hope I never have to do that to get my team
ready," he responded, adding, when asked if he'd lost respect
for Karl, "The only thing I don't respect with George is the
T-shirt-sport coat combination."
Not to be outdone, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the maestro of
mind games, expressed glee at the prospect of Los Angeles's
playing the Sonics in the first round. "We've caught them,
reeled them in and beaten them," he says. He also blithely
dismissed the Spurs, the league's defending champs, as winners
in an "asterisk season," a reference to last year's
lockout-shortened schedule. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn't
take the bait, but veteran guard Terry Porter did. "I would like
to see if all that Zen stuff would work in Vancouver or Dallas."
Ouch! --L. Jon Wertheim
Line of the Week
Bulls forward Elton Brand, April 13 versus the Wizards: 43
minutes, 16-21 FG, 12-15 FT, 44 points, 12 rebounds (7
offensive), 3 blocks, 2 assists. While he may not be SI's Rookie
of the Year, Brand showed that he can be a dominating force: His
career-high 44 points included 14 straight field goals, breaking
the club mark of 11 in a row set by...no, not Michael Jordan,
but Clem Haskins, in 1970.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The flashy Francis has put up winning numbers: 18.0 points, 6.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game.
SI's All-NBA Team
F--Tim Duncan, San Antonio
F--Grant Hill, Detroit
C--Shaquille O'Neal, L.A.
G--Gary Payton, Seattle
G--Jason Kidd, Phoenix
F--Karl Malone, Utah
F--Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
C--Alonzo Mourning, Miami
G--Kobe Bryant, L.A.
G--Allen Iverson, Philadelphia
F--Chris Webber, Sacramento
F--Vince Carter, Toronto
C--David Robinson, San Antonio
G--John Stockton, Utah
G--Eddie Jones, Charlotte
Around The Rim
Mark Cuban, whose purchase of the Mavericks was approved last
week by the NBA board of governors, says he has no regrets about
having signed Dennis Rodman earlier this season. Perhaps he
ought to consider this: Through Sunday, Dallas was 29-19 since
Jan. 7. During Rodman's tenure, from Feb. 9 to March 8, the
Mavericks went 4-9....
Steve Francis has offered to lend his Corvette to Rockets ball
boy Landon Speijhts, who doesn't have transportation to his high
In an effort to shake up his moribund Sonics, who had lost nine
of their previous 11 games, coach Paul Westphal on April 12
inserted Lazaro Borrell, a little-used reserve forward, in the
starting lineup against the Timberwolves. The first Cuban-born
player to start in an NBA game, Borrell responded with 10 points
and nine rebounds in a 110-83 Seattle victory....
From the cart-before-the-horse department: The status of Hawks
general manager Pete Babcock and coach Lenny Wilkens may be in
limbo, but the housecleaning has already begun in Atlanta. The
Hawks are looking for a new marketing agency....
Third-year forward Austin Croshere figures prominently in the
Pacers' postseason plans. Last year he played one minute in
Indiana's run to the Eastern Conference finals....
The Bulls lost a team-record 59th game, in Milwaukee, where
Chicago won its NBA single-season-record 70th game just four
years ago. --L.J.W.