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Candidates Abound in Race for NBA MVP

Baltimore Sun

Most Valuable Player is one of those ambiguous phrases the National Basketball Association uses, adding to the confusion of the media members chosen to select the annual award winner.

Does MVP mean the best player in the league or the player most indispensable to his team? This season, with so many worthy candidates, the selection process is tougher than ever.

If you check the last 10 winners, you would get the idea it is next to impossible for an MVP to be selected if he plays for a non-contending team. Often, he plays for a team that goes on to the NBA Finals.

There are exceptions, of course. In 1981, Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers won the award even though the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets were the finalists. The following year, Moses Malone, then with Houston, was the MVP while the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia vied for the title.

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And last year, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls won the award while the Lakers repeated as champions by beating the Detroit Pistons.

Recently, the sports network ESPN ran a fan poll for most valuable player and Jordan was an easy winner. It’s true, “Air Jordan” is the closest thing to a one-man team in the NBA, and his superlative averages for assists (8.1) and steals (2.96) are indisputable.

But, is Jordan any more valuable to the Bulls than Magic Johnson is to the Lakers, Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks, Akeem Olajuwon to Houston, Karl Malone to the Utah Jazz or Charles Barkley to the 76ers?

Says three-time MVP Larry Bird of Boston, who has missed most of this season after heel surgery, “I think Michael Jordan is the best player, but Magic is the MVP because he does so many things. The bottom line is that Magic can adjust his game to whatever the Lakers need.

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“I’ve seen Magic do so many things at the end of a game to win for the Lakers -- make the big shot, steal or assist. If somebody was starting a team, I’d take Magic first and Michael second.”

Jordan also has proved adaptable. His scoring is down from last year (35.0 to 32.6), but his assist and rebound totals have improved considerably since Chicago Coach Doug Collins shifted him to point guard a month ago.

“I think Michael’s the most valuable player,” said Collins. “When you consider what he gives to his team every night and his value to the league, I think he’s the best player in basketball.”

Said Jordan, “If I had a vote, I’d give it to Karl Malone. He’s had an MVP-type year. I always wanted to win at least one MVP award, and I’ve done that. If I do it again, I’ll be very pleased, but it’s not something high on my list. I’d rather see us win a divisional title and a world championship.”

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There also is a strong argument for Rockets center Olajuwon, who is 10th in scoring (24.8) and first in rebounding (13.3).

“He’s ‘Mr. Money,’ ” said Rockets Coach Don Chaney. “With four minutes to go in a game, you give him the ball and he delivers. He’s the most consistent player I’ve ever seen, and I played with some great ones, like John Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes.”

In the East, there is a groundswell on behalf of Ewing, who is reaching the vast potential he showed as a three-time All-American at Georgetown.

“I think Patrick is the best center in the game,” said Cleveland Cavaliers center Brad Daugherty. “I think he’d be MVP on any team. But, there seems to be a prejudice against him because he plays in New York. People think if you’re scoring, you’re having a good game. But a lot of guys score and get scored on all night. It’s not that way with Patrick.”

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Said Knicks Coach Rick Pitino, “Patrick is doing everything for us this year. He’s scoring and rebounding better, and playing tougher defense. He’s the big reason we’ve been so successful.”

Ewing also gets an endorsement from Johnson, who said, “Last year, he started showing what he could do, but this year, he’s taken his game to a higher plateau. In the past, you could double-team him, and he’d try things he couldn’t do. But, now he finds the open man so well, and when he makes a mistake, he no longer gets upset with himself.”

Perhaps Barkley has the best approach to the MVP voting, saying, “I know I’m one of the best players in the league. I can play with anybody. I don’t need the MVP trophy to tell me that.”

The Pistons, who have the league’s best record, don’t have a strong candidate for MVP. Maybe the league should start a new award for best team chemistry.

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Mind games: Teams try to get a psychological edge over opponents they might face in a playoff situation. Right now, the Knicks and 76ers are heading for a first-round match-up, and although New York will finish higher in the standings, Philadelphia won the season series, 4-2, including a 115-112 victory Sunday at The Spectrum.

“We’ve also beaten them in Madison Square Garden twice,” said Barkley, “but that could be a double-edged sword. You have to wonder how many more times that will happen.”

Oddly, the Knicks probably would be more confident playing against the Pistons, whom they beat in the season series, 4-0.

“I’d like to think we’ve got the edge on them,” said Ewing. “There is something about playing the Pistons that brings out the best in us.”

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There also is a likely first-round pairing between Cleveland and Chicago. The Cavaliers completed a 5-0 sweep of the season series Sunday.

Cleveland power forward Larry Nance isn’t likely to be overconfident against Jordan and Co. “In 1984, when I was with Phoenix, Portland beat us all year,” he said, “but then we whipped them in the playoffs.”


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