For the past few months NBA observers have been debating what is perhaps the most intriguing and wide-open MVP race in history. Now it has gotten even more intriguing and wide open with the renaissance of the Philadelphia 76ers, led by—who else?—Allen Iverson.
In the three weeks since the All-Star break, the Sixers have won 14 of 16 games and vaulted from seventh to third place in the Eastern Conference; Iverson has been, as usual, the team's top offensive threat. But beyond his 27.6 points per game in that stretch, he has become a more effective all-around player. He has increased his league-leading steals average to 2.68. His playmaking, usually an afterthought, has been economical and productive. "He's putting people in position with simple passes," says backcourt partner Eric Snow. "His overall game has gotten better, and it's taken the focus off how many shots he's taken and how many points he's scored." Snow adds that Iverson has taken more of a leadership role: "He's more vocal. He's telling guys how important situations are, how important games are. In the past he's left that up to me."
Iverson, the 2000-01 MVP, has always been a little man who does big things; now he's doing the little things as well. Coach Larry Brown points to last Friday night's 90-79 win over the Portland Trail Blazers: Though Iverson scored only two points in the fourth quarter, he was the best player on the floor, distributing the ball in place of the injured Snow, who had suffered a cut on his hand. "He's in a good frame of mind these days," says Brown. "He's proud of the way he's played and proud of the way the team has picked up and gotten better."
The key to Iverson's MVP candidacy is that he's peaking now. The play of Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, who a month ago was a stronger contender than Iverson, has leveled off (albeit at a very high level). Another top candidate, Kobe Bryant, was sensational in February, but as Shaquille O'Neal returns to health, he will carry more of the load for the Los Angeles Lakers. And just as Iverson's March run has propelled Philly to within a half game of the New Jersey Nets in the Atlantic Division, so too has it driven him past MVP aspirant and league-leading scorer Tracy McGrady, whose Orlando Magic is struggling to hold on to a playoff spot.
Iverson still has two huge mountains to climb over: Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. Garnett cast his vote for Bryant last week, then paused to think. "A.I.'s in there, too," he said. "What that little man does every night...." Garnett shook his head in wonder. "I mean, they call him 6 feet, but there's no way he's that big. He throws his body in there, plays hard every minute. I love watching him. Love it. He's gotta be considered." Consider him considered.