The balloting for the NBA'S Most Valuable Player usually carries with it all the suspense of an April showdown between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers. For whatever reason, there have been only three close MVP races in the last 15 seasons, and only one involved more than two candidates.
"I don't know whether it's emotional or what, but the MVP award has been about bandwagons," said Los Angeles Laker coach Pat Riley. "I'm not saying there haven't been good choices, but the award should have more candidates."
Well, Pat, this may be the year. As the regular season moves toward its denouement, there are at least half a dozen viable candidates for the award and perhaps two or three more who might steal a first-place vote from the writers and broadcasters who fill out the ballots. That hasn't happened since 1976, when the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Buffalo Braves' Bob McAdoo and the Boston Celtics' Dave Cowens all finished within five first-place votes of one another, Abdul-Jabbar winning with 52.
"The perennials, Magic [Johnson] and Michael [Jordan], are still there," says Detroit Piston coach Chuck Daly, "but the addition of a whole bunch of other guys is making it interesting."
Adds Atlanta Hawk guard Doc Rivers, "This is one of the few years there isn't a clear-cut favorite." Another player with more than passing interest in the voting, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, says, "This is the year somebody else [besides Magic, the 1987 winner, and Jordan, the 1988 winner] could break through."
Why has the race opened up? For several reasons. The teams with the best records in the NBA, Detroit and the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not have serious MVP candidates. (Perhaps that's why they have the league's best records.) The resurgence of the New York Knicks has forced voters to consider a player from the media capital, something that hasn't happened since the Knicks' Bernard King finished a distant second to Boston's Larry Bird in 1985. Magic and Jordan have established such consistently high standards for themselves that, without a dramatic rise in their personal stats or in the performances of their teams, it is easy to take them for granted.
Then, too, the formidable trio of the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley. Utah's Malone and the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon has now been around long enough—i.e., paid the "dues" that the voters unconsciously demand—to be considered for the award. All three are having terrific seasons. Finally, with Bird on the shelf after surgery on Nov. 19 to remove bone spurs from his feet, there are no Celtic MVP candidates, and Celtics have won the award 10 times in 33 seasons (Bill Russell has five MVPs, Bird has three, Bob Cousy and Cowens one each).
It is a virtual certainty that this year's MVP will not come from a bad team. He rarely does. The only two MVPs to be chosen from sub-.500 teams were the St. Louis Hawks' Bob Pettit in 1956—the first winner of the award, which is named for Maurice Podoloff, the NBA's original commissioner—and the Lakers' Abdul-Jabbar in '76.
Centers dominated the MVP balloting for many years—Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic and Jordan are the only guards to have won; Pettit, who was MVP twice, Philadelphia's Julius Erving and Bird, a three-time winner, are the only forwards—but that ceased to be the case as the game got faster and forwards became more prominent.
The voters like players who score—since '56 eight MVPs have been leading scorers, including Jordan last year. They also have liked rebounders. Eleven league-leaders have been MVPs, and rebounding was the major consideration in some of the more surprising selections: for instance, rookie Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets in 1969 and Cowens in 1973.