So who will win in '89? Well, it might be easier at the outset to name a few worthy players who won't win.
Mark Price won't, even though he has propelled Cleveland to a 54-21 record. Offensive balance can be overrated—after all, Indiana, with eight, has the most double-figure scorers in the NBA—but not in the case of the Cavs, whose top players (Price, center Brad Daugherty, forward Larry Nance and guard Ron Harper) average within two points of one another. That's good for the Cavs, bad for MVP attention.
Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers won't win. They are the main reasons why the Phoenix Suns are better than anyone thought they would be this season. Kudos to both players, but neither will do much in the balloting. Chambers can score, but he doesn't rebound with the other big boys, Karl Malone and Olajuwon. And is Johnson a better point guard than Price? A tough call. Or Magic? Get serious. Or that kid in Chicago who took over the point guard position on March 11? (A little hint: His initials are M.J.)
Isiah Thomas won't win. If any other player had staged the phenomenal 43-point show he put on for the Pistons in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals, then returned to play on a severely sprained ankle in Game 7, that man would have been a candidate for canonization. But there is something about Isiah's style—his seeming lack of interest in games against weaker teams, his occasional carelessness with the ball—that prevents him from being a serious MVP candidate, although he is the leader of the NBA's best team. How much of a leader? Detroit will find out because Thomas, who broke his left index finger in a game against Chicago last Friday, may miss the rest of the regular season.
John Stockton won't win. Is it he, the point guard, who deserves the credit for what Riley calls the "symbiotic relationship" that exists between Stockton and Malone on Utah's fast break? Or is it Malone, the rim-rattling finisher? Tough question. Were the Mailman a one-dimensional player—purely a scorer or purely a rebounder—then Stockton, who leads the NBA in two categories (13.7 assists and 3.1 steals per game), would be the most important Jazzman on the floor. But Malone is not one-dimensional, and that makes Malone and Stockton 1 and 1A.
So who is the winner going to be?
It is surprising that the balloting is traditionally so one-sided, because no MVP criteria are specified by the NBA. "There should be two awards," says Riley. "One for most valuable and the other for most outstanding. They're two different things." The phrase "most valuable" is hopelessly subjective; a graduate philosophy seminar could gnaw on it for a semester. What is value? To one degree or another, the following qualities should be taken into consideration:
•The Stat Factor. The MVP should have double-figure numbers, or be close, in at least two categories. Or, like Jordan and Olajuwon, he should be impressive in three or more categories.
•The Standings Factor. The MVP should come from a team that is within shouting distance of the leaders or, at the very least, a team that is living up to expectations.
•The Big-Game Factor. The MVP should rise to the occasion. The exhausting NBA season has a natural ebb and flow, and the best players know how to read it.