By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The best players in the NBA, including some of the best ever, watch every night with the same astonishment as regular folk. They get home and quickly surf channels for the highlights, or consult their PDAs for the up-to-the-second details. Did LeBron James have another triple-double? Did Kobe get 50? Did Dwyane Wade win the game by blocking a shot or hitting a 25-foot runner at the buzzer?
The most fascinating race for MVP in years has come down to the final dozen games and it's impossible to know which of the three will win. But watching it unfold has been thrilling to the point of exhaustion. Shaquille O'Neal, who has a definitive opinion on just about everything, paused for an extra long time Monday night when I asked him who he would vote for, if the season ended that very moment, for MVP.
"It's too hard," Shaq, the 2000 MVP, said. "When I was young and coming up in this league, the MVP was the guy who almost always was head and shoulders above the rest of the guys in the league that year. This year? . . . I just don't know yet. They're too even. LeBron is the perfect player; he does everything right in a basketball sense. If a teammate is open, LeBron gets him the ball, period. Kobe is like his nickname: Black Mamba. He can just flick on that button, pull 60 points out of his bag, strike you in one second. And D-Wade is a mixture of both right now, and he doesn't have the team that Kobe and LeBron do. . . . It's too hard, bro. . . . We gotta see what happens in these final games."
Steve Nash, the MVP in 2005 and '06, said: "Whatever happens, it can't be controversial. Today? I don't know. Something could happen in the last 10 games. . . . They're all doing something special. The Lakers have so much depth . . . LeBron has elevated his team. And Dwyane has made it all the way back. You could make the case that Dwyane and LeBron are separating themselves a little bit."
Others at US Airways Center were a little closer to certainty, while reserving the right to change their minds between now and the end of the regular season, April 15.
Grant Hill: "LeBron." Hill, while he never has been MVP, is uniquely qualified because he's spent his career guarding first Kobe, then Wade and LeBron as one of the league's most versatile perimeter defenders. "Having said that, these last 10 games, whoever gets hot or stays hot could win . . . the last thing the voter thinks about will probably decide the outcome. Kobe, we know, can go on a tear at any time. LeBron has these games where he scores 40, which alone is impressive enough. And then he has a triple-double. And he's had a string of them. It's really unbelievable what he's doing, this stretch he's in right now.
"Who's tougher for me to cover? They're all tough," Hill said. "But Wade is always attacking . . . and the way the rules are today, it's tougher because you can't ride a guy the way you could 10, 12 years ago. Wade is always looking to drive. . . . For a guy who was hurt, he's come back awfully fast and completely. . . . I was watching him the other night thinking, 'I don't remember him being that quick and that fast before he got hurt.' I really don't."
Hill, a U.S. Olympian in 1996, thinks something else has fueled the three-way race. "The Olympics. If you remember, Charles [Barkley] had his best season [MVP in 1993] the year coming off the Olympics. . . . He was in the best shape of his career because nothing compares to playing, practicing especially, at that level of intensity the entire summer. I practiced every day against Scottie Pippen. With these three guys, they're coming off winning gold, they were pushing each other every day, they were picking things up from each other every day. . . . They came in sharp, ready to go."
Carmelo Anthony: "D-Wade." Like an increasing number of players, Anthony is astonished that Wade, diminished by injuries the last two seasons, is carrying a team with one greatly reduced former all-star (Jermaine O'Neal) and a bunch of kids. "The story of D-Wade does it for me," Anthony said. "The season that he's having, to come back to this level. . . . He would get my vote. Look, LeBron is out of this world, all these triple-doubles. Kobe's ability to kill you . . . we all know that. But D-Wade -- and I didn't think this was possible -- has come all the way back and he totally turned around his team at the same time."
Kenyon Martin: "LeBron. What Cleveland has done at home [32-1] is crazy. And LeBron does that thing we all talk about: He makes everybody better with those triple-doubles. He's even brought Wally [Szczerbiak] back to life," Martin said, smiling. "I think LeBron is at that point where he understands exactly what it takes now. . . . Let me say this, though, about D-Wade: I watched every Olympic basketball game over the summer . . . woke up at crazy hours to watch 'em live. Wade is back. I mean all the way back."
Martin, when healthy early in his career, helped the New Jersey Nets get to the NBA Finals twice. But he has played for years through injuries, a couple of them serious. "People write you off, and you have to have more motivation to come back and show them you're not done," Martin said. "To me, it seems like Wade is playing like there's no tomorrow, like he's got a determination to prove he's all the way back.
"The thing about Kobe," Martin continued, "is that less is more. When any team has a guy taking 30 shots a night, the other players don't know when they're going to get the ball, and when they do they're not in a rhythm to make shots. Now, Kobe's not forcing anything. They've got Gasol getting 16 in a quarter now. Farmar and Vujacic get involved early. . . . Because Kobe gets them involved, their confidence is sky-high by the fourth quarter and that makes the Lakers a better team. Kobe's scoring is down but he's made his team better, which has to count for more, right?"
Here are my impressions:
The last MVP to play for a team that didn't win 50 games in a full season was Moses Malone in 1982, and his numbers (31.1 points, 14.7 rebounds a game) were just overwhelming. Wade's team, though through no fault of his own, isn't going to win 50 games. If there were a "Most Outstanding Player" award, Wade would win, hands down. He has to, and is asked to, do more for his team every single night than either LeBron or Kobe. And Wade is the best defender of the three.
Two weeks ago, Wade seemed like a third-party candidate. But now, as Wade continues to win games in a variety of ways that live night after night on video, it seems he might be gaining enough momentum to surpass Kobe, the reigning MVP.
Kobe is still the player I'd want to have the ball in the final 10 seconds of any game. People have finally, it seems, moved past whether they like him or don't to appreciate the way he has morphed his game, the way he has evolved as a teammate and a leader. As Shaq and Hill know better than most, Kobe could end the season with six or seven spectacular performances.
LeBron appears to have a slight lead now, and by now I mean today though not necessarily tomorrow. His five triple-doubles in six games recently -- all on the road -- have led me to see him -- and I can't believe I'm writing this but this is how good he's become -- as a modern-day Oscar Robertson.
If the voting ended today, my vote would go to LeBron, with Kobe second and D-Wade third. But there are three weeks left in the regular season. It could come down to a tiebreaker as simple as the league's best record. And in that department, Kobe's Lakers and LeBron's Cavaliers have gone back and forth.
Hill and I talked about the days of his NBA youth, when Michael Jordan was battling Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Karl Malone for the league's top individual honor. "I think what this is reminding us," Hill said, "is that regardless of who retires and moves on, there are incredibly talented players who come along. And right now, if you're a fan of great basketball and great players, you've got a lot of players to pay attention to and three special ones you have to watch every single night because they've got it."