- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The lobbying has begun. The phone rang the other day and Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was on the line. He wasn't asking for any help in trying to figure out why his team could score only 61 points against the Pistons.
He was boosting some of his players for NBA postseason awards. He did the same thing two years ago in Detroit. And, much like then, he missed out on one viable candidate -- himself.
Then came an e-mail, addressed to me personally, by Pacers president Donnie Walsh. I always wondered what he was doing with all the time on his hands since Larry Bird came on board. Walsh's cyber missive contained three, spiffy PDF files -- I don't think the one promoting Ron Artest had a virus -- which, on paper, endorsed the same three Pacers (Jermaine O'Neal, Artest and Al Harrington) in the same fashion as Carlisle did through conversation and not-so-subtle persuasion.
They tried to make a case for all three, offering up O'Neal for Most Valuable Player and first-team All-NBA. I'm here to say that while he may be a legit candidate for both awards, you cannot possibly pick an MVP out of the Eastern Conference. (Unless, of course, it's Rasheed Wallace.)
That is not to say that the MVP award we all thought was already engraved with Kevin Garnett's name on it may be sort of like that Claret Jug that had Jean Van de Velde's name on it before he misplayed the 18th at Carnoustie in 1999. Tim Duncan is making his annual March/April charge. Kobe Bryant has been otherworldly since the All-Star break. The guess here is that Garnett has had a full-season's body of work for one of the top teams in the undeniably tougher conference and that he should win his first MVP.
Sorry, Donnie. Sorry, Rick. While it's tempting to think of an Eastern Conference MVP, the math -- not to mention the logic -- just doesn't add up. O'Neal has had a terrific season. It just hasn't been better than Garnett's and, in the end, it may not be better than Duncan's. In other words, O'Neal might finish among the top three in MVP voting (he's certainly no worse than fourth) and he still won't make first-team All-NBA because of the position (forward) he plays.
If you go by the test that the MVP is the best player on the best team, then O'Neal is a safe, if flawed, choice. The Pacers should finish with the league's best record, but after what happened to them last Sunday in Detroit, do you think they're a deadbolt lock to even make it out of the East? Then again, Indiana can't be the best team in the league no matter how many games it wins because it plays in the New York-Penn League Eastern Conference.
The Pacers argue that their Eastern Conference-best 20-8 record against the Western Conference this season makes O'Neal a viable candidate. True, but against the West's Big Four (Lakers, Kings, Spurs, Wolves) the Pacers are 3-5, including 0-4 on the road. Even the Celtics won in Minnesota.
In the area of double-doubles, Garnett is the runaway leader. Duncan is in second place, well ahead of O'Neal who, as Walsh sat down to carefully craft his letter, was tied with, um, Erick Dampier for third place. In the East, O'Neal is the King of the Double-Doubles; but he's beating out Jamaal Magloire and Carlos Boozer.
Still, O'Neal shouldn't be eliminated from consideration simply for playing in the weaker conference (although he could have moved to the Men's Club last summer when he was a free agent.) But maybe it's time the Pacers advocate for two MVPs, two Rookies, two Coaches, etc. Baseball does it. And, for the last couple of years, the NBA's weekly and monthly honors have been along conference lines. Why not continue it into the postseason?
In that case, there would be no MVP argument in the East. O'Neal has been the undeniable Beast of the East all season, or at least until he got defanged last Sunday (nine points, nine rebounds) by the Pistons. The Pacers have been pretty consistent winners since the bell rang. And, as most of us grudgingly have to admit, we may have a competitive, hotly contested NBA Finals this year because each team out West has its warts.
But if you split the postseason awards into conferences, you'd avoid the LeBron-Carmelo debate; they'd each be Rookies of the Year. The coaching situation would probably boil down to a Jerry-Hubie contest in the West and a Carlisle-Stan Van Gundy contest in the East.
But as long as we're picking one winner, not two, the guy who makes the most sense for MVP is Garnett. That's a hard admission for someone who considers himself to be a dues-paying member of the Tim Duncan Fan Club. But Garnett has been spectacular all season long. He doesn't miss games. His team has been at or near the top of the toughest conference all season long. He's leading the league in rebounding. He plays outside and inside. He's a leader on and off the floor. It's been his year.
We always wondered what the Wolves would do if good players surrounded Garnett. We now know. Garnett may still be a bit too unselfish for some of us -- OK, he should be more assertive when the game is on the line -- but he has driven Minnesota to a possible division title. Even more critical, maybe, just maybe, he can lead them to a victory in the first round of the playoffs. Can a parade be far behind?
Let's put it this way: If we're going to give him the MVP award, he'd better lead his team out of the first round. The last MVP not to do that was Moses Malone in 1982, when his Houston Rockets were ousted in a best-of-three series by Seattle in the first round. (Six teams had better records that season than the 46-36 Rockets, yet Malone won his first of two consecutive MVPs.)
But, as we all know, the MVP is based on what happens between Games 1 and 82. And no one has been more consistent, more productive, more dominating and more successful this season than Garnett. He may not get as far in the postseason as O'Neal does. But he has made an emphatic statement in the regular season that can't be overlooked.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
With coaches like Rick Carlisle on the campaign trail, the MVP race could be closer than we think.