Magic Johnson believes that he had one of his best seasons with the Lakers. He also believes that he won't win the award as the National Basketball Assn.'s Most Valuable Player, which is very likely to go to Larry Bird.
This is at the same time both slightly troubling and not at all unexpected for Johnson, who for the first time in his career seems to be going face-to-face with a surprising new opponent: a lack of recognition.
Is Magic slipping? There seems to be a public perception that he has dropped a couple of notches back in the pack despite some strong evidence to the contrary.
But the fact remains that the MVP award will probably no longer be a two-man race between Johnson and Bird. There are some new names in the future--Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Charles Barkley.
On the eve of today's opening game in the Lakers' second-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks at the Forum (Channels 2 and 8, 12:30 p.m.), Johnson said he is a little perplexed by the issue of recognition and his place in it.
"I think sometimes I'm taken for granted a little bit on what's happened over the years," he said. "Maybe the triple-doubles, whatever it is.
"I could get 16 assists, and it's overlooked, but another could get it and he'll be in big, bold print," Johnson said. "I say, 'Wow, what did I do wrong?'
"I guess that's what happens when you win. I think what hurts me more than anything else is that I don't score a lot. The other guys like Michael or Larry, they score a lot.
"The MVP is always going to average 24 or 25 points. I'm not ever going to average that many points."
Despite Johnson's belief that Bird will probably win the MVP award, Pat Riley believes that Johnson should get it.
"There's not another player in the league who makes more of an impact than Earvin Johnson," the Laker coach said. "Bird's job is different and much easier because the ball is always brought to him. Earvin's job is taking the ball to the offense."
Jordan played extremely well in Chicago's series with the Boston Celtics, but he must still be graded down for one reason, according to Riley.
"His team doesn't win," Riley said. "The best player in the league should be based on how great you are in helping your team win."
In Johnson's six seasons, the Lakers have won the NBA title three times. Johnson has also led the league in assists three times.
He averaged 12.6 assists this season, and there were three games when he had 20. But when Riley asked him to look more for his shot, Johnson came up with three consecutive 30-point games.
Although Johnson finished the season with only three triple-doubles (double figures in points, assists and rebounds), as opposed to 11 last season, he finished one rebound short of triple-doubles in six other games.
Johnson, who had one triple-double in the series against San Antonio, averaged 19 points and 16 assists as well as 5.3 rebounds against the Spurs when Riley asked him to go to the backboards more often.
"He always wants me to do more," Johnson said. "He wants me to do a little bit of everything."
There wasn't anything Johnson could do when he strained his right knee in January and missed seven games. Not surprisingly, his absence coincided with the Lakers' only down time of the season.
For two weeks, Johnson was worried about his knee until his treatment was changed and he began working out with weights to strengthen his muscle tone. Arthroscopic surgery was eventually ruled out.
"I was down in the dumps," Johnson said. "I can't play half and I was less than half a player. All my game is whether I can cut and get into the gaps, dish it to somebody or shoot the layups myself. I couldn't push off the knee."
Johnson knows all about knee problems. In his second season with the Lakers, he tore cartilage in his left knee and missed 45 games. That was also the only season since Johnson has been with the Lakers that they have not made it to the championship series.
"Knees are something you have to take real serious," he said. "When I got hurt this year, I took it really serious. I didn't know what was up.
"If I had to have surgery, now, it's going to be six weeks or something like that. Then another month to get in shape. That's 2 1/2 months gone. It was really going to be a down period, so I'm just happy the weights worked out, because if they didn't, surgery would have been the next step."
At different times during the last two seasons, Johnson has raised the issue that he might not last as long as his 10-year contract, which still has eight more seasons to run.
The Lakers' fast-break style has taxed his body, Johnson said, and quickened the aging process to the point where he feels older than his 26 years.
"That's just the way it goes," he said. "I'd rather play like this and play less years than try to save myself and just be coasting, so to speak. I think four more years will be about right.
"Knees, arms, my feet, everything just hurts. Right now, I go home, lie in bed and can't move half the time. But if I don't hurt, I know I didn't do my job."
And what kind of a job has he done?
Johnson said he does not want to sound as though he feels sorry for himself. "I'm not going to ever say, 'Poor me,' because I'm not that type of guy," he said. "If I say, 'Poor me,' then I go out and try to kill somebody, whoever I'm playing against. When it gets to that point, 'poor me,' then somebody's going to be in trouble."
So although the MVP award probably will go to Bird for the third straight year--it may never be awarded to Johnson--Magic said he won't ever be emotionally bankrupt.
"As long as I have got the championship rings, I won't feel empty," he said. "The MVP honors never come to me, ever since I was young, and that's fine. That's just the way it is."