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NBA PLAYOFFS

O'Neal's Choice for MVP Not Expected to Win Again

Laker center says he should repeat, but Iverson or Webber expected to take home trophy.

April 21, 2001|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the man who so graciously accepted last season's most valuable player award as the Big Aristotle, Shaquille O'Neal isn't so philosophical about losing it a year later.

His reign will end with the announcement that Allen Iverson or Chris Webber, or even Tim Duncan, is this year's winner, by all appearances.

In fact, there is an assumption throughout the league that Iverson has already won it, and indeed he might have, as the ballots were due this week.

"You guys gave the award away in March," O'Neal said Friday, "because somebody was doing good. There's a lot of people doing good."

Despite statistics similar to last season's, O'Neal hasn't often been mentioned in televised or print discussions of the MVP. It is as if he's Jerry Stackhouse or somebody like him, the guy who scored a lot but isn't really a serious contender, dismissed along with Antawn Jamison and Paul Pierce for being scorers on bad teams. That would appear to be how O'Neal feels about it; he gets surly at the mention of it.

He surely got a kick, then, out of being named the NBA player of the month for April, when teams play for about half a month. Figures.

Iverson's on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, which a few pages later picks Tim Duncan as MVP. O'Neal? Not included in MVP analyses. Iverson, the spindly kid all grown up who led the Philadelphia 76ers to the same record as the Lakers, is the new glamour guy, God save David Stern.

And that appears to leave O'Neal without another trophy.

"I think it'll bother him," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "Shaq has an inflated ego. All these kids do. And they're always going to say they're the greatest or have an excuse. It's OK. Someone else has had a better year as a team, perhaps. And Iverson is that guy. After all, he got one vote last year."

The game's most dominant player, the only player in the league who is without equal in even one of 82 games, does have a point, with which he often uses to poke the media. He lost the award in the season's early months, when Iverson was great. At the same time, O'Neal was hurt and lacked conditioning, while the Lakers feuded and fell back in the Pacific Division, well off last season's pace of 67 victories.

The national media lost interest, focusing instead on Iverson, who mended his feud with Coach Larry Brown, and on free-agent-to-be Webber. Duncan became the conservative pick, particularly when the San Antonio Spurs finished with a league-high 58 victories.

"The feeling is those guys were there for their teams all season, that the 76ers, with the conference's best record, might not average 60 points without Iverson," one Eastern voter said. "He's a tough guy, played through injuries and was there for his team. Webber too. Other than missing those 10 or so games after the All-Star break, the team looked to him all the time and he carried them almost all the way."

It wasn't only the writers who thought so. Talking after a recent game against the 76ers, New York Knick guard Latrell Sprewell sounded as if Iverson already was putting his feet up on the trophy every night.

"You're right there, you force him to take shots, and he still makes them," Sprewell said. "That's why he's the MVP. He hits shots like that."

Indiana Pacer Coach Isiah Thomas stopped a hair short of proclaiming Iverson the MVP, calling him "a guy secretly all of us have rooted for, because we saw his struggles as a young man trying to grow up in the league. [We] rooted for the kid to make it."

In 74 games, many on sore feet, O'Neal averaged 28.7 points (third in the league), 12.7 rebounds (third), a 57.2 field-goal percentage (first) and 2.81 blocks (second), in 39.5 minutes (18th).

Iverson won his second scoring title (31.1 points), led the league in steals (2.51) and averaged 4.6 assists (32nd).

Webber averaged 27.1 points and 11.1 rebounds. Duncan averaged 22.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.34 blocks.

Had O'Neal taken the same number of shots as Iverson (1,813) and maintained his league-leading shooting percentage, he would have averaged 34.8 points per game.

"If I take 50 shots a game, I'm going to average a hundred," O'Neal said.

He blames the media, and he swears he doesn't want "a sympathy man's award."

"If I can't win that award unanimously, or close to unanimous, I don't want it," he said.

Asked why, he said, "Because I don't know what you guys look for. If you look for percentages. If you look for consistencies. I have no idea what you look for, and it really doesn't matter."

Rick Fox, O'Neal's teammate, had a solution.

"He hasn't had a season that's comparable to last year's season," he said. "There have been some other guys up there that probably have had better years, consistently, all season. But, right now, he's playing at that level and in some cases better, if you look at the free-throw line, than he did last year. But so long as he's playing at an MVP caliber for us this time of year, we'll go build our own trophy for him, if he wants one."

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