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Steve Aschburner

Kobe Bryant (center) took home the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award last season.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

List of contenders for coveted Russell Award a long one

Posted Jun 15 2010 1:40PM

LOS ANGELES -- Nothing against Larry O'Brien or the great golden ball-and-bucket of a trophy named after him, but the one bearing Bill Russell's name -- The Finals MVP Award -- might be the NBA's coolest.

First, there's the way those names resonate. O'Brien was a class act, a Renaissance man equally adept in the White House and Olympic Tower, and the commissioner who navigated the NBA through some of its most trying times in the pre-David Stern, drug-challenged, ABA/NBA merger years from 1975-84.

Yet, O'Brien was an administrator. A suit. The folks who sit in Board of Governors meetings might get all goose-bumpy when they hear his name, but there is no way O'Brien can compete in prestige or reverence with Russell, the legendary Celtics center who won 11 championships in 13 years.

No performer in the history of major U.S. professional team sports is more identified with winning -- which is what all this supposedly is about -- than Russell. That was a big reason for attaching his name to the thing last spring. (Physically, the Russell award looks like a smaller version of the championship trophy.)

Then there's the sweet "and-1" aspect of being named Finals MVP. With just one exception in the 41 years since the honor was created, the recipient has come from the championship team. In other words, you can "win" an O'Brien trophy without getting a Russell award in the deal but, 39 times out of 40, it hasn't worked the other way.

Finally -- and especially pertinent right now, with the Celtics and the Lakers headed to Game 6 of the 2010 Finals on Tuesday night at Staples Center -- it's harder to win the Russell award. The field is larger, thinning everyone's odds. Boston or L.A. is going to win the championship, but any one of the active players can claim the Finals MVP honor.

Rarely more so than this year.

For the player who eventually gets selected by a nine-member panel of writers and broadcasters, the award can help to define a career. Of the 26 players who have been named Finals MVP, 17 are Hall of Famers. Five more -- Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant -- likely will be. JoJo White (1976) and Cedric Maxwell (1981), good as they were in leading their Boston teams to titles, are not enshrined at Springfield. The jury still is out on Chauncey Billups (2004) and Tony Parker (2007).

The Bill Russell Finals MVP is the best of the best at a time when it matters most.

The tricky part now is figuring out who among the current participants -- with one or two games to go -- is in line for consideration. The Celtics' 3-2 lead in the series suggests that the Bill Russell Award might go green. But a lot can happen -- and frankly, needs to happen -- to make this something more than a guessing game.

In many postseasons past, the Finals MVP served as a coronation of the new or renewed champions' best player. That's how Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Duncan and O'Neal, among others, wound up with multiples. This time, the field is open, with no one player dominating through all or most of the first five games. So here's a look at the candidates and their unofficial odds of bagging the Russell trophy:

Paul Pierce (5-2): Pierce won this award at the 2008 Finals, so voters already are comfortable with the idea. He is the leading scorer (19 ppg) on the team that has two shots at its second championship in three years. That includes 27 points in Sunday's possibly pivotal Game 5. But Pierce sputtered in the second and third games (12.5 ppg on 7-of-23 shooting) and has had a up-and-down postseason. If Boston wins Game 6 and Pierce is the Celtics' top scorer, or just tops 20, he's the favorite here.

Kobe Bryant (3-1): Eight players have been Finals MVP at least twice and, like Pierce, Bryant would join that super-elite spring status if he repeats. A year ago, he was a no-brainer, nailing it by a unanimous 9-0 vote. This time, it might require the heavy lifting of two consecutive Lakers victories in elimination games -- very doable for this guy, if he doesn't ignore his helpers completely. Also, Bryant is averaging 30.2 points -- 59 percent more Pierce -- so it's conceivable he could become only the second Finals MVP from the losing side. The first? Another high-scoring Lakers guard, Jerry West, who won the inaugural version in 1969 but wanted it as much as beauty queens crave Miss Congeniality.

Ray Allen (4-1): The Celtics' tireless shooting guard is 0-for-16 from 3-point range, his specialty, over the past three games but at least his team has kept its title -- and his Finals MVP chances -- afloat by winning two of them. Allen did have the most spectacular individual performance so far in the series, hitting 7-of-8 3-pointers in the first half of Game 2 and finishing with a Finals-record 8-of-11 and 32 points. If Boston wins another championship, it could be argued that Allen's big night on the Lakers' court tipped the series in the Celtics' favor. He could use another one, though, in a clincher.

Rajon Rondo (5-1): Rondo has had a breakthrough postseason, elevating himself on the big stage to Boston's Big Three level, and sometimes that sustained play sticks in Finals voters' heads. Even though the feisty point guard was more electrifying against Cleveland, he had a triple-double (18-12-10) in Game 2. Rondo also is outscoring Allen and outrebounding Kevin Garnett, while averaging 68 percent more assists than anyone else on other side (7.4 to Bryant's 4.4).

Kevin Garnett (5-1): The 7-foot forward had a dreadful Game 2, but by Game 5 Sunday, he was the Celtics' best all-around performer at both ends (18 points, 10 rebounds, five steals, two blocks). If he were to do that once or twice more en route to a Boston title, he might earn votes for bouncing so far back. And Garnett has been both a regular-season MVP (2004) and All-Star MVP (2002).

Pau Gasol (10-1): Gasol scored 23, 25 and 21 in Games 1, 2 and 4, respectively, and earned praise for added toughness and his burgeoning game. But he wasn't able to keep his sneaker on Garnett's neck and by Game 5, even Bryant and the Lakers were ignoring him offensively (12 points, six of his nine shots coming off offensive rebounds). It's hard to envision a) the Lakers firing back to win the title and b) Gasol outshining Bryant as they do so, and both things would have to happen for the refined 7-footer to be Finals MVP.

Derek Fisher (20-1): Fisher is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of player, a guy most fans would want on their favorite team. Media types love his playoff-peak passion, his history (four rings, leaving Utah for his daughter's health) and his thoughtful answers. But Fisher also flops, can be borderline dirty, is averaging just 9.2 points on 37.2 percent shooting and hasn't hit a 3-pointer in the series. He would become, arguably, the role-playingest Finals MVP winner ever.

Andrew Bynum (50-1): In truth, Bynum probably is the Finals MVP, from the standpoint that his availability changes both sides' strategy and sets up so much for L.A. He was present and more than accounted for in the first three games, his size bedeviling Boston. But Bynum's ailing right knee has been an issue since, proving his worth but hurting his chances for this trophy.

Shrek/Donkey (100-1): The Finals MVP never has been shared. It never has been won by a non-starter. And it certainly never has been won by such non-traditional talents as Glen (Big Baby) Davis or Nate Robinson. But in the fourth quarter of Game 4, no superstar was bigger than those two. So if the Celtics bench proves to be the difference in the Finals, and if those two are the key guys on that bench ... nah.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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