Who’s Better? Who’s Best?
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SECAUCUS, N.J., March 20, 2007 – I have two questions to pose today, loosely related, concerning NBA players starring on the hardwood. Actually, I have one question, to apply to two situations: Is this gentleman clearly the best at his game?

Let’s start with the Glide. Did you see him on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars last night?

No? You can watch him two-step (or was it the cha-cha?) here.

When I heard Clyde Drexler was taking part in Dancing, my first thought was, “What the heck is he thinking?”

You might be asking the same of me right now, but, I took a one-credit Latin American Dance class in college, so I’m about as qualified to talk tango as Simon Cowell is to throw one-liners at American pop-star wannabes.

So, with Tracy McGrady-like back spasms Monday night, I found myself glued to the couch watching trash television, and Dancing just happened to be on. (No, really, I’m no fan of reality TV. Scout’s honor.)

I truly expected to see Drexler have as hard a time cutting a rug as I did just strutting over to get a drink of water, but I must admit I was shocked. SHOCKED!

The Hall of Famer can really move for a 44-year-old man. He didn’t embarrass himself and, in fact, showed he spent considerable time going through his paces.

Even flashier than his footwork was his attire, flowing black slacks with a loud orange shirt that somehow managed to avoid treading into obnoxious territory. And what’s more, America saw a retired athlete who didn’t pack on the pounds in the nine years since he walked off the court. (This came as no surprise to me, as I watched Drexler running laps outside in the Texas heat on the grounds of our hotel during last year’s Finals in Dallas.)

I was, however, more stunned to learn Michael Jordan was a last-minute addition to the panel of judges. Okay, so M.J. was nowhere to be found, but Glide still pulled a Dwight Howard – his height somehow making his accomplishment look less impressive – and only received a score of 16 (out of 30).

So, I did was any self-respecting couch-potato hoops fan would do: I spent all 11 of my internet and cell-phone text messages voting for Clyde and his dance partner, 5-4 Elena Grinenko. Sorry Billy Ray and Apolo.

My 11 votes might not mean much this week, as Drexler seems safe to move on. After all, Billy Ray Cyrus, he of Achy Breaky Heart and mullet fame, is bringing up the rear. And deservedly so.

Billy Ray aside, though, Drexler should advance based on his moves alone. The routine couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds to Stevie Wonder, but it felt a bit like two(-plus) minutes. There were no major gaffes and the footwork was there, but I was left wanting just a bit more – not time, but flash. It seemed Drexler was doing the safety dance. You know, that move you did at the junior high school dances: feet anchored to the floor, hands clenched ever-so-slightly and held chest-high, a little shake of the hips. That was Drexler. More shuffle than Glide. Part of me wanted to shield my eyes for fear of seeing him trip up, but the other part was keenly interested in watching him pull off the routine, which he did.

“Elena and I were very proud of the fact we didn't have a mistake in the routine,” Drexler said in his NBA.com blog afterward, “which you obviously don't want to do. It could have been better, especially from a technical standpoint, but I was so focused on not making a mistake with the footwork, I did the best I could do.”

That said, I fully expect Drexler to do even better next time around, showing us more fluidity to go with that charming personality. Even so, he’s still not going to out dance former boy-bander Joey Fatone.


Moving from Mambo to Mamba

Onto a dance of a different type, is Kobe Bryant the best player in the game today? Watching Kobe gracefully shake defenders and float to the rim rivals even the best rumba, foxtrot and cha-cha practitioners. There’s nobody better than No. 24 at the moment.

Go ahead, watch the highlights from his last two games alone – here and here – and you’ll likely agree.

Nobody (and even nobodies) can slow, much less stop, Kobe. You can throw everything you have at him and he’ll still hit his shots – defenders and gravitational forces be damned. And it's moments like this, when he's completely in a zone and you expect everything he throws up to fall, when you realize just how special a player we're watching – even if you’re a life-long Laker-hater.

So, if Kobe is the best we have right now, then why do I feel conflicted in saying that the MVP race is a contest run by only two horses?

Answer: 32. That's the number of losses the Lakers currently have. The MVP award, while given to an individual, is as much about the team as the Larry O’Brien trophy and history tells us a player whose team drops 32-plus games is less likely to win the honor.

Yes, I understand the thinking, so Lakers fans please continue reading before you hit send on the e-mail cursing my intelligence or my mother. If you take Bryant off the Lakers, L.A. tries its luck in the lottery. Not even Phil Jackson could get Smush Parker, Luke Walton and Co. into the postseason. As for the Mavs and Suns, they’d still be quality teams without either Dirk Nowitzki or Steve Nash and both would likely make the playoffs.

But, both Nowitzki and Nash – horses No. 1 and 2 – are on championship caliber squads.

In fact, looking back at the last quarter century, only twice has the MVP been awarded to a player whose team didn’t finish with one of the league’s top two marks – Nash’s 2006 Suns had the fourth best record at 54-28 and Michael Jordan’s 1988 Bulls finished the year with a 50-32 record, seventh best in the NBA.

During the same span, those 32 losses by Jordan’s Bulls mark the most for an MVP winner. Jordan, however, earned the award much like Nash two seasons ago, by leading his team to a remarkable improvement. The 1985-86 Bulls won only 30 games. A year later they won 40. In 1987-88, Jordan led the league in scoring at 35.0 points per game and guided the Bulls to the franchise’s first 50-win season since 1973-74.

That year, Jordan’s Chicago team finished second in the Central Division, behind the Eastern Conference Champion Detroit Pistons. Only one other time since 1982-83 has a player won the MVP award when his team failed to win its division. Karl Malone captured the 1999 award when his Jazz team tied the Spurs for the Midwest’s top record; San Antonio captured the season series, two games to one.

So, as brilliantly as Kobe has played lately and despite the fact I say he’s the best player in the game, I'm still inclined to agree with Maurice Brooks’ ranking of Bryant somewhere around fifth (although he could be moving up this week, right Mo?)