By his role in changing the soft image of the Suns and the strength of his individual averages (25.8 points, 12.5 rebounds), Barkley is still favored, but he no longer should be considered a lock. Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Dominique Wilkins all merit serious consideration.
No one can dispute Jordan's worth to the Chicago Bulls as he zeros in on his seventh straight scoring title. But the fact that Jordan has won the past two MVP awards has voters seeking a new face, and Jordan understands that thinking.
"If I don't win, it won't bother me," he said. "My overall game has been consistent, but I didn't set out to prove I should be MVP again. Whoever campaigns early usually wins, and Barkley had the jump on everybody."
But Olajuwon and Wilkins are both waging strong stretch drives to overtake Sir Charles.
Neither Olajuwon's Houston Rockets, surprising leaders in the Midwest, nor Wilkins' Atlanta Hawks, back in the East playoff hunt, have talent like the Suns', which includes All-Stars Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson.
A year ago, the Rockets suspended Olajuwon for reportedly feigning injuries while seeking to rework his contract. It appeared a safe bet that the perennial All-Star center would be wearing a different uniform this season.
Now blessed with a four-year contract extension worth $25 million, Olajuwon is being pushed by Houston for MVP honors.
As the focal point of the team's offense and defense, he ranks among the NBA leaders in scoring (25.2), rebounding (13.0) and blocked shots (4.1).
"What's important is winning," Olajuwon said. "If we win the games we're supposed to win, there's a good chance I'll be considered for MVP."
Wilkins' story is even more inspiring. He missed the final three months of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. After getting off to a quick start this year, he fractured the ring finger of his shooting hand in mid-December.
When Wilkins returned in mid-January, his teammates accused him of trying too hard to make up for lost time, or lost shots. A players-only meeting was called in early March, and 'Nique was urged strongly to share the offense.
Wilkins hasn't exactly become a playmaker, but he has sparked the Hawks' playoff push.
He averaged 34.8 points in the team's recent 9-1 surge that has moved the Hawks up to sixth in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm playing better than I've ever played in my career," Wilkins said. "I'm trying to get more rebounds and play better defense, be consistent and be more of a factor in the locker room, keeping everyone involved." There is a growing suspicion around Philadelphia that Fred Carter, who replaced Doug Moe as coach March 8, will not be retained by the 76ers next season.
A league source said the 76ers players will not play hard for Carter, believing him to be a house man for owner Harold Katz, who retained the former Bullets guard as an assistant despite firing head coaches Matt Guokas and Jim Lynam before Moe.
Carter senses his players have tuned him out while winning only three of 12 games under his command.
After losing to Cleveland on Friday night, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The situation as it stands now is that I inherited a team that has shut down totally, stopped playing.
"If I had this team from the start of the season, it would be in better shape. I see the effort, but not total effort. I see a willingness, but not a commitment to do the job."
Said Frazier, after the latest free-for-all in Phoenix led to the suspension of point guards Greg Anthony and Doc Rivers: "You've got four guys -- Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, Greg Anthony and John Starks -- who aren't looking to placate. They've got that playground mentality. They rely on tenacity, and that won't change.
"The trouble is, they've got the grit, not the wit. They're intimidating enough to get their opponents off their game, but they don't know when to let up, and that's when they pay the price."
Never Mr. Nice Guy
Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Christian Laettner, who fights with teammates, rivals and officials, admits he has a bad image.
"People see a white player from Duke and think I should be a good guy," he said. "Well, I'm not nice when I'm losing. Sometimes, I have a tunnel vision. I haven't learned to be mature enough, to let things go. I carry the losing with me."