PHILADELPHIA - As the world's greatest organized pickup basketball contest, tonight's All-Star Game celebrates the league's fresh supply of young talent. But the race for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award has a late 1980s-early 1990s feel about it, with Michael Jordan competing against a point guard.
Back then, it was Jordan and Magic Johnson who split six MVP trophies over the seasons spanning 1986-87 to 1991-92. This season's battle is sizing up as a showdown between Jordan and the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd.
But Jordan, who has returned from retirement to breathe life into the left-for-dead Washington Wizards, and Kidd, who has quarterbacked the Nets out of the mire of the Meadowlands swamps, are the odds-on favorites.
And their MVP chase figures to break in about the same way the Johnson-Jordan challenges did, with Jordan putting up gaudy scoring numbers and Kidd being the perfect complementary player.
Jordan's return from three years of retirement has been remarkable, with five 40-point performances already. He is also rebounding and handing out assists on par with his career averages.
Most importantly, his indomitable will and thirst for winning have lifted Washington into playoff contention with more wins by Jan. 24 than they had all of last season.
"One guy is making those dudes play like that, because I've seen those guys play before, and none of them play like that. None of them," said Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis. "He is the best player in the NBA, and when you have the best player in the NBA, then you'll play with a lot more confidence and cockiness. You can see the swagger that those guys have got when they play."
Meanwhile, Kidd, in his first year in New Jersey after an off-season trade from the Phoenix Suns for Stephon Marbury, has delivered the previously underachieving Nets the best record in the Eastern Conference. He is second in the NBA in assists and steals and leads the league in triple doubles, with consecutive masterpieces last week against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, the second time this season he's done that.
"He's had the biggest impact that any one player has had on any team, so far," said New Jersey coach Byron Scott. "If there was a midseason exam right now, and you stopped the NBA and said the season's over and let's start handing out the awards, to me, Jason Kidd is the MVP."
In a close vote, the view here is Kidd gets the nod, for now, because he has brought New Jersey farther than Jordan has taken Washington. But if the Nets slip and the Wizards make the playoffs, Jordan will have earned what would be a record-tying sixth MVP.
The first-half Coach of the Year award is similarly close between New Jersey's Scott, Washington's Doug Collins and Minnesota's Flip Saunders. Collins and Scott have done more than just surrender the ball to talented players. Collins, in particular, has done a masterful job of getting the maximum out of players with limited skills.
But the vote here goes to the Timberwolves' Saunders, who has done the most with the new defense rules, molding his talent into a system that should pay dividends in the playoffs.
The races for the other two major awards, Rookie of the Year and Most Improved Player, are largely ho-hum affairs with few quality candidates in either category.
The Grizzlies' Pau Gasol, the 7-foot Spaniard rookie for whom Memphis dealt Shareef Abdur-Rahim to the Atlanta Hawks, is paying handsome dividends. Gasol is ranked in the top 15 in nine categories, including rebounding, blocked shots and field-goal shooting. Teammate Shane Battier and the Indiana Pacers' Jamaal Tinsley are in the rookie mix, too.
Minnesota's Wally Szczerbiak is the heavy favorite for Most Improved Player, boosting his scoring average by five points from last season's 14 points a game to 19.1, and increasing his three-point shooting percentage from .338 last season to .476 this season.
Kidd is the active leader in triple doubles with 43, but he is only fifth all-time. Besides Johnson, who is second with 138, can you name the other three on the list?
Sacramento power forward Chris Webber already has had a nice weekend here. First, he made peace with Western Conference coach Don Nelson, his former coach at Golden State, who picked the Kings' superstar over his own player, Nowitzki, to start tonight for the injured Shaquille O'Neal. Webber also got to meet former Philadelphia 76ers center Darryl Dawkins.
Dawkins, remembered mostly for breaking backboards with ferocious dunks, used to say that he hailed from the planet Lovetron, and he paid tribute to Webber by saying that the youngster was not of this world, either.
"I've got to ask him [which planet]," Webber said. "I'm supposed to know, like Planet Funkadelic or something. I can't be from his planet, but he gave me a planet of my own, so I'm happy with that."
Oscar Robertson is the all-time leader in triple doubles with 178, which doesn't include the 1961-62 season when he averaged a triple double for the season. Wilt Chamberlain is third with 74, and Larry Bird is fourth with 59.
"I'm frustrated with my son in school sometimes, and I can't trade him. Different guys show their feelings in different ways. I look at the standings, and we're still in first place. We've just got to beat some of these good teams. We all know that. Trade? Who are we going to get, Chris Webber?"- Milwaukee guard Sam Cassell (Dunbar) in response to Bucks coach George Karl's suggestion that some Milwaukee players should be traded.