Who’s Your Pick???

By Mark Heisler
Updated: April 12, 2008

LOS ANGELES — The West glitterati descended upon Staples Center Friday night, the presumptive conference champion, the presumptive MVP, the presumptive runners-up . . . All they had to do was sort out who got what. In a walkover, the Lakers opened up an early 30-point lead over the New Orleans Hornets and cruised to . . . oh, sorry. In one of the great comebacks in New Orleans Hornets history or chokes in Lakers history, the visitors stormed from 30 points behind . . . oh, sorry. OK, in a showdown as epic as the West race that preceded it, the second-place Lakers took a 30-point lead, had the first-place Hornets wipe out 29 points of it but fought them off at the end to win, 107-104. Now Pacific Division champions, the Lakers trail the Hornets by half a game but own the tiebreaker if they catch them. As for the MVP, which has yet to be decided, it looked like they might give Kobe Bryant the trophy at halftime. In what is thought to be a two-horse race with the Hornets’ Chris Paul, Bryant was brilliant (29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, nine for 17 from the floor) while Paul started slowly but wound up with 15 points and 17 assists. Feature angles notwithstanding, the most valuable player is a season-long award and usually isn’t evaluated on a game-to-game basis, but sentiment already seemed to be running toward Bryant. A week ago, a Times poll of 21 writers gave Bryant 10 first-place votes, Paul eight, Kevin Garnett two and LeBron James one. Another poll of 17 writers this weekend showed Bryant with 10 first-place votes, Paul with five and Garnett with two. Look at it this way as many voters must be: Paul is 22 and has many years to win MVPs. Bryant is in his 12th season, and it may be getting embarrassing to explain why the game’s best player has never come closer than two third-place finishes. (In 2005-6, Bryant didn’t get a single vote, which meant he finished behind New Orleans’ P.J. Brown, who got one 10th-place vote.) “I think that’s the most remarkable stat of all, that he’s been in the league 12 years and hasn’t won it,” said Hornets Coach Byron Scott of Bryant before the game. “I don’t think he’s been runner-up. I don’t think he’s come in third. I think it’s remarkable that he hasn’t and for the past five or six years, he’s been the best player in this game.” Scott, a star on the Showtime Lakers in the ’80s, was a mentor to Bryant as teammates in Byron’s second stint in L.A. in the 1996-97 season. Now Scott is this season’s presumptive coach of the year after taking the Hornets, who didn’t make the playoffs last season and weren’t expected to this season, this close to winning the West. “Focus, determination and a lot of people telling us we couldn’t do it,” said Scott, explaining his secret. “That probably had a lot to do with it because we heard it from All-Star break on. “At All-Star break, we had the best record, but yeah, they’ll fall off, the pressure will get to them, the schedule will get to them when they go on this road trip in March. “There was always something and I think that motivated our guys to go out and prove people wrong.” Motivation helps a lot, especially when you’re good enough. To the utter amazement of all, Paul was not only ready for prime time in the West race in his third season, he was neck-and-neck in the MVP race with Bryant. The Hornets got Paul, whom they considered the top pick in the 2005 draft, with the fourth pick. However, not even Scott dreamed Paul would be this far within three years. “Not this soon,” said Scott. “Nah, never would have thought that he would be this good this soon and he’d be getting the type of praise he’s getting this early in his career. “But he deserves it,” Scott added. “He’s put in a lot of work. He’s been a tremendous leader to this team and the things we talked about this summer that he had to improve, he went out and improved them. “The thing that’s scary is, he’s 22 and he’s going to get better.” He’s good enough now. Ask the Lakers who had better gear up for next season when Paul is 23.