Not Much Separates MVP Candidates

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006; 3:30 PM

It would be so much easier if the usual suspects were in consideration, if Tim Duncan's plantar fasciitis hadn't limited him to being the second-most productive player on his team; if Shaquille O'Neal's age, injuries and persistent foul trouble hadn't restricted him to career lows in minutes, points, rebounds and blocks; or if Kevin Garnett's team hadn't been foundering into another lottery abyss.

It would be so much easier if the best player in the league -- a Michael Jordan of sorts -- played on the team with the league's best record. Or it would be easier if a player had changed teams and produced a dramatic turnaround in his new location.

That is not the case this season, which makes it very difficult to pick the NBA's most valuable player. It's not that there are so many deserving candidates; there just isn't much separation between the top candidates. They have cases that are equally solid and flimsy.

Since the season began, a number players has held the baton, but there hasn't been a clear-cut winner with the finish line less than two weeks away. In the first month of the season, Elton Brand was the leading contender as he led the laughingstock Los Angeles Clippers to unlikely success. By the end of December, Chauncey Billups' campaign picked up with the Detroit Pistons on pace to challenge the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the best record in league history.

After that, Kobe Bryant had a historic, improbable 81-point performance that vaulted him to the status as the league's best overall talent and most feared offensive machine. Reigning MVP Steve Nash emerged as the favorite near the all-star break, with the Amare Stoudemire-less Phoenix Suns making another run at the Pacific Division crown.

Since then, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Miami's Dwyane Wade, Cleveland's LeBron James and even San Antonio's Tony Parker have entered the discussion.

No criteria exists for the MVP. It can either be the award for best player in the game, the player of the year, or the player who has the most impact on his team's success. All that exists on the official ballot is a list with five empty spots. It will be hard to just put five names on the ballot this season.

Nash, Billups, Bryant, Nowitzki, Wade and James can all make legitimate arguments that the MVP trophy belongs to them. That's six guys -- and that doesn't include Brand, who has led the Clippers to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, or Parker, who has been the best player for the Western Conference-leading Spurs this season. Boston's Paul Pierce and former MVP Allen Iverson of Philadelphia have had incredible individual seasons, but their respective teams are so lousy they cannot be considered genuine contenders.

Steve Nash

Last season, the choice was either Nash or O'Neal, an easy debate since both players completely turned around their teams, leading the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat, respectively, to the top two records in the regular season and the conference finals. In a close decision, Nash was awarded for his unselfish play and serving as the catalyst behind the most frantic, unpredictable offense in the league. (His victory also sparked controversy over such issues as race and size.) Nash may not have been the best scorer or rebounder on his team, but he made everyone around him better.

This season, Nash has been better. He's scoring at a career-high clip (19.2), dishing out one fewer assist than last season (10.2) and he has led the Suns to the fourth-best record in the NBA despite a huge offseason roster turnover (Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson were out; Kurt Thomas, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, Eddie House and James Jones were in) and a serious knee injury sidelining Stoudemire for practically the entire season.

He has turned former castoffs Diaw, Bell, House and Jones into productive contributors on a division champion, but it's too easy to just hand him the trophy again. The impact of Shawn Marion, whom people often forget was an all-star before Nash arrived, cannot be diminished. And, the Suns have been decent, not dominant this season. They are on pace to win just 54 games this season.


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