By Skip Bayless
Page 2

For most of this NBA season, you heard almost nothing but resigned MVP sighs from analysts and columnists: "Well, it looks like you have to give it to Steve Nash again."

But a month or so ago, you began to hear another ball start rolling: Dwyane Wade's. Then D-Wade's deflated and here came Dirk Nowitzki's. Then Dirk's was suddenly dwarfed by LeBron's! Remember? Just two weeks ago you kept hearing, "That's it. LeBron James has to be MVP."

But now the giant bowling ball you hear thundering down the lane toward the MVP pins is … Kobe's!

Over the last four days, you heard several analysts on ESPN and TNT make a case-closed case for Kobe Bryant. You read a number of NBA columnists and beat writers joining the Kobe chorus. And you figure Kobe clinched it when Page 2's Bill Simmons, who knows his NBA as astutely as he does his sports movies, forgave and forgot and gave his MVP to the player who flew like an Eagle this season.

I'm a big fan of Kobe the basketball player. Was before all that ugly business in Eagle, Colo. Remained so even after Kobe ratted out Shaq to the investigators.

No doubt Kobe proved to be the most talented and driven player on the planet this season. But the most valuable?

Only if basketball games are won by the team with the highest scorer.

That's why, I suppose, Kobe has beaten Steve Nash 81-0 in the MVP race.

Kobe, of course, went Terrell Owens on the Toronto Raptors, scoring 81, mostly on jump shots. This would have been astonishing even if the Raptors had played H.O.R.S.E defense, which was pretty much all they played. It was tough to tell who was more mesmerized by this Jan. 22 performance at Staples, Jack Nicholson or the Raptors.

Then on March 27 at New Jersey, Nash disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa. Five shots, zero makes. Zero free-throw attempts. Zero points.

The Nets led by 19 at the half on the way to a 110-72 wipeout. And voters finally had their excuse. That was the end of the "Nash again" talk. No way was this Nash Rambler going to win a second straight MVP with a goose egg on his résumé.

But he should.

In fact, big picture, that game should strengthen Nash's MVP case. Before the season started, a lot of analysts and columnists expected Nash's Suns to suffer some blowout road losses -- especially against teams that had won eight in a row, as the Nets had. After all, the Suns had lost Amare Stoudemire to injury and Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson to free agency. Heck, by March 27, they had lost their only legitimate post defender, Kurt Thomas, who wound up playing only 53 games.

And Nash's Suns have won 53 games and the Pacific Division! They're the 53-28 second seed in the still-tougher Western Conference! If they hadn't clinched so early, and Nash hadn't rested his battered body of late, they would have come even closer to last year's NBA-best 62-20 record!

I'm sorry, but Nash's 53 wins are even more astonishing than Kobe's 81.

Nash didn't play Sunday against Kobe's team at Staples. Kobe's team leaped to a 16-1 lead and won easily. Kobe, MVP? Wait a second, with Nash, the Suns won the season's first three games against Kobe's seventh-seeded Lakers.

Case closed … for Nash.

For the record, I picked Kobe's team to make the playoffs. I did not pick Nash's. Honestly, did you? I couldn't imagine how, even with Shawn Marion, Nash's team could finish even .500 with Raja Bell and Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa and Eddie House and James Jones playing significant minutes.

Now, you say, "Diaw's turning into a player." But did you think that last season when Diaw played in Atlanta? No, Nash is turning him into a player.

A Western Conference GM warned me after his team played Nash's in a preseason game -- and I didn't listen. He said: "I'm telling you, the Suns are going to be good. That damn Nash is at it again."

Now I believe.

One year ago, I wrote that Shaquille O'Neal deserved the MVP over what appeared to be the cuddly little runaway bandwagon choice, Nash. How, I asked, could Nash be MVP when it was unclear whether he was the best player on his own team? Stoudemire, of course, was emerging as the strongest force in Arizona this side of the noon sun.

But Nash won.

And now, averaging a career-high 19 points and a league-leading 10.5 assists, Nash (without Stoudemire) clearly has had an even better season than last year's. But the MVP should come from the West's seventh seed?

Book it: If Nash had played for the Lakers this season, and Kobe had played for the Suns, the Lakers would be the second seed and the Suns would have missed the playoffs.

Nash would turn Lamar Odom into Marion (if not more) and all of a sudden Smush Parker and Devean George and Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic would start running and spotting up and draining 3s, and Kwame Brown and Brian Cook would outsprint other postmen for thundering dunks, and the Lakers would actually look like they were having fun playing basketball.

When you play with Nash, you know you're going to consistently get the ball exactly where you're best with it -- and when you're most open. Nash is a 12-man team. Kobe is a one-man show. Nash needs teammates. Kobe needs a stage.

A Suns source said: "Do not underestimate the leadership impact Nash has. He routinely organizes team dinners on the road -- and guys actually like it! You don't see that very often in the NBA."

Certainly not with Kobe's team.

If Kobe were a Sun, Marion would feel as if he were on the dark side of the moon. Marion would split time between waving unsuccessfully for the ball and complaining to the media. Kobe would take one look at House and Jones and shoot.

Heck, in Los Angeles, Nash would be making Jim Jackson look like an integral cog -- as Nash did last season in Phoenix.

It's as if Nash's teammates believe he'll make them better than they have a right to be. They know Nash is like some ambidextrous mutant life form with eyes set so wide that he can see 360 degrees. They know he can change directions while dribbling or flying the way nobody in the league can. They know Nash -- who's a mere 6-foot-3 -- can make forests of much taller defenders look hapless.

They can't keep him out of the lane or his team off the scoreboard. And they can't keep him from finding a teammate wide open for a 3-pointer.

Think about this: The Phoenix Suns have made an NBA record 824 3s. And they lead the league in 3-point percentage at 39.8. So they're making 3s almost as well as a lot of teams make 2s.

That's mostly because of Nash.

No, he isn't capable of playing lock-down, man-to-man defense. On the fifth game of that trip that began in Jersey, Nash couldn't begin to control Detroit's Chauncey Billups, who went for 35. Yet Nash's goal is for his team to outscore yours -- and that night at the Palace, the Suns made the Pistons sweat by scoring 102. Detroit hung on to win by seven.

That's Nash.

John Stockton was a little better on the pick-and-roll. Magic Johnson was better running the break and, obviously, at creating mismatches because he was 6-9. Yet even Magic couldn't run this Phoenix attack quite as magically as Nash does.

I started watching his Amare-less games early this season and got addicted. Nash has this in common with Michael Jordan: Almost every night he does something you've never seen before.

In three fewer games, Nash has 115 more assists than Billups and 142 more than Jason Kidd. Nash's team leads the league by far in scoring at 108.4 a game. Seattle is next at 102.5.

Yet Kobe suddenly seems to be the MVP front-runner because he's leading the league in scoring at 35.4 a game. I spoke Monday to two media members with votes who said they were going with Kobe -- and that they'd spoken with several others who were doing likewise.

Voters are human. They talk to each other. Sometimes it works out that they pass around the MVP to make sure a deserving candidate gets at least one trophy. During Jordan's reign, he arguably should have won seven of the last eight years he played. But Charles Barkley won one and, somehow, Karl Malone won two.

This had a little something to do with how accessible and entertaining Charles and Karl were for media interviewers. That was a small reason Nash won last season. And that might be a small factor in the new, more open and media-friendly Kobe's turning into this season's front-runner.

But this is the season Nash deserves MVP strictly on single-season achievement. This isn't a "good guy" award or a "white guy" award. It is no longer Nash's "turn."

He's simply the most valuable, by far. In what has been billed as the most wide open race ever, this one shouldn't even be close.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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