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How on earth can you suggest someone other than Steve Nash should win this year's MVP?
Newsflash: The Sun has better numbers than he did last season when he won the MVP. And the Suns have the third-best record in the West despite playing without Amare Stoudemire the whole season.
This year's MVP race should be as lopsided as 2000's, when Shaquille O'Neal would have won unanimously had Fred Hickman, now of ESPN, not tried to be unique. That Nash might not win -- that plenty of people are arguing Kobe Bryant or LeBron James should win the MVP when their teams are a combined 10 games over .500 while the Suns are 33-17 -- is inexplicable.
So inexplicable that the mere mention of another candidate makes me wonder how Nash won a season ago.
Last season, Nash won the trophy for the immaculate way he conducted the league's best offense. The Suns were a beautiful, wide-open symphony that hinged on Nash's ability to allow brilliant soloists like Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson to play great melodies while players like Quentin Richardson held the beat by staying within themselves, only showing flourishes when called upon. Phoenix played basketball's beautiful game, and Nash served as Pele.
And the Suns did it without a center. That's bumping without bass, but they kept it funky. A great deal of the credit for that should go to Mike D'Antoni's compositions, but they would have gone nowhere without Nash holding the baton.
Nash's game wasn't the story of the MVP race, though. Prominent columnists asked whether Nash won the award last season because he was white. His "underdog" story made him more attractive to voters, the theory went, and that was enough to obscure the effect Shaq had on the Heat becoming a marquee team and the unavoidable fact that Nash was neither as talented nor as irreplaceable as Stoudemire.
I didn't think Nash should have won the MVP, but I didn't believe the color of his skin was the engine behind his campaign. Sports history is littered with examples of biases being trumped by success. Don't forget that Jackie Robinson won the Rookie of the Year -- an award that now bears his name -- in 1947, and only a fool would be na´ve enough to believe his blackness endeared him to voters.
And that was 1947.
This isn't 2005, let alone '47. Shaq looks less like Superman and more like what he really is -- a man who has spent 14 years taking kidney shots like he's being guarded by George Foreman in Kinshasa. And Nash has been even better than he was last season. He's averaging about a half an assist less per game, but that's easily offset by the four additional points per game he's scored. And his Player Efficiency Rating, John Hollinger's bread-and-butter stat, has risen from 22.06 to 22.39.
More importantly, Nash is unquestionably Phoenix's best player while Stoudemire recovers from microfracture surgery on his left knee. In fact, he's the only go-to player the Suns have. As dazzling as Marion's physical gifts are, it's become clear he'll always be what James Worthy was asked to be -- an on-call scorer and lane-filler on the break, not a dominant franchise-type player as Worthy could have been. It is Nash who is asked to win games, whether that means making the big 3 or penetrating and making the right decision.
Here's something anyone with League Pass or the ability to stay up for games on the West Coast can tell you -- Steve Nash is the best point guard in the NBA. Allen Iverson is a better player, but calling him a point guard because he brings the ball up the floor is like putting a kitten in the oven and calling it a biscuit.
This year, the Suns again lead the Pacific Division. And while trading Joe Johnson for the surprisingly effective Boris Diaw proved to be a wash (and quite possibly a fleecing by Phoenix considering the first-round picks the Suns got from the Hawks in the sign-and-trade), there is no substitute for the injured Stoudemire. The Suns didn't just lose what Stoudemire gave them last year. They lost the improvements he made over the summer, most notably a more consistent perimeter jumper that could put him in the same stratosphere as Tim Duncan.
Yet the band has kept making great music, the same way NWA kept churning out hits after Ice Cube left. Cube was great, but Dr. Dre was the masterful maestro that made the group work. Nash is Dre, even if it sounds strange to put him next to a hip-hop producer.
Perhaps this could be explained more easily were there clear criteria for determining the MVP. There are some who feel the trophy should go to the best player; others feel it should go to the most indispensable; and a host more value various shades of gray. What's undeniable, though, is that picking up big stats while chauffeuring a team of vagabonds in a hovercraft above basketball's Mendoza line just isn't good enough.
The last time a player won the MVP without leading a division champion was 1988, when Michael Jordan won the award in his best individual season. Jordan racked up 35.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks on the way to winning both the scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year, in an era when the league's stars often appeared allergic to defense. That's possibly the best individual season in league history, and Jordan did all that while leading the Bulls to their first 50-victory season in 14 years. His play and numbers were so staggering that any measure that didn't reward such performance with the MVP couldn't be legitimate.
That's the standard that Bryant and James must compete with as they vie for the MVP trophy. Neither comes close.
Bryant's numbers are similar to Jordan's -- he's scoring at a slightly higher rate with one less rebound and assist per game -- but the Lakers' record is 26-25 and they're eighth in the West.
Thanks for stopping by the booth, Mamba.
LeBron is asked to do more for his team than anyone else in the league. With Larry Hughes -- whom the Cavs signed to take some of the pressure off James -- taking a "Camby" while his injured finger heals, Bron is Cleveland's best scorer, rebounder and passer. But he is still an average defender. As great as LeBron's been, that fundamental shortcoming in his game means neither he nor his team have been good enough to make him the MVP.
Being the most entertaining player in the league gets you nowhere in this contest.
The only other player who belongs in this discussion is (insert Piston here). Most put Chauncey Billups in that blank, but it's hard to say which of those players is most important. Is Billups' leadership more important that Rip Hamilton's uncanny knack for getting open or the collectively freakish wingspan of Prince, Wallace and Wallace? And if there's no clear answer to those questions, how can any of them be the MVP?
There's no way. Sadly, individual awards can do only so much to honor team success.
So what other reason is there to consider another candidate?
We might have to revisit last year's controversy over the MVP. What seemed ridiculous last year, that Nash's candidacy was buoyed by the color of his skin, might be plausible in retrospect. Phoenix's record is worse at this point than it was last season, but few truth-tellers would say they expected the Suns to be this good for this long without Stoudemire. In fact, the Suns' third-best in the West record is nearly as impressive as their emergence from nowhere to post the best record in the league last season.
Unless Stoudemire's adequate replacement, Kurt Thomas, is better than he's looked for the last 10 years.
Did Nash win the MVP last season because he's white? That sounded preposterous a year ago, and I wish it sounded preposterous now. But if Nash could win the trophy last year and not be the runaway choice this year, then something strange is brewing. Maybe the Miami Herald's Dan Le Betard was right when he said the public's affection for the underdog led voters to Nash, the guy that looks like an underdog to the lazy, untrained eye. Perhaps the novelty of The Little Engine That Could is gone and the urge to praise the unlikely candidate was quenched by last year's show of sentimentality. Or maybe one white MVP every 20 years is enough to keep the masses satisfied.
That might sound ridiculous. But it would be 10 times as tripped-out to consider any other MVP. The MVP has almost always rewarded team success combined with standout individual performance, the same way the sun almost always rises. Only Nash can truly make that claim this year.
If Nash's performance last season was good enough, this year's must be too. Otherwise, something is very wrong.
Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.