- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Steve Nash usually laughs when someone asks about his MVP chances.
"I think my mom started that campaign," he'll joke.
If so, Jean Nash must be a persuasive lady.
That's because, at the midpoint of the season, her son is the closest thing to a consensus favorite in the Most Valuable Player race. Except for the Bobcats, every team has played at least 41 games as of Friday, and Nash's role in the rise of the Phoenix Suns would almost certainly make him the trophy winner if ballots were turned in today ... even though history says he has good cause to be so humble.
Actually winning the award this spring would probably rank Nash as the most unlikely MVP of all-time, and not merely because he's a 30-year-old Canadian who has never figured into this debate before. The only recognized point guard to win it in the past 40-odd years is Magic Johnson. It has been almost 30 years since an NBA MVP averaged fewer than 20 points per game (Bill Walton in 1977-78).
Nash's case isn't helped by the reality that his contributions generally only come at the fun end.
Regular readers know our deal here. The Stein Line's (wholly subjective) criteria for MVP state that individual brilliance is a must, obviously, but that team success is factored in heavily. And no player in the league has had a more dramatic impact in the standings than Nash, as confirmed this month when he missed a few games and the Suns promptly cratered from 31-4 to 31-9.
So when my editor asked for a look at my five-man ballot ... as of today, Nash has to top it.
No matter what Nash thinks.
"There's a lot of guys that really impact this game in a million ways, like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan," Nash said. "I don't know if it's possible that I can have the impact on the game that those guys have. I think my teammates probably deserve a little more credit and I probably deserve a little less. But it is nice."
The top five, halfway through:
1. Steve Nash: Our praise or criticism of star players so often centers on the whole Making Teammates Better intangible. That's the category Nash undeniably leads so far this season, and that's the reason he has generated so much MVP buzz in spite of a 15.7-point scoring average and his defensive shortcomings. Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion have been raised to All-NBA caliber by Nash's passes and proddings, and you saw how lost they looked when Nash was out. Odds are Nash will slip a spot or two when the actual ballots are turned in at the end of the regular season, but if the Suns win at least 60 games ... he'll have a real shot.
2. Tim Duncan: Duncan and reigning MVP Kevin Garnett are starting to suffer from Jordanitis -- impressing people is tough because we expect them to dominate. But before you start bleating about how Duncan's overall numbers are down, look at the standings (and the other Spurs). He's a close second to Nash in the Making Teammates Better rankings and, like KG last season, gets extra credit for scaling back his game some to accommodate the emerging talents of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The Spurs are widely considered the best organization in basketball largely because TD, year after year, makes their system flow smoothly.
3. LeBron James: Here's a question we never get: Who was better at 20, MJ or LeBron? Reason being: James has progressed so quickly that he's forcing us to consider whether a reigning Rookie of the Year can be eligible for the Most Improved Player award. His diligent off-season work with former Cavs assistant Bob Donewald -- fine-tuning his shot release, footwork and movement without the ball at both ends -- shows nightly. As does LBJ's beyond-his-years knack for getting lesser players involved. Cleveland would likely have to win the Central for James to move up on this list, but that doesn't sound nearly as outlandish as it would have in October.
4. Shaquille O'Neal: The numbers (23 and 11) are on the muted side, true. It's still a sin that O'Neal, twice the league's scoring champion, has never won a rebounding title and probably never will. Even his new coach, Stan Van Gundy, has urged The Diesel not to be so nonchalant after losses. Eventually, though, you have to stop nitpicking and acknowledge the impact a slimmed-down Shaq has made in Miami, sending the Heat (who sport two undrafted starters and a thin bench) to the top of the East ... while also helping Dwyane Wade redefine the pecking order of the 2003 draft class. This is an NBA Finals contender and thus Shaq has to be here.
5. Dirk Nowitzki: You suspect it'll be tough for Nowitzki to keep KG and/or Kobe Bryant out of the top five come April, assuming the Wolves rally as expected and if the Lakers indeed make the playoffs. Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal also drew consideration at No. 5. But Dirk leads them all so far, having found a new level (at both ends) despite losing the MVP leader as a sidekick. The Mavericks' offense doesn't flow as smoothly without Nash, and marquee signing Erick Dampier has been inconsistent (and hobbled), but the 28-13 Mavs are winning more than they expected, carried by Nowitzki through injury after injury.
He would be the most unlikely MVP ever, but Nash has done more to make his team better than anyone else.