- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Steve Nash, if you can believe it, had only one scholarship offer from a Division I school.
It'll be an even bigger injustice if Nash doesn't have a like number of MVP trophies by next month.
As covered in this cyberspace in January, Nash would be the most unlikely MVP winner in NBA history. He's a 30-year-old Canadian who has never been mentioned as an MVP contender before, playing a position that almost never produces MVPs. And don't forget the capper: Santa Clara's gamble, years before he became a drive-and-kick king with that unmistakable mop of hair, is the only thing that spared Nash from a college career at God Knows Where U.
Yet all that only serves to make Nash's story even more special. In his ninth season, and in spite of his supposed defensive deficiencies, the league consensus has him as a virtual certainty to finish no worse than No. 2 in MVP voting to Miami's Shaquille O'Neal.
Which is why Nash, whenever he hears that, has the same response almost every time.
"In a way, just to get this close, I feel like I've already won," he says.
That's not enough for this voter. He has to win it for real because no other player in the league not even O'Neal in Miami has had the impact this season to match Nash's. As impressive as Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion have been, and as much as coach Mike D'Antoni has liberated his players with a risky-yet-unwavering commitment to the run, Nash has been the difference. All those aforementioned Suns will tell you that, too.
If you prefer O'Neal over Nash, ask yourself this question: How many wins did you expect out of the Heat this season? If you're being honest, certainly that number isn't significantly lower than the 56 wins Miami has today.
Now ask yourself about Phoenix: How many wins did you expect for the Suns? You're flat-out lying if you're going to claim that, back in October, you thought they'd win more games than any other team in the whole league. Sun after Sun, again, will point to Nash as the difference maker when you ask him.
History, no doubt, is working against Nash. The only true point guard to win MVP honors in the past 40-plus years is Magic Johnson. The only player under 6-foot-6 to win in that same span is Allen Iverson, as a shooting guard in 2001.
Here's some more history for you: Phoenix is about to become just the second team in NBA annals to win 60 games after losing 50 in the previous season. The only other team to do it was the 1979-80 Boston Celtics, with a rookie named Larry Bird.
Since this is the final Friday of the regular season, with award ballots due back at the league office next Thursday, it's time to share all of our year-end selections with you. It was only right to commence our ballot-by-ballot breakdown with the spark who ignited the Suns' 31-4 start.
Nash for MVP.
Most Valuable Player
Steve Nash. It's not like Shaq doesn't have a strong case. Miami has gone unchallenged for months at the top of the East, countless members of the Heat (Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Damon Jones, just to name three) have improved noticeably at O'Neal's side, and the slimmed-down Diesel is about to become the first player in history to average 20 points and 10 boards for 13 straight seasons. Not even Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar managed that.
Factor in how deeply the Lakers have cratered since Shaq left and Nash has much to contend with. But he's been that good, folks. Stoudemire, for example, is a 56-percent shooter from the floor since teaming with Nash. Last season? Only 48 percent. Amare is as self-assured (read: cocky) as any player in this league, but even he said it earlier this season: "All the easy baskets are him." Meaning Nash.
Having helped Phoenix amass the league's best record, and making other players better as well as anyone does it these days, Nash has to be the choice. Has to be.
As for the rest of the five-man MVP ballot, Nash's old pick-and-roll pal Dirk Nowitzki moved up to third here with a career year of his own. The No. 3 spot likely would have gone to San Antonio's Tim Duncan, who slips to fourth, had Duncan not missed so many games, but Nowitzki proved his worthiness by keeping the Mavericks among the league's elite in spite of a season-long string of injuries in Dallas and, ultimately, a coaching change. And despite losing his best friend and set-up man as a teammate. Funny how it worked out for the Stockton-to-Malone tandem of the new millennium: Nash and Nowitzki were even better apart than they were together.
Cleveland's LeBron James beats out Philadelphia's Iverson for No. 5 by becoming just the fifth player in league history to average 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in one season. The 20-year-old joins Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan on that short list.
Yet we reserve the right to make an 11th-hour change to the ballot next week if Cleveland drops out of the playoffs. It won't be LeBron's fault he has been Herculean trying to keep the sinking Cavaliers in the East's top eight but our "Team Success Breaks All Ties" credo demands that Iverson moves up if the Cavs drop out. Don't forget that AI, the scoring champ, is averaging a healthy 30.6 points, 8.0 assists and 2.5 steals himself, in what he considers a better individual season than his MVP-winning campaign of 2000-01. The Answer just might be right.
1. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
2. Shaquille O'Neal, Miami Heat
3. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
4. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
October prediction: Duncan
Coach of the Year
Nate McMillan. As usual, this is the most competitive category, and the debate hasn't relaxed any since we assessed the COY field at length on March 29. D'Antoni has been daring and innovative and yet I can't figure out how to get him in my top three, because of Seattle's McMillan, Indiana's Rick Carlisle and Chicago's Scott Skiles.
You could pick any of those four and feel great about the choice. You could even make a compelling case for George Karl, who will wind up coaching only 40 of Denver's 82 games but might not lose more than six of them.
Carlisle, in what must be regarded as his best-ever coaching job, has Indiana pushing for home-court advantage in the first round despite all the suspensions and injuries in America's heartland. Skiles overcame an 0-9 start and the absence of a single All-Star to oversee a turnaround that finds the Bulls sporting one of the top five records in the league since Jan. 1 at 35-17.
McMillan edges them both because the Sonics, with Danny Fortson passing as the marquee offseason addition to a team that went 37-45 in 2003-04, have 50 wins. Injuries have saddled Seattle with a worrisome six-game losing streak, but the fact that the Sonics still hold a three-game division lead over the scorching Nuggets with four games to play should tell you how wildly successful they've been.
Disclaimer No. 2: If Seattle slides all the way out of the Northwest Division lead by losing its final four games, we reserve the right to amend this ballot before formally submitting it next Thursday ... which still means an unenviable choice between Carlisle, Skiles and D'Antoni.
Rookie of the Year
Emeka Okafor. Here's another race we dissected in the past few weeks. As with the above COY dissection, we urge you to click on the link provided here for more than you could ever want to explain why Okafor should get the hardware. Although Okafor's double-double steadiness and his role in helping the Bobcats double the nine wins many experts projected should be strong hints. We also don't deny that Okafor's cause will be helped by the voters' option of making Gordon their Sixth Man winner, allowing them to reward both rookies.
Sixth Man of the Year
Ben Gordon. Chicago could use some upbeat news after losing Eddy Curry and Luol Deng for the rest of the season, and Gordon's lead in this race undoubtedly guarantees that the Bulls will win something in coming weeks no matter what happens in the playoffs. He has scored 20 points as a sub 25 times and leads the league players of all ages with 21 double-digit fourth quarters. He's also the first rookie to score at least 1,000 points off the bench since James Worthy for the Lakers in 1982-83.
No rookie has ever won the Sixth Man Award, but Gordon's a worthy choice over Boston's Ricky Davis and Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse. (Although dare we say Stack, whose campaign was curtailed by his own recent injury woes, figures to be the best sixth man in the postseason.)
1. Ben Gordon, Chicago Bulls
2. Ricky Davis, Boston Celtics
3. Jerry Stackhouse, Dallas Mavericks
October prediction: Antonio McDyess, Detroit
Most Improved Player
Grant Hill. This category is always a wrestling match, trying to decide which path to follow.
Or maybe you like the guy who goes faster than expected from great prospect to full-fledged stud, as seen this season with a few of league's foremost youngsters: LeBron, Stoudemire and Miami's Dwyane Wade.
Our solution? Instead of wrestling with all that, we chose instead to turn this award into what it used to be. The NBA's Comeback Player of the Year award was replaced by the MIP in 1985-86, after a string of former drug abusers won comeback honors. But we wanted to find a way to reward Hill, who held up for 67 games after managing a total of just 47 in his first four seasons in Orlando and returned to the All-Star Game as an East starter via the fan vote.
Hill's health improved and that was good enough for me. I believed it going into the season, and this class act's ankle was sufficiently sturdy to make the premonition stand.
Defensive Player of the Year
Bruce Bowen. The best defender we've seen all season is Utah's Andrei Kirilenko. Sadly, though, long-term injury absences have limited Kirilenko to 41 games. And reigning DPOY Ron Artest appeared in just seven games before the Indiana stopper's season-ending suspension.
Instead we chose Bowen, who has elevated his perimeter defense to the Artest level ... as confirmed by all the complaining you hear from various stars he guards.
We couldn't, in good faith, put Kirilenko higher than No. 2. As much as we love his game, he missed half the season. The Suns' Marion was another tempting choice, given his rebounds-and-steals versatility and his ability to guard power forwards so ably at just 6-7, and so was Denver's game-changing Marcus Camby.
But even on the best defensive team in the league, Bowen's defense stands out.
1. Bruce Bowen, San Antonio Spurs
2. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah Jazz
3. Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns
October prediction: Kirilenko
F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
F Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
C Shaquille O'Neal, Miami Heat
G Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
G LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Stein's justification: Easy. These are the same five names on my MVP ballot.
Stein's justification: Also easy. Stoudemire doesn't like to be called a center, but he's the closest thing to a center in the Suns' starting lineup. Iverson and Wade had seasons arguably worthy of the first team and Garnett, in spite of Minnesota's stunning fade from No. 1 to No. 9 in the West, hasn't missed a single game even though he has been plagued by serious knee soreness for months. And the reigning MVP, while amassing some of the gaudiest numbers of his career, has at least prevented the Wolves from slipping below .500, unlike a certain No. 8 in Hollywood.
Stein's justification: Not so easy. Carter is a controversial choice because of his less-than-robust start to the season in Toronto, but the move to New Jersey has prompted Vinsanity to churn out numbers that rival Kobe Bryant's. And since voters are obligated to vote for the players at the positions they predominantly play, Kobe is eligible only for a guard slot, putting him in a duel with Gilbert Arenas for the last All-NBA spot. Team success bumped Bryant, since Arenas has managed to keep surprising Washington in the East's top eight despite injuries to Hughes and Antawn Jamison. Harsh as that might seem on Bryant, it's also hard to ignore that Arenas has given Washington the lead with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter or OT seven times. That ranks Arenas third in the league in go-ahead scores in the final minute, behind only Orlando's Steve Francis (nine times) and Boston's Paul Pierce (eight).
MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year ... it's that time of year.