Updated: Jan. 20, 2006, 9:25 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION
Nash, Kobe have different value

(Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this around-the-league notebook edition of the Daily Dime.)

Playing, scoring and winning like he has in January, Kobe Bryant is an undeniably viable MVP candidate.

One disclaimer, though.

Candidate is as strong as I can go.

Reason being: Bryant won't even be the best MVP possibility on the floor Friday night when ESPN drops in for Lakers at Suns.

It's not often that we get too lathered up in this cyberspace about an individual duel, but this one is the exception. This one serves up a fascinating contrast: Bryant and his me-against-the-world focus set against a QB whose recent statistical dominance is equally staggering.

Just look at their Januarys. Bryant, with 51 points in Thursday night's OT defeat in Sacramento, hiked his scoring average for the month to 42.1 points per game, with the Lakers at 6-2 in eight games he's played.

Steve Nash?

He's only averaging 19.8 points and 14.1 dimes in a 6-3 month for the Suns, who are still without Amare Stoudemire. While Kobe has been unleashing a hailstorm of offense -- three 40-point games and two in the 50s -- Nash has had assist games of 22, 19 and 18 in the same span.

That's probably why his coach Mike D'Antoni, upon seeing me at a recent Suns practice, blurted out his Nash take before I could even ask a question. I was actually there to do an Amare Stoudemire piece, but D'Antoni figured that his little rambler -- who happens to be the reigning MVP, in case you've forgotten -- had to be the story.

"Yeah," D'Antoni blurted out, barely waiting for the tape recorder to switch on.

"Steve's the Most Valuable Player again, no doubt about it."

There hasn't been much talk of a Nash repeat to date, and Nash himself isn't exactly encouraging it. "I really don't think so," he says. "We're only a 50-win team."

Only?

The Suns are actually on a tidy 54-28 pace, without Stoudemire, and it's largely because Nash is making everyone around him better. Again.

Seven Suns, including Nash and fellow All-Star Shawn Marion, are averaging career-highs in scoring. The others, though, aren't exactly famous names: Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Eddie House and James Jones.

Stoudemire said it best when I was in town: "That's Steve Nash." As in: That's what he does. Just because he's been widely taken for granted nearly halfway through the season -- yes, game No. 41 is almost here -- doesn't invalidate the notion that, pushing 32, Nash has somehow gotten better.

His night-to-night production is even more MVP-worthy when you realize that, for the first time since Nash reached an All-Star level in Dallas, he can't rely on the two-man game that generally makes him so hard to contain. There's no Dirk Nowitzki to pick-and-pop with possession after possession. There's no Stoudemire to roll to the rim off screens and collapse a defense. Kurt Thomas is a quality pick-and-roll option for Nash, but only a handful of times per game. As the accompanying Amare report explains, Phoenix has managed to stay right where it was supposed to be with Stoudemire. It's no mystery who's most responsible.

D'Antoni, meanwhile, swears that Nash's much-maligned defense has improved as well, even though there's pretty much no chance of generating a groundswell of support for that assessment. "He came in and asked, 'After an MVP year, realistically, how can I improve?' " D'Antoni said. "Well, he did it defensively. I'm telling you right now, his defense has improved immensely."

Stopper? Not quite. Yet Nash will admit, when pressed, that the jibes about his D have bothered him, which prompted him to make it a priority to be a better team defender. It certainly helps when you're surrounded by better defenders, as he is with this retooled group, but his coach contends that Nash is clearly gambling less and trying harder than ever to stay in front of his man.

"It's one reason," D'Antoni said, "we've jumped up defensively."

It all adds up to shame anyone who questioned Nash's first Maurice Podoloff trophy. And I'm sure there will be considerable dissent again if Nash repeats, because nothing revs up the rhetoric like an MVP debate, but I have him ahead of Bryant, Nowitzki and Detroit's Chauncey Billups in the current MVP race as well.

That would be my top four at this point. Not necessarily in that order, but definitely No. 13 in the top spot. Nowitzki has taken another significant step in Year 2 without his little buddy to keep Dallas unexpectedly close to the Detroit-San Antonio duopoly; Billups is putting together a career year as the leader of the Pistons' incomparable starting five; and Bryant is single-handedly making Phil Jackson's weakest team ever look like legit playoff material.

But Nash has them all beat so far. At the season's virtual midpoint, his team's success and ability to lift everyone around him -- job No. 1 for an MVP -- settles it on this scorecard.

Now to see what happens in the next 40-plus games and whether anyone can come up with a theory to explain how a thirtysomething Nash keeps finding more gears than he had in his 20s.

"I was never that good, so I don't know," D'Antoni said. "I was what I was at 30. I wasn't getting any better."

• Talk back to... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: 13 | 14-15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20


All About The Benjamin
Ben Gordon
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Antonio Davis grabbed all the headlines, so here's making sure Ben Gordon's exploits Wednesday night were not ignored. See Box 10.


Western Conference

The Sonics are indeed fielding trade calls on rebounding specialist Reggie Evans, according to NBA front-office sources, and there is no shortage of interest despite Evans' recent expulsion from Seattle's rotation by new coach Bob Hill.

Remember, though, that Evans -- like teammates Vladimir Radmanovic and Flip Murray -- signed a one-year tender for this season and thus has the authority to veto any deal.

The Sonics, furthermore, see Evans as one of their best trade assets, but his low salary ($1.1 million) makes it difficult to get anything meaningful in return.


The best clutch shooter in the NBA? By one measure, courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau, you can nominate Denver's Carmelo Anthony.

During his two-plus pro seasons, Anthony is 7-for-11 from the field on potential game-tying or go-ahead shot attempts in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime. (I'd say you can look it up, but I wouldn't know where to tell you to look.)

Anyway ...

Elias says that none of the league's top 10 scorers since Anthony arrived in the NBA has connected on even 40 percent of such shots besides 'Melo. Cleveland's LeBron James, for example, dropped to 2-for-15 lifetime in these situations after his recent miss at the buzzer against the Lakers.

Since Anthony and James were rookies in 2003-04, L.A.'s Kobe Bryant is 7-for-24 on potential game-tying or go-ahead shot attempts in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime, with New Jersey's Vince Carter at 5-for-19, Philadelphia's Allen Iverson at 6-for-16, Houston's Tracy McGrady and Boston's Paul Pierce at 4-for-16 and Minnesota's Kevin Garnett at 3-for-15.


Hold the panic, San Antonio. It's not all bleak in the Alamo City.

The Spurs can't avenge their two losses to Detroit until June, but they did become the first team this season to beat Milwaukee in a close game with Wednesday's 95-92 triumph. The Bucks, going in, were an astounding 13-0 in games decided by six points or less.

Not that rookie center Andrew Bogut was terribly proud of the habit.

"Within that positive, there's a negative," Bogut said. "It's not that we're so good when the [margin] is under six. We've either been winning close games or getting blown out. So we need to change that. I don't think it's the best thing for us."



Chatter Box
Ron Artest

One man's take on Ron Artest -- from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts -- on Indiana's decision to keep him on the inactive list until they can trade him.

"I can understand why the Pacers decided they were going to keep Artest away from the team when he said what said. They felt like they had to make a statement that enough is enough [after Artest's public trade demand]. But it's sure not helping them get a deal done. If two teams have given up on him now, and one of them is still paying him but doesn't even want him around, that scares the hell out of a lot of teams."


Bouncin' Backcourt
Steve Nash
Nathaniel S Butler/Getty Images
Better bring your track shoes if you plan on hanging with Eddie House and Steve Nash.


Eastern Conference

Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh reiterated this week that he's prepared to keep Ron Artest past the Feb. 23 trading deadline if he feels the need.

But he doesn't think he'll need to.

Walsh told ESPN.com that he remains confident that the Pacers can find a suitable trade partner in the final month of trading season -- as opposed to waiting for the offseason to move Artest -- after an all-but-done deal for the Clippers' Corey Maggette collapsed.

"I do think we're getting closer," Walsh said. "I do think we'll have something in the next week or so."

Walsh adds that the Pacers' preference remains a trade involving only one other team and involving as few players as possible. Without discussing specific scenarios, he acknowledged that "we'd also look at cap savings."

Artest, according to Walsh, has not asked to be reactivated by the Pacers since the initial withdrawal of his trade demand. Walsh also said he won't consider allowing Artest to play for the Pacers again if no deal is struck before the deadline.

"Our plan is to trade him," Walsh said. "We have no plans to bring him back."

Golden State, Minnesota, Denver and both L.A. teams have all maintained strong interest since Artest was made available in mid-December. As outlined here last week, New Orleans/Oklahoma City is a below-the-radar option in the cap-savings category, because the Hornets can build an offer around fellow swingman Desmond Mason and his expiring contract in ($7.2 million) in a virtual salary match with Artest ($6.8 million).


The Wizards saved about $1 million by buying out guard Chucky Atkins in what amounts to a pre-emptive strike.

Washington explored trade possibilities but couldn't swing an Atkins deal without taking on more salary. The Wiz thus elected to give Atkins the freedom he sought to pursue a contract with Memphis, knowing the ex-Piston hasn't always hid his frustration well.

Atkins, who only wound up in Washington as a salary-cap throw-in that enabled the Wiz to acquire Caron Butler from the Lakers, was never going to play much in the nation's capital behind Gilbert Arenas and Antonio Daniels.


Ignored for so long, Detroit's Chauncey Billups suddenly can't stop the fawning.

He'll soon be selected by the East's coaches to make his first All-Star appearance, in his ninth season, and I keep hearing that Billups is the point guard coveted most by USA Basketball in the build-up to the 2008 Olympics ... and not only because New Jersey's Jason Kidd is turning 35 that year.



Film Session
Marc Stein and ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard joined Cold Pizza on Friday morning to analyze Antonio Davis' five-game suspension.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Joel (Toronto): I really think you and ESPN should be promoting the idea that Antonio Davis need not be punished or suspended in a manner any more stringent than a hand slap. Understand this comes from a Raptors fan who really doesn't like Davis, but every policy has an exception or situation that was never planned for. This is a perfect example. He did everything right in an impossible situation. When he saw the man shoving his wife, he left the court, protected his family without assaulting anyone and left immediately when security had the matter under control. I didn't have respect for Davis until he did this and carried himself well in a terrible situation. He needs to be applauded here, not suspended.

Stein: Sorry, Joel. Can't help you. I'd classify myself as an Antonio fan, unlike yourself, but I'd say a five-game suspension is on the charitable side. Even NBA police chief Stu Jackson conceded that a player entering the stands usually nets a suspension measured in "double-digit games."

Players simply can't go into the stands for any reason. Period. Nothing happened this time, thankfully, but it's easy to take your view because the incident ended peacefully. It so easily could have been disastrous. Think about how far Davis traveled to get to his wife in the stands. All those fans he passed on the way probably had no idea what his intentions were, noble and restrained as they might have been. The reaction from those fans could have been anything.

I certainly don't fault Davis for worrying about his family above all else instead of stopping to consider the consequences; I'd do the same if Mrs. Line and our son Alexander The Greatest were endangered and I'm sure everyone in our midst feels the same way. But then you have to accept the consequences.



Marc's Quote
"Why don't you just get three fly honeys, talkin' nonsense, who cares what them talkin' about? Let them mention the NBA. People'll watch that, innit?"

That's famed comic and (mock) interview master Ali G., lecturing Charles Barkley and his TNT cohorts in one of those brilliant commercials released at the start of the season. I saw it again this week and felt a strong need to acknowledge the man's genius somehow.



A Fine Line
JAN. 18: BEN GORDON VS. KNICKS
MIN FGA-M 3PA-M FTA-M AST PTS
46 14-28 1-5 3-3 2 32

I'm guessing few will remember this part of Wednesday's happenings at the United Center, but Ben Gordon didn't merely sink the game-winning jumper at the overtime buzzer in the Chicago victory that saw New York's Antonio Davis charging into the stands.

With a game-high 32 points, Gordon also recorded his first 30-plus game of the season. He had four of them last season in becoming the first rookie ever to win the league's Sixth Man Award.

Gordon also had a 13-point fourth quarter against the Knicks. It was just his second double-digit fourth quarter of the season, after recording a whopping 21 as a rook, and enabled Gordon to become the first player to score 30 points and sink a walk-off winning basket since Boston's Paul Pierce did it against Miami on Nov. 27, 2001.

(Wednesday's honorable mention goes to little Anthony Johnson, who had career-highs in points (27) and rebounds (10) in his 503rd NBA game -- Indy's 98-92 triumph over Charlotte. The only other player in history to have a career night in both of those categories in the same game after playing at least 500: A.C. Green for Phoenix in 1994 with 35 points and 19 boards in his 686th career game.)

 

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