Updated: March 27, 2006, 1:59 AM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION MVP asked to do a little more

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

The MVP is just like you and me.

He, too, is stunned to see Amare Stoudemire, not yet 20 minutes into his comeback, averaging 20 points a game.

"Pretty amazing," Steve Nash said Friday, still soaking in the sight of Stoudemire, a mere five months removed from the most dreaded of all NBA medical procedures -- microfracture knee surgery -- rumbling for 20 points and nine boards in 19 minutes Thursday night against helpless Portland.

"He's just a monster. He still has so much room to improve to be the Amare that everyone remembers, but he's a dominant presence already."

Nash stopped there, though, realizing that he certainly doesn't need to fuel the hype machine any further. The Day After came with fears of serious soreness (or worse) for Stoudemire, but alleviating the normal stiffness Amare did report wasn't the Suns' lone challenge Friday.

The other struggle: Phoenix is straining (and failing) to keep expectations from swelling to ridiculous proportions, now that Stoudemire has rejoined a club that had virtually clinched the West's No. 2 seed without him.

Awestruck as they are, like the rest of us, Nash's Suns aren't deluding themselves.

They know that recovery, no matter how minor Stoudemire's initial injury was compared to some of his less fortunate fellow microfracture patients, can't be as easy as Amare made it look in Step 1 . . . in part because they don't get to play Portland every night. Phoenix fully expects Stoudemire to miss practices and even a few games as he deals with varying degrees of discomfort. The Suns likewise expect him to struggle with his timing, conditioning and self-confidence, because his surgically-repaired left knee won't always feel as good as it did against the Blazers.

"It's too early to say what kind of problems Amare might face or what we might face [as a team]," Nash said.

It's likewise too early to say that these Suns definitely have moved into the San Antonio-Detroit class. They haven't forgotten that, mere days ago, even Amare was questioning whether he'd be back this season. He has to prove his durability while also developing some familiarity with a virtually all-new team.

So …

You're naturally wondering what Stoudemire's return does for the Suns in the West, but it's premature to give you anything but the short-term answer:

It gives Nash an opportunity to cement a second-straight MVP trophy.

As you undoubtedly read Thursday, Nash is a heavy favorite to repeat as Most Valuable Player, having impressed a diverse panel of ESPN analysts by powering the Suns to a 45-21 start without Stoudemire and two other starters (Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson) from last season's 62-win team.

Now to see whether Nash can usher Stoudemire to a lasting chemistry with a group that knows him mostly as a cheerleader. Suns coach Mike D'Antoni is putting the onus on his QB to get everybody comfortable, which would be another impressive trick from Nash with three-plus weeks to go in the regular season.

Remember: Nash, Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa are the only Suns who had played with Stoudemire before the Portland game. For Phoenix to realize its potential in time for the forthcoming playoffs and legitimately vault into title-contender territory, Stoudemire has to be able to work in tandem with Boris Diaw, who became a leading contender for Most Improved Player honors by operating alongside Nash from Amare's familiar high-post perch.

"That's fine," Nash said of his latest assignment. "I'm going to try my best. It's going to be up to everybody to be unselfish and sacrifice things in the name of cohesion, but I know I'm the point guard. It's my job to get everybody organized."

D'Antoni has plenty to do, too. The Stoudemire-Marion-Diaw front line looks dynamic on paper, but the game is played on hardwood. Will Diaw see enough of the ball to continue to be a game-changer? Can Stoudemire keep up with a team that sometimes plays at an even faster pace than it did last season? Will Marion and Diaw hit the perimeter shots they're going to see more often now with defenses keying on Stoudemire? Can the coach still find minutes for another back-from-injury power forward (Brian Grant) and the Suns' other new 20-point man off the street (Tim Thomas).

"It's not a simple addition to bring in a player as dominant as Amare at this point in the season," Nash said. "But I also think he's such a talented player that it won't be as difficult as you [media] guys make it out to be.

"These are good problems to have. Even though we were winning, we were so small before. To add a big guy as good as Amare with 15 games to go, we're grateful."

He's a big man who needs time to rediscover his explosiveness, and he's certainly not moving freely yet, but D'Antoni was right. When I last saw him earlier this month, I politely suggested to the Suns' coach and newly-minted basketball operations chief that it was best for Amare and his team if Stoudemire sat out the entire season.

My argument: Phoenix was rolling without Stoudemire. If his return doesn't automatically get the Suns any closer to San Antonio or Detroit -- and if the 23-year-old future of the franchise is coming back in less than six months when there might not even be enough time left in the season to pull all this together -- why risk it?

I still feel this way to a degree, even after watching Thursday night's must-see fare. But D'Antoni just chuckled at me when I hit him with all this on March 5. He told me right then that Amare himself would never consent to coming back unless he believed he could wow us with his game.

Nineteen minutes later, it already has happened.

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

Dimes Past: 18-19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24


In Dirk's Defense
Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan
Chris Birck/Getty Images
Dirk Nowitzki for MVP? Maybe. Dirk Nowitzki for Most Improved Defensive Player of the Year? One coach thinks so. (See below.)


Western Conference
Most Improved Defensive Player of the Year?

We know, we know. No such award exists.

But if it did … and if Jeff Van Gundy had a vote … that vote would go to Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki.

Van Gundy says critics who continue to lampoon Nowitzki's D are clinging to old clichés instead of watching actual games. The big German, according to the Rockets' coach, has become a good team defender and a "very good" pick-and-roll defender who has also become adept at slapping the ball away in the post Karl Malone-style.

Disagree with Van Gundy if you choose, but here's the proof: You don't see Dallas opponents attacking Nowitzki directly like they used to do.

If you're actually stopping to watch the Mavs once in awhile.



The Nuggets did want to add a shooter for their playoff push and showed interest in multiple free agents, including Fred Hoiberg (who has since decided not to risk becoming the first NBA player with a pacemaker) and Wesley Person.

But losing Earl Boykins to a hand injury forced the Nuggets' hand. They felt they had to commit their last open roster spot to a backup point guard instead of a shooter, so Howard Eisley got the contract that might have gone to a perimeter specialist.

The good news for Denver? It's twofold, actually.

1. The Nuggets do expect Boykins back in time for the playoffs.

2. The moves they were able to make at the trading deadline -- adding Ruben Patterson's perimeter D and Reggie Evans' rebounding without parting with a core piece -- have added some physicality and gave the team (and its coach) some needed pep. Those who know George Karl well say the famously critical Furious George, a bit like a certain fellow North Carolina alumnus coaching in New York City, needs to see some fresh faces after awhile to re-energize.


A little historical (and statistical) perspective on Amare Stoudemire's comeback game Thursday night:

In Game No. 67 of the Suns' season, just over five months since undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee, Stoudemire played less than 20 minutes in a game for just the fifth time in his career.

On the previous four occasions, Amare never scored more than 10 points. He had 20 points and nine boards in 19 minutes against Portland this time around.

So now you know why Mike D'Antoni described himself as "pretty jacked up" after witnessing Stoudemire's return.



Chatter Box
Mavericks

One man's take on Seattle's Chris Wilcox, from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:

"I get the feeling that the Sonics are a little surprised it's turning out this well, but it's a great trade for them and for Wilcox. Mike Dunleavy's offense [with the Clippers] was a lot more complicated [than Seattle's] and Wilcox struggled with it. He couldn't figure it out and he couldn't stay healthy, either.

"But the Sonics are keeping it simple for him. All he has to do now is run the floor and be an energy guy -- those are the things he does best. He can really attack the rim because Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis draw so much attention.

"I don't think anyone's expecting Wilcox to put up crazy numbers on a nightly basis [as seen this week with 16 points and 19 rebounds against Sacramento, followed by 30 points and 14 boards against Milwaukee], but there's a happy medium in there and I think the Sonics will take it."




Nash Gets The Point
Steve Nash
AP Photo/Matt York
With Steve Nash in charge on the floor, the Suns aren't worried about Amare fitting in.


Eastern Conference

Eddie Jordan's two-game benching of Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood back in December, with the Wizards at a season-worst six games under .500 and speculation mounting about the coach's job security, is often cited as the turning point in Washington's season.

The Wiz are indeed 22-13 since Jordan's authority-restoring move, but I've been advised that a bigger turning point is the mid-January buyout of disgruntled point guard Chucky Atkins. That drained the biggest source of PT discontent out of the locker room.

Antonio Daniels certainly has played better since, especially this month.

Daniels was signed to a five-year deal worth nearly $30 million to partner Caron Butler in the Wizards' two-headed response to losing Larry Hughes. Yet as recently as early February, Daniels was featured prominently on my trusted colleague John Hollinger's All-Train Wreck Team.

Fast forward to March. Now Daniels looks like the playoff-tested, off-the-bench spark we saw in Seattle, averaging 14.4 points and 4.0 assists in 33.3 minutes per game this month after shooting below 40 percent from the field through the season's first four months.


The official details on Tony Battie's contract extension received this week from Orlando:

It's a four-year deal that keeps Battie at $5.2 million next season and totals $21.9 million.

So call it another piece of good business by the Magic. That's certainly a reasonable investment for an experienced and athletic big man -- handy to have around with so much youth on Orlando's front line -- and shouldn't affect the significant salary-cap flexibility Orlando expects to have in the summer of 2007.

Battie probably could have generated more lucrative offers in July free agency but obviously wanted to stay in the Magic Kingdom, where Orlando is rebuilding around Dwight Howard and Darko Milicic.


Antonio Davis actually pushed for his release and got it Thursday from new Toronto president Bryan Colangelo, who willingly granted Davis' request to go home to Chicago, given that the 37-year-old needs at least six to eight weeks to recover from a back strain.

Thus ends the most tumultuous season of Davis' 13-year career, spent with three teams (Bulls, Knicks and Raptors) and a lock, naturally, to be remembered for his five-game suspension after charging into the United Center stands after wife Kendra's spat with a fan.

Yet Davis' agent, Bill Duffy, said it would be "very premature" to presume that the president of the Players' Association is bound for retirement.

"I'm sure there will be interest in Antonio this summer," Duffy said. "But first he wants to get away, get healthy and clear his head before making any decisions."



Film Session
Suns Get Big Gun Back
Marc Stein makes his weekly appearance on ESPNews' HotList to discuss Amare's return.


Question Marc
Nowitzki

From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

J-Mac (Dallas): I can't believe it. How is this possible? Not one single ESPN "expert" picked Dirk Nowitzki for MVP in your so-called story this week.

Kobe ".500 Team" Bryant got somebody's vote. And so did -- let me get this straight -- Tony Parker? You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.

If you lose the guy who's now expected to be the league's back-to-back MVP, who's now considered God's gift to basketball, how does your team get better? It gets better because of Dirk Nowitzki.

No one other than Nowitzki has even sniffed the All-Star Game for Dallas. Adrian Griffin and DeSagana Diop are Mav starters! But just because Dirk is a power forward and not a point guard, he doesn't get any credit for making his teammates better.

I looked it up: Gerald Wallace, Jumaine Jones, Kareem Rush, Melvin Ely, Bernard Robinson and Brevin Knight are all averaging career-highs in scoring. Is that all because of Brevin Knight's playmaking? It's starting to get on my nerves that Nash gets credit for everything that goes right in Phoenix.

Stein: Strong stuff, Jack. You've pretty much explained why Nowitzki is No. 2 on my ballot as we enter the final few weeks. He's been better than ever … and that was before Thursday night's 51-pointer against Golden State. You didn't ask this specifically, but my theory is that Nash is getting so much MVP love this time because some voters/experts/pundits are feeling guilty that they questioned his MVP-worthiness last season.

You're right, though. Dirk deserves a lot more spotlight than he's getting. He's on the short list of guys who manage to get better season after season after season and he still has a shot to lead Dallas to the best overall record in the league. Why didn't I choose Dirk in our staff-wide MVP discussion? With three-plus weeks to go, I rate what Nash has done with Phoenix -- putting the Suns on a 56-win pace before Amare Stoudemire's return Thursday -- one notch above Nowitzki putting his otherwise starless team on a 63-win pace. If the Mavs can rebound from the Jason Richardson buzzer-beater to come back and win the West, I might have to revise those sentiments.



Marc's Quote
D'Antoni

"Every time we lost."

Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, when asked how often he pined for Amare Stoudemire during his franchise big man's 66-game recovery from knee surgery.



A Fine Line
MAR. 22: MARCUS CAMBY VS. SPURS
MIN STL BLK REB PTS
35 1 2 21 9

Yao

Carmelo Anthony scoring 30-plus points for the fifth time in sixth games? That was good.

Marcus Camby?

Even better Wednesday.

Camby had 21 rebounds as Denver pulled out a 104-92 victory over San Antonio after first blowing an 18-point lead. The Spurs managed just 27 rebounds as a team.

Only six more boards than Camby, in other words.

Not that we should be surprised. Before a pinkie injury that required surgery in late December, Camby was assembling an out-of-nowhere breakout season at age 32. And now he's back to playing fairy-tale ball after his rough first month back from pinkie surgery, averaging 10.4 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.3 blocks in March as the co-spark with Anthony in the Nuggets' 9-3 month entering the weekend.

How good were 'Melo and Camby on Wednesday? Too good to let even LeBron James (37 points, 12 assists, 11 boards and the game-winning jumper in OT with less than a second remaining against Charlotte) or Raymond Felton (30 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and five steals in defeat) commandeer this corner of cyberspace.

 

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