Updated: Jan. 22, 2007, 1:59 AM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Three's company in MVP race

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

Waiting on the other side of this weekend, for most teams on the NBA map, is the magical 41 Games barrier.

That's right, people. Half the season, finito.

It was quick and it was conclusive, too, especially for those of you -- which we've come to learn means pretty much everyone -- who like to get an early start on the annual MVP debate.

How conclusive?

It looks like we're already down to just three guys who can actually win this thing.

At the virtual midpoint of the 82-game grind, assuming the next 41 (or so) games look a lot like the first 41, that's it. Trois.

There are only three who merit serious consideration because you have to rule out anyone from the unsightly Eastern Conference, unless Gilbert Arenas, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade can muster a barrage of second-half victories laced with 30- and 40-point games that takes their respective teams to a level where they're looking down at the rest of the Least.

So that leaves:

Two-time reigning MVP Steve Nash.

His good buddy Dirk Nowitzki.

And the otherworldly Kobe Bryant.

Your regular-season Most Valuable Player can only be one of the above.

I was actually leaning toward saying it's already down to a two-man race between the perpetually inseparable Nash and Nowitzki and was even encouraged to do so by Kobe when he visited Dallas on Thursday night. But rest assured Bryant can still intervene here. With the Lakers on a remarkable 53-29 pace entering the weekend in spite of injuries to Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown, and with Odom and Brown due back reasonably soon, No. 24 will be an undeniable factor in MVP balloting as long as the Lakers uphold their current success rate and finish with a win total in the 50s.

Otherwise …

Regular readers know that team success is always the foundation of our MVP deliberations, with at least 50 W's required to crack the conversation. (Unless you play in the modern-day East, which means you'd probably need at least 55 wins and a few of those unforgettable walk-off triples that Arenas keeps giving us.)

Since only two teams in the league have established 60-win paces, we naturally gravitate toward the two guys driving those teams.

Nash. Nowitzki.

Nowitzki. Nash.

Kobe, for his part, says it's Dirk if the season ended today. Nash echoed that sentiment after the Suns' morning shootaround Friday, saying: "Dirk gets my vote. Again."

No argument here, either. The Mavs have the league's best record at the midpoint and Nowitzki is better than ever, operating at his usual high level of offensive efficiency but now regularly sprinkling in game-winning shots and monster fourth quarters in the wake of his NBA Finals heartbreak in June. Seventeen points in the final period and overtime last week in Indiana. Twelve points in the fourth at Toronto to cap Dallas' big rally. Fourteen points in the fourth against Houston earlier this week, after Tracy McGrady did the early dazzling with 29 points by halftime.

Nowitzki is one of the few elite-level players who, even after eight seasons, shows up for season No. 9 having noticeably improved his game. He'll never get the credit Nash gets for making others better, because he's not a distributor, but another big Mavs progress-maker -- Josh Howard -- would say otherwise.

The ultimate proof? Dallas awoke Friday morning with a 5½-game lead over its longtime rivals to the south in San Antonio, with Nowitzki fueling the Mavs' 33-4 response to their 0-4 start. It's a stunning gap which must feel twice as big to Tim Duncan's Spurs, given how close these teams usually are.

Nash, meanwhile, is arguably playing better than he did in his back-to-back MVP seasons, something you undoubtedly hear now on a nightly basis on the highlight shows. The fact that he has two Maurice Podoloff trophies at home is bound to hurt him with some voters, crazy as that sounds, because resistance to the idea that Nash belongs in the three-in-a-row pantheon with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird began to bubble early in some corners. Yet that shortsighted view overlooks two key truths.

1. You can only judge Nash against the competition of the day, based on the season in progress.

2. The alleged "help" he gets from Mike D'Antoni's system doesn't make all those shots go in -- 53 percent from the field, 50 percent on 3s and 88 percent from the line in averaging 19.6 points and 11.4 assists -- and doesn't come close to measuring his leadership impact, which is borderline immeasurable these days. The Suns' ability to reintegrate Amare Stoudemire alongside Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw so seamlessly, after playing so differently for a season without him, wouldn't have a chance of working if Phoenix didn't have special chemistry. You don't need more than one guess to know where that chemistry starts.

Yet Nash, not surprisingly, doesn't even want to field an MVP question or debate the respective cases out there.

"I don't want to disrespect the award, because I cherish everything that's happened to me," Nash said. "But all I want to do [now] is win a championship."

Two and a half seasons of this MVP stuff and he still doesn't get it. The masses, Nashy, don't even want to wait until January to start arguing.

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

• Dimes Past: January 13-14 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19


Onward 'March'
Yao Ming
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Don't take it personally that you weren't included above, Yao. You have bigger things to worry about anyway. (Read below.)


Western Conference

Checked in Thursday with Phil Jackson regarding the Lakers' interest in giving Penny Hardaway his comeback opportunity, something L.A. is still considering.

It doesn't sound as though we should be expecting a signing or press conference tomorrow, but Phil also says he hasn't ruled out a move in the near future. That makes sense given that Hardaway is Jackson's kind of guard (big and experienced), presumably a good fit in the triangle offense (with his passing and ballhandling ability) and "not that old" in Jackson's estimation (if Penny is indeed healed after some six years of knee problems).

The Lakers have had what Jackson terms "a couple observation opportunities" to evaluate the 35-year-old behind closed doors. Hardaway is working out daily, shuttling between three cities (Miami, Houston and his hometown of Memphis) and insists that he's far healthier than he was in either of the past two seasons, when he managed to appear in only 41 games.

The difference, Penny contends, is a knee operation he had last March -- his fifth -- to address a bone-spur problem that complicated the recovery from Hardaway's original microfracture surgery back in 2000. Seattle also gave him a tryout but, as covered here recently, ultimately passed at least in part because new Sonics vice chairman Lenny Wilkens has final approval on basketball matters and had no interest in Hardaway after coaching him in New York.

Chances are it won't happen, but Jackson, by contrast, has never shied away from reclamation projects, deftly handling players with worse locker-room reps than Hardaway's. Yet I couldn't get more than a chuckle out of him when I pointed out that putting Penny in the same backcourt with Kobe Bryant -- with Phil on the bench and Jerry Buss in the stands -- wouldn't exactly improve the Lakers' chilly relations with old pal Shaquille O'Neal.


A bonus bite from Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy on Houston's ability to maintain a 50-win pace -- 51 wins, actually, as of Friday morning -- despite Yao Ming missing the past 13 games:

"We're not really on course for anything," Van Gundy said, rejecting the notion that the Rockets have proven themselves playoff-worthy.

"I think it's too early to determine anything, just like I think it's too early for the teams that are rolling -- like Detroit last year -- to determine what you're on course for.

"At times, as we've gone through this little [9-4] streak, the results have actually been a little better than the play has been."

And this won't help matters: Houston is now projecting Yao to be sidelined until March by his broken leg.


The Clippers and Pacers have spent the past day or so trying to leave zero doubt -- Indy CEO Donnie Walsh says it as clearly as you can on Chad Ford's podcast this week -- that there will be no Corey Maggette-for-Mike Dunleavy swap now that the Pacers have acquired Dunleavy.

But we might have to take it a step further, with the Clips insisting that the chances of Maggette being moved anywhere before the Feb. 22 trading deadline are "extremely unlikely."

Now is that mere posturing from the Clips to get interested teams (Utah, San Antonio and Minnesota among them) to make better offers?

That's a sensible conclusion.

The Clips, though, maintain that it's a faulty conclusion. As much as they need to make the playoffs to help pay for Donald Sterling's increasingly liberal spending -- and as much as Maggette is the natural choice for a shake-up move given that he and everyone else have been expecting a trade for months -- rumblings persist that Maggette has a better chance of moving into the starting lineup than relocating in the next month.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Bernard (Atlanta): Enough is enough. Just one man's opinion, but why is this grown and rich man being so sensitive? Was Dikembe's family complaining about age jokes when he filed last year's tax return? Athletes are not held to the same standards as the common man, so why should things change when people get their feelings hurt about something as petty as a 20-year-old joke that is harmless?

Jesus (San Jose, Calif.): Tell Mutombo to stop crying. He is old enough to take a joke. If his kids don't know the difference between a joke and what's not a joke, then he should sit down and talk to them about the difference between the two. It gets old -- don't pardon the pun -- that athletes cry about everything.

Jeremy (Dallas): I say we get lawyers to draft a contract stating that no one on television can joke about his age as long as he stops the outdated finger wag that was cool in 1992.

Stein: Got a flurry of these in response to Thursday's story about Dikembe Mutombo's displeasure with people -- media folks in particular -- constantly questioning how old he really is. I hear you. I agree (to a degree) with a lot of these points.

Mutombo is indeed the oldest player in the NBA, which pretty much guarantees a running commentary about his age. Public figures do have to accept that they're going to hear all kinds of barbs along with the bouquets, just as LeBron James did and just as I'm sure Greg Oden is finding out every day at Ohio State when folks crack wise about how mature he looks for a college freshman. One could argue, furthermore, that Mutombo is only inviting more attention to the issue by speaking out on it … and especially by suggesting that he wants to get David Stern involved.

However …

I hear what he's saying, too.

These jokes/accusations have been in circulation for two decades and I've never heard him complain before. So why now? It's obviously an integrity issue for him, as opposed to Deke being unable to handle the jokes. Mutombo is a proud man and deservedly is considered one of the finest statesmen this league has ever seen. If your integrity was openly questioned for so long -- and if you gave as much back to society as Deke -- I'm guessing you wouldn't like it and would eventually have something to say about it.

As Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson says: "He's averaging a rebound, what, every 2.4 minutes? … I figure people would be saying he's younger [than 40], not older." Put another way: If Mutombo really were as old as everyone says, wouldn't that make his recent streak of double-digit rebound games even more astonishing?

Yet I can understand why he doesn't see it that way. I'm fairly sure it would bother you a bit if your 9-year-old daughter asked you why, as Mutombo describes it, people "think your father is a liar."




New MVP In Town?
Dirk Nowitzki
Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images
Dirk has come out blazing this season and everyone's noticing. He's already got two unofficial votes for MVP from his main competition -- Kobe and Nash.


Eastern Conference

The Pacers, I'm told, didn't go to Jermaine O'Neal to get his sign-off before making Wednesday's eight-player trade with Golden State. Player consultation is generally not a step Indy CEO Donnie Walsh feels comfortable making before completing a big trade.

Not even in this case, with Indiana forced to part with Al Harrington -- whom O'Neal refers to as a "little brother" -- to achieve its twin aims of moving Stephen Jackson to a new city and acquiring frontcourt prospect Ike Diogu.

That said …

Pacers management, by all indications, was already convinced without needing last-minute reassurance that an openly frustrated O'Neal had reached the same conclusion his bosses had: JO and Baby Al simply didn't mesh as frontcourt sidekicks nearly as well as Indy believed when it spent weeks over the summer scrambling to reacquire Harrington from Atlanta.


Wallace

Here's a Rasheed Wallace-related problem for Flip Saunders that no one can debate: Sheed awoke Friday morning with a league-leading 12 technical fouls in 35 games.

That would put Mr. T on pace for 27 techs if he doesn't miss another game this season … which computes to six one-game suspensions (yes, SIX) based on the disciplinary scale introduced last season that hits any player with a one-game ban after his 16th technical, 18th technical, 20th, etc.

Perhaps no less troubling for the Pistons: Rip Hamilton is tied with Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki for second place with eight T's in 35 games. Rip, then, is on course for 18 technical fouls if he doesn't miss another game, which would result in two one-game suspensions.


Some mathematical loose ends from the Indy-Golden State trade:

The Pacers are now $2.2 million under the luxury-tax line this season, with Golden State at nearly $700,000 under.

Indiana sent out $71.6 million in combined guaranteed salaries if Harrington picks up his player option for the 2009-10 season and if Sarunas Jasikevicius elects to exercise his option for next season instead of returning to Europe.

But the Pacers also took back $32.7 million more than Golden State in long-term salary obligations if Harrington and Jasikevicius see out their contracts with the Warriors and if Indiana, as expected, picks up its team option on Diogu for the 2008-09 season.

That's why I keep saying the Pacers better be sure that Diogu becomes the player they've projected since last winter, when they were trying to pry him away from Golden State in Ron Artest talks. If Diogu doesn't develop as expected -- and if Dunleavy and/or Murphy are Pacers for the long term -- Indy will be spending a lot of money for the privilege of finding a new home for Jackson.






One-On-One … To Five
Hill

Five questions with Magic forward Grant Hill:

Q: Approaching the halfway point, can you give me a Magic progress report?

A: We're coming along. In terms of what the [big-picture] expectation is, I'm not sure. I'm not trying to look too far down the road, but I think playoffs are reasonable. I think we have a chance to win our division. I think we can play with anybody.

Q: And how's Grant Hill doing?

A: Grant Hill is tired tonight, but overall Grant Hill is doing well and feeling good.

Q: What about your future? You're a free agent in July. Do you want to re-sign with the Magic or have you started thinking going elsewhere to try to chase a championship?

A: I've learned not to look too far down the road. I know it's a cliché, but I'm really just taking it one day at a time. I looked down the road in '01 and '02 and "down the road" didn't turn out so good. So I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But I will say I like it here in Orlando being part of this team.

Q: After everything you've been through injurywise and off the floor, does that make having one last shot at a championship before you retire less of a priority?

A: It would be nice. It would be really nice. But Orlando may not be that far away. We've taken some big steps this year. My approach is [that] it's January. I've only played past January twice in the last six years, so I'm just glad to be playing in January.

Q: You see him up close every day, so can you give me a Dwight Howard progress report?

A: He's going to be really, really good … obviously. But the thing I like is that he's not only gotten better last year to this year; he's gotten better since the start of the season to now. And he's still learning the game. He's getting better passing out of double-teams, reading the defense. As good as he is, he can still get a lot better and he knows that. He's not satisfied with where he is.



Do The Dwight Thing
Dwight Howard
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
We'd show you a picture of Dwight Howard passing out of a double-team … but who wants to see that besides his coaches?


Marc's Quote
Van Gundy

"I'm not sure it's their level of madness that has me concerned. It's their speed, rebounding, defensive ability and some unbelievable offensive play that has me more concerned than: 'They've got revenge on their minds. Oh no! Not that.' "

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, when asked if he was expecting Houston's 31-point victory in early November to supply Dallas with added motivation or anger for the teams' rematch Tuesday, which the Mavericks wound up winning 109-96.



Rank Comments

It's one of the readers' favorites and we do it every week: Trot out five (or so) responses to the latest edition of my NBA Power Rankings to make sure you have your say.

Straight from the rankings mailbag:

Jeremy (Evansville, Ind.): I'm that pessimistic Jazz fan whose e-mail you posted back in November. I promise I'm a real Jazz fan, but my worries came true: .500 basketball after the quick start.

Thanks for giving my team props, but if these really are "Power Rankings," then even No. 7 might be a bit high for my Jazz right now. I think we're pretty good and getting better, but you don't go from the lottery to the upper tier of the West in one season.

Committee's counter: But here's the thing, Jeremy. There really is no upper "tier" in the league at the minute. It's a two-team tier at most: Dallas and Phoenix have separated themselves from everyone else.

The rest of the playoff contenders in the league -- even a title contender like mighty San Antonio -- are in week-to-week flux because of injuries and other issues. So Utah, Houston and the Lakers have been able to stay up there, even though none of them was expected to join the upper class this season, and despite what could be described as a period of protracted mediocrity from the Jazz.

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