January 21, 2006

Nash, Kobe Have Different Value

Jan. 21, 2006

Nash, Kobe have different value

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

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."