February 22, 2006

The Little Engine That Could Win Another MVP

Feb. 22, 2006

By Jerry Brown
East Valley Tribune

HOUSTON, Texas - Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have the scoring numbers and the sizzle. Chauncey Billups and Dirk Nowitzki are the standout players for teams that have set the pace in each conference. But no conversation about the Most Valuable Player race in the NBA this season can begin without first mentioning the incumbent.

This time, the talk doesn't concern whether Steve Nash was the worthy recipient of last year's award. Now the question is: Does he deserve another one?

Back-to-back MVPs are holy ground, a baseball pass to the Hall of Fame. Turning the trick is about as rare in the game as Nash himself. But after the Suns traded away two high-profile starters, then lost Amare Stoudemire to injury for the first 52 games, they not only failed to collapse into mediocrity but once again sit atop their division and among the league's elite teams.

And once again, it's Steve Nash driving the bus.

"He's got my vote so far," said TNT analyst Doug Collins, after watching Nash and the Suns destroy Houston up-close on Thursday. "What he's doing without Amare, and with so many new faces, is just incredible and a testament to the player he is."

TNT's Charles Barkley, the only other player to earn an MVP in Suns history, said Nash has validated his greatness to all and should be "the runaway winner" again.

"All those critics of Steve Nash last year, they should all shut up," Barkley said. "What he's done so far, what he's accomplished, takes all the steam out of every argument."

Still, there are the skeptics, those who like their MVPs to come in bigger, bolder and more traditional packages. Nash doesn't dunk or swagger. He doesn't gyrate or pose. He doesn't always score the deciding basket or make the "SportsCenter" play.

And even if you remember that his points (19.4 per game) and assists (a league-leading 11.0) account for more total production than anyone else, skewing his effectiveness into two separate categories can dull the "wow" factor.

"I think he's the best engine in basketball. He makes his team play better than any other player in the league," Denver coach George Karl said. "Now, is that the most valuable player? I'm not sure. There are more talented players. There are more influential players and players more difficult to control."

But is anyone more difficult to stop than Nash?

The team with the most points still wins. And for the fifth straight season, a team with Nash in charge (three years in Dallas, two in Phoenix) leads the league in scoring. With plug-ins Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, James Jones and Eddie House, Nash assumed the burden of making the puzzle pieces fit and has produced another pleasing picture.

"He had great years with (Dirk) Nowitzki and (Michael Finley) in Dallas, but now he's here, with a different cast last year and a different one this year, and the results are the same," Memphis coach Mike Fratello said. "Maybe we're all late on (Nash). Maybe instead of saying he's upped his game, we need to go back and say we didn't properly appreciate him before he got to Phoenix."

HOW DOES HE DO THAT?
Those who try to defend Nash, or at least control him, inevitably return to the frustrating, galling side of his talents.

"You think you have the first pass covered, and the second pass covered and he's out of options," Philadelphia's Kyle Korver said after the Suns picked apart the 76ers for the second time in the month of January. "But then he finds that third guy, the guy that's wide open for a three and no one can get there. That's the one that takes the wind right out of you." Minnesota coach Dwane Casey said simply: "If you're going to start a team, he's the guy you want to get.

"His command and control of the game and ability to make other players better, that's the measure of his greatness and the reason you can't give him enough credit."

The book on slowing down Nash has always been to rough him up. Make him pay for his drives to the lane and put whatever is left of his 195 pounds at this point in the season on the floor.

"You have to be physical with him and get to him early," Bryant said. "I've guarded him before and it's definitely a full-time commitment. You can't relax and decide to take a possession off, because he never does. If you don't stay on that guy the whole time, he just makes you look silly."

By this time last year, Nash was showing wear and tear with thigh and back injuries that cost him seven games and limited him in many others. But this year, Nash has played in all 51 games, averaged 37 minutes a night (three more than last year) and, a week after celebrating his 32nd birthday, just keeps on rolling.

"He does a great job of taking care of himself and you need luck too, no freak things," Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But I don't buy this stuff that he's `Little Frail Stevie' with his floppy hair against all those giants. He's a lot stronger than you think he is. From the shoulders to the waist, he's one of our strongest guys.

"We've asked an awful lot of him, to extend himself to win games. But I don't see him wearing down. People thought he was worn down last year, and then he was just ridiculous in the playoffs. If he was worn out, that was a heck of a second wind."

And this year, he's even better. In the midst of a career year in scoring, Nash is the first player to average 19 points and 11 assists since Magic Johnson did it in 1990-91. Always a great free throw shooter, he leads the league with a career-best 92.3 percent. Playing huge minutes, he's handled it easily.

"I feel younger almost every year," Nash said. "I feel like I'm getting better every year, and for the last two years, the season has gotten easier for me."

So he's getting better and stronger. Does Nash do anything wrong?

"Well, maybe sometimes he gets bored," D'Antoni said. "He's so good, he says `Well, let me see if I can do this thing that no one has done in the history of the game.' That's the only time you'll see him lose a little concentration, and even that's rare."

A HALL OF FAMER?
Chicago coach Scott Skiles was an assistant in Phoenix when the Suns took Nash with the 15th pick of the 1996 draft, and two years later when he was shipped to Dallas. Could he have imagined that player would be making a run at a second MVP trophy?

"If you had told me at that time that he would get to this level, I'm not sure if it would have been believable," Skiles said. "But the moment you meet him, you realize that you don't ever want to sell him short."

The NBA announced this year's list of nominees for the Hall of Fame on Friday. As he approaches the outer edge of his prime as a player, a starting All-Star selection, a second MVP award or a trip beyond the conference finals this year would help fill out the resume.

Prodding Nash into addressing his place in basketball royalty - or almost any topic that centers around himself - is futile. All answers quickly revert back to the team and include plenty of "we" and "us" references. Which, of course, is what makes him the dream teammate.

"All those guys, you can tell how much they love to play with him," Philadelphia coach and former point guard Maurice Cheeks said. "They're always looking to put the ball in his hands, because they know at some point they are going to get it back.

"That's the biggest compliment a player can have."