Debate Brews As Nash Leads MVP Voting

April 27, 2006

By Bruce Arthur
National Post

TORONTO, Ontario - Steve Nash is not a man afraid of controversy. He wore a T-shirt questioning the Iraq war to the 2003 All-Star Game, after all. And at the time, he played in Texas.

It is a good thing he is not scared, because controversy is headed Nash's way again. Yesterday, The Arizona Republic, citing a league source, reported that Nash, from Victoria, will win his second consecutive MVP award. For further confirmation, an East Valley Tribune poll of 75% of the voters showed the Phoenix Suns point guard with a clear lead over LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kobe Bryant.

So the MVP race may be over, but the MVP debate just got a new shipment of fuel. Last season, Nash edged Shaquille O'Neal in the fourth-closest vote ever, and it was contested at more than the ballot box. Some wrote that Nash's race was a factor. You could even argue that it was.

Now, the list of back-to-back MVP winners looks like this: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Tim Duncan. And now, apparently, Nash.

"He's in the upper of the upper class," says Sherman Hamilton, who played with Nash for years on the Canadian national team, and who is now a broadcaster on Raptors TV. "It's ridiculous."

Hamilton meant ridiculous as a compliment, but not everyone will use that word in the same way. Within hours of the announcement, Dime magazine called it "a joke" that Kobe did not win. Michael Lee of The Washington Post recently looked at the list of back-to-back winners, and wrote, "Nash has been good, but is he really in that class as a player?" The debate is just beginning.

And frankly, we could argue it either way. Our pick, after six months of wrestling with every side of the coin, was Kobe, because his individual brilliance lifted a threadbare team to 45 wins. But we can nod our head to the case for Nash, or to a lesser extent for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Dirk Nowitzki They all had great seasons.

This was the most evenly contested MVP race in memory, with at least five candidates who could inspire an argument: In Cleveland, LeBron became the fourth player in league history to average more than 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists; Bryant's 35.4 points per game for the Los Angeles Lakers is the ninth-highest scoring average in NBA history; Nowitzki is by far the best player on a 60-win Dallas team; and Wade carried a banged-up Miami team to the East's second seed.

(This space admires Chauncey Billups but considers centre Ben Wallace just as important to Detroit's success.)

The argument for Nash is that he had a better season than his MVP campaign of a year ago. He became the fourth player in NBA history to shoot better than 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 90% from the line, joining Larry Bird, Reggie Miller and Mark Price. With eight new players on the roster and leading scorer Amare Stoudemire sidelined by knee surgery, Nash set career highs in scoring (18.8), minutes per game (35.4) and rebounding (4.2), and led the league in assists again (10.5). And Phoenix, with three new starters and some injury problems, sizzled its way to the fourth-best record in the NBA.

"He continues to get better," says Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo, who drafted Nash in Phoenix, then lured him back as a free agent before last season. "He continues to amaze."

Colangelo's colleagues agree: the NBA's general managers voted Nash as the league's MVP in a poll released by the league yesterday.

We agree that Phoenix's beautiful offensive style is seductive; that Nash's good-guy status among the media trumps Kobe's villainy; and that race, however subconsciously, can play a role in any decision-making process.

But none of that means Nash does not deserve this award. It's not for the best player award. It's most valuable player.

"Guys had great years," says Jay Triano, the Toronto Raptors assistant coach who coached Nash on the Canadian team. "I saw Kobe score 81; I saw LeBron really pick his game up and go to new heights. How can you not pick a guy like Chauncey, who leads the Pistons? Well, he has a great supporting cast there.

"[Nash] is out to prove people wrong. Give him a challenge and he accepts it full-bore. Last year, after he got it, there was this big debate -- it should have been this guy, it should have been that guy. Well, then he [averaged 40.3 points, 9.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds over three consecutive games to defeat Dallas in the second round]. And this year, people were saying, 'Now that you don't have Stoudemire, you can't do this, you can't do that.' He did it, with a new cast, and he made all those players better. That's what he does, is he makes everybody better.

"It's unbelievable. It really is."

Again, Triano is using the word as a compliment. Not everybody will.