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|The best defender. Most improved. Top rookie. Best sixth man. See Marc Stein's complete award choices.|
Steve NashNowitzki is having an MVP-caliber season, as one of the few players on the NBA map who can legitimately claim to get better every single season. In the low post, on the defensive end and when confronted by smaller/quicker defenders, Nowitzki is clearly better than he was a year ago. The only thing missing on his resume is the No. 1 seed in the West, and it's not really fair to hold that against the big German when Dallas exceeded all expectations anyway by winning 60 games . . . despite the biggest gap between the best and second-best player (Josh Howard) on its roster than any player in this discussion. Even Nash, when asked about Nowitzki's MVP-worthiness, told me: "What more does Dirk have to do?" LeBron James is having an MVP-caliber season, too, thanks largely to the late rush from his Cleveland Cavaliers that might wind up netting the third-highest win total in the Eastern Conference after seven seasons out of the playoffs. LeBron's individual production is ridiculous (31.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.6 apg) and looks even better when you remember that Larry Hughes, imported to be the backcourt sidekick who would help James finally get Cleveland back to the postseason, missed 45 games. If 50 wins equates to elite status, and if the Cavs can get there by winning Wednesday's finale against Atlanta, LeBron might combine singular prowess and team success better than anyone in the field. Of course, I can only say might because of Kobe Bryant, who's having his own MVP-caliber season. Did someone say ridiculous individual production? Surely you haven't forgotten Bryant shredding Nowitzki's Mavs for 62 points in three quarters . . . and then hang 81 points on the Toronto Raptors. It's no less of a trick for Kobe to have the Lakers at 44 victories, relying heavily on Smush Parker and Kwame Brown (with pretty much zippo on the bench behind them) as major contributors. Given the depth of the West compared to the densely populated sub-.500 culture in the East, Kobe's win total and 35-point scoring average arguably trumps LeBron. Most amazing feat of all from No. 8: No one even talks any more about Eagle, Colo. No ballot, furthermore, would be complete without Chauncey Billups, who's having an MVP-caliber season of his own as the Nash of the East. As noted in this cyberspace more than once, it's tough to stand out in the NBA's equivalent of a "Seinfeld"-standard ensemble, but Billups does so even with three other All-Stars in the lineup. If you were to single out one player from the league's foremost starting five, it would have to be the 29-year-old point guard who, like Nash in the desert, somehow gets better, more clutch and more glue-like as he gets older. So . . . To beat out all of the above competition, the reigning MVP would have to be even better than he was last season. Right. He was. Nash simply would not let the Suns drop out of the NBA elite, even though these Suns -- with almost a whole new team in place and with Amare Stoudemire's season consisting of three games and two knee surgeries -- were not last season's 62-win Suns. Nash promptly dispelled the myth that he wouldn't be as effective without Stoudemire as his pick-and-roll finisher and produced his best statistical season yet, shooting better than 50 percent from the floor, better than 40 percent on 3-pointers and better than 90 percent from the line as one of seven Suns to record a career-best scoring average. As a result, Phoenix has 53 wins and has maintained one of the league's top four records all season, in spite of all the changes and a run of injuries that recently claimed new interior defensive anchor Kurt Thomas. Shawn Marion's own brilliant play diminishes Nash's candidacy to some, but we again invite you to answer this question: If it were Nash out for the season instead of Stoudemire, would Phoenix be the No. 2 seed in the West? The Suns actually started 4-5, but coach Mike D'Antoni -- who had guaranteed a 50-win season after losing Stoudemire -- repeated his guarantee by reminding folks that he still had Nash and that his point guard would "figure it out." "That's what he does," D'Antoni said. And that's why, close as it was, Nash's season rates as the best of the five on this scorecard.
Stein's ballot: 1. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
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A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:
Highest Rise: No. 9 Orlando MagicIn the brief history of this little item, no team has ever posted the biggest rankings leap in two successive weeks. Then again, it's not too often that a team can start a season at 20-40 and then launch a (legitimate) 16-4 playoff push that includes victories over five teams in the top seven. That's what the Magic did to climb six more spots in the final batch of rankings after a five-spot rise last week. Rail against it if you wish, but we were swayed not only by how close Orlando came to snatching a playoff berth but also the wins over Cleveland, Dallas and Detroit . . . and roadies in Miami and San Antonio. Steepest Fall: No. 14 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets' six-spot tumble, after seven straight weeks at no lower than No. 8, might seem a bit harsh. Denver, though, isn't headed to the playoffs with much momentum at all in spite of the club's first division crown since 1988. Kenyon Martin is still hobbling big-time and Denver's two-game losing streak entering the final week of the regular season -- stretched to three by Monday's fall-from-ahead home loss to Houston -- ensured that it won't have home-court advantage in its first-round playoff series. That series, incidentally, likely pits the Nuggets against the Los Angeles Clippers, who have won the teams' past three meetings.
Five questions with Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace: Q: I'm sure you've been informed that you're about to join Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson as the only players to average two steals and two blocks per game for a whole season. How does a 6-7 swingman react when he hears that? A: It's a great feeling, a great accomplishment. My coach allows me to gamble and take chances, so getting steals becomes a lot easier. And then I just had to start coming from the weak side to block shots when we lost Emeka [Okafor]. I think I fared excellent in the post this year. It gave me a chance to get a lot more on-the-job training that I probably would have gotten [at the swing positions]. Q: Does only playing in 50-plus games take anything away from the achievement? A: To be honest, I wasn't totally prepared for the pounding or the banging that I took because I wasn't expecting to play so much in the post. I can guard some of the bigger guys, but I just wasn't prepared for it in the summer. I think that's why my body took a lot of punishment. If I had played on the wing all season, I think I'd have been successful for [closer to] 82 games. Q: How hard was it to leave Sacramento, a perennial playoff team, via the expansion draft? A: Depends on how you look at it. It wasn't hard for me because I wanted to play. Being on a team that won 50, 55 games every year, I wasn't getting a chance to play in Sacramento. Q: Did the Bobcats, going from 18 wins to 25, do enough to satisfy the fans in Charlotte? A: I'm pretty sure every fan wants a winning team, but I don't think we were [a disappointment]. With all the injuries we had, I think we can easily win 15 to 20 more games next season when we get guys back healthy. Q: When I talk to scouts or coaches about you, they talk about how dangerous you'll be if you can develop a reliable jumper. Is that your No. 1 off-season priority? A: I know people say I'm exciting and very athletic, but that's pretty much all I get right now. When I'm done playing, I want people to say that he was an all-around player that was able to do so much. My jumper and my ballhandling skills, those are things I'll always work on in the off-season. I'm only 23. I've got a lot of room to improve. Last season, I was just starting to get a feel for playing in the NBA, playing legit minutes. I don't even think I've started to improve yet.
Art (Ocoee, Fla.): I look at Orlando's No. 9 position and see five teams above them that the Magic have beaten in the past month or so, including each of the top three. I think they've earned this love. Remember us in the preseason. Jim (Miami): I don't get your latest rankings. The Magic are not going to make the playoffs, so how can they be in your top 10? Your rankings do not really mean anything. It's like a consolation prize that does not really carry any weight. Since the playoffs are around the corner and the teams participating are set, I would rather see your ranking of the playoff-bound teams (regardless of current seeding). That ranking would make more sense and be more relevant. Don't get me wrong, I understand what you were trying to do. But the Magic don't really matter at this point.
Q (Laguna Hills, Calif.): Are you serious about the Magic being ranked ahead of playoff teams in the West? C'mon, Marc. I actually respected these rankings until today. Matt (Orlando): Grant Hill might be geeked to play with these kids, but are they geeked to play with him? They're 16-4 without him. I can't imagine the chemistry getting much better with him hobbling around trying to play injured again. Sorry, but I'm just bitter about Grant Hill and all the money he's taken from the Magic.
Andy (Los Angeles): Only 12 more wins with Joe Johnson? This team was in almost every game it played. "Night and day" doesn't even begin to describe the difference in the Hawks this year. I enjoy your work -- even your constant screaming at the Hawks for passing on Chris Paul -- but this team worked hard, played hard and were fun to watch. We gave away about 15 wins in the final two minutes, but maybe they'll learn how to close out the close games when the average age of the team isn't 21. This was a GREAT season for the Hawks.
Mark Wilson (Charlotte) Thanks for all the write-ups on Gerald Wallace. I just bought a third season ticket for next year largely because of his play. The ex-UNC players get lots of cheers here for being locals, but Wallace gets lots of cheers for being Wallace. Watching him is worth paying big bucks.
Mat (Chapel Hill, N.C.): The least you could have done for the Bobcats, in the name of Power Rankings symmetry, was put them at No. 26. Keith Buohl (Bridgewater, Mass.): Well, Dr. Detroit, it's hard to argue with your top two teams. I really wish I could. If I were ranking the committee (of one) for the season, I would give you an 8 out of 10. You are still inconsistent when moving teams after losses and the formula needs to be weighted to reflect whether teams play in the East or the West, because an eight-game winning streak in the East is not the same. And as expected, you kept up your love for the Pistons until the very end, because if anyone else had lost to the Raptors it would have been mentioned. See you next year. Mark (Miami): For the love of God, please not another Detroit-San Antonio matchup in the NBA Finals. I'd rather have surgery than watch that. Rob DMC (Fraser, Mich.): You're a crackpot. Anyone who wastes their time ranking teams every week is an idiot and so are the people who write in to complain. Oh, wait. That means I'm an idiot, too. Go Knicks! Jon (Fort Lauderdale): You're not a Heat Hater because you say stuff that isn't true. You're a Heat Hater because you only look for negative things to say. If someone only read your weekly comments about the Heat, they'd be shocked to hear this team had more than 50 wins this season. Idiot.
Justin (St. Petersburg, Fla.): I love watching the teams you move up (especially the team at No. 1) struggle and/or lose games they are supposed to win right after the Rankings come out. I am glad you hate Miami. If you moved them up, they would probably do worse. Steve (Midvale, Utah): Of all the Power Rankings out there, yours is the best. Thanks for all the quick takes this season. Back for 2006-'07? Ed's note: Hope so, Steve. Not if the Heat Lovers out there have anything to say about it.