Meet the contenders

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

Hopefully Canadians will make a bigger deal of Steve Nash winning the NBA's most valuable player award than we did when baseball's Larry Walker was named the National League's MVP eight years ago.

Nash has not won the MVP yet, of course. The deadline for ballots to be submitted from media members league-wide isn't till later this week, although a lot of voters already have sent in their picks.

Regardless, it appears to be a two-man race between Nash, the point guard for the Phoenix Suns, and Shaquille O'Neal, the centre for the Miami Heat. LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers likely will get some first-place votes as well, but his chances have been hurt in the past month with the Cavs in a free-fall and now in danger of missing the playoffs.

Wouldn't it be something if Nash, a skinny, scruffy, little (6-foot-3 is little by NBA standards) Canadian from Victoria, B.C., were to beat out Shaq?

Now, if the two of them were playing one-on-one, our money would be on the 7-foot-1 O'Neal, although we're pretty sure the big fella couldn't catch Nash. Be that as it may, basketball is a team game, and no NBA team has been better this season than the Suns, with Nash as their speedy quarterback.

We already have voted, and we voted for Nash (see chart). But how the other voters from coast to coast feel remains to be seen. Sometimes what they say and how they vote are two different things, and sometimes they change their minds if they hold onto their ballots till the last minute.

From our casual conversations with people around the NBA, a month ago we were convinced Shaq was going to win. Then two weeks ago, we were convinced Nash was going to win. And now we're not sure of anything anymore. That's nothing new in and of itself, but this vote really could be tight.

Debates over what it actually means to be an MVP, or what it should mean, are annual events in every pro sport. Should the award go to the best overall player? Should a player on a non-playoff team be considered? Does the presence of other good players on a team automatically eliminate someone from contention? And if that line of thinking is accepted, does that mean a player has to be surrounded by nothing but slugs to be considered a true MVP?

As those questions bounce around in our heads, here's a brief look at the top contenders for the NBA's MVP award in 2004-05:

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BILL HARRIS' OFFICIAL MVP BALLOT

As submitted to the NBA:

1. Steve Nash Phoenix Suns

2. Shaquille O'Neal Miami Heat

3. LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers

4. Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs

5. Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks

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CANDIDATE NO. 1

STEVE NASH, PHOENIX

Steve Nash got a lot of publicity earlier this season, and that actually could hurt him. Remember three years ago when Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets seemed a lock to win the MVP? The voters got so sick of hearing about how Kidd was the obvious choice, they started looking elsewhere and eventually settled upon Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Not that Duncan wasn't deserving, but you can see how being the leader in the clubhouse can backfire.

Nash still has plenty of solid supporters, though.

"I'm voting for Nash over Shaq, though either is deserving," writes Mike Tulumello, who covers the Suns for the Tribune newspapers.

"Nash is the key to the Suns' style, which is perhaps the fastest-moving ever in the NBA. He is entrusted to make the split-second decisions. The result is that the Suns are the No. 1 team and the benefit of the doubt in these awards should go to the best teams. The Suns will finish ahead of the Heat, and the West obviously is much tougher, so the Suns clearly had a better year."

Marc Spears of The Denver Post echoes those observations.

"Nash is the general behind the best team in the NBA in the league's best conference," Spears says. "Just look at their record without him."

Chris McCoskey of The Detroit News says he wishes the vote could end in a tie between Nash and Shaq.

"I had the hardest time picking one over the other," McCoskey says. "I picked Nash because I think he did more to change the culture of the Suns than Shaq did to change Miami.

"Miami already was good. Phoenix was a lottery team last season. Plus, we saw the Suns with and without Nash, and the difference was stark. Amare Stoudemire is not the same player without Nash, and neither is Shawn Marion. They become perimeter shooters without Nash; they are dunkers with him."

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STEVE NASH'S SEASON STATS

GP PPG APG RPG

74 15.6 11.5 3.4

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CANDIDATE NO. 2

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, MIAMI

Shaq is one of those guys who could be the MVP every year, really, if you wanted to get technical about it. The fact he has won the award only once previously -- in 1999-2000, with the Los Angeles Lakers -- is something of a travesty. Shaq is the most dominant player in the league, without question, and he has been for several years.

What's more important when it comes to an MVP candidate: Individual dominance, or making your teammates better? Some voters point out that Shaq does both quite well, thank you very much.

"Shaq is tied with Nash in terms of who did the most in turning around their teams and who was most valuable," says Sam Smith of The Chicago Tribune. "So the tiebreaker goes to the best player, and that goes to Shaq."

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SHAQUILLE O'NEAL'S SEASON STATS

GP PPG APG RPG

73 22.9 2.7 10.4

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CANDIDATE NO. 3

LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND

James probably is going to have a trunkful of these trophies by the time his career is over. Should that impact how someone votes in the here and now? Well, maybe it shouldn't, but obviously it does.

The timing of when some voters send in their ballots will impact James' chances, too. He isn't going to get many votes from the last-minute guys if the Cavs wind up missing the post-season.

Still, some observers think James has been uniquely special this season.

"James likely will become only the fifth player in NBA history to average 25-plus points, seven-plus rebounds and seven-plus assists," says Branson Wright, who covers the Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"He has been everything to the Cavs and if he played for Phoenix instead of Nash, the Suns would be favourites to win the title. If he played with Miami instead of Shaq, the Heat also would remain contenders. Put Shaq on the Cavs and none of these guards would get him the ball and they would clog the middle too tightly, because this is a poor outside shooting team. If Nash played for the Cavs, who on this team would finish his assists?"

LEBRON JAMES' SEASON STATS

GP PPG APG RPG

78 27.1 7.1 7.3

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THE BEST OF THE REST

Five other candidates that might collect some votes:

- Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: Like Shaq, Duncan could be the MVP every year. But his injury woes this season have scuttled his chances.

- Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: Everyone has been talking about his ex-teammate. But even without Nash, the Mavs still are a very good team, thanks to Dirk.

- Ray Allen, Seattle SuperSonics: Someone should get some recognition for this team's turnaround, although Ray's performance tailed off as the year progressed.

- Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers: A past MVP winner with great numbers, but the Sixers have been locked in mediocrity for two seasons.

- Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves: The defending MVP, but his team imploded and took a huge step backwards.

PLAYER GP PPG APG RPG
Tim Duncan 64 20.7 2.7 11.3
Dirk Nowitzki 76 26.3 3.1 9.8
Ray Allen 77 24.0 3.4 4.5
Allen Iverson 73 30.8 8.0 4.0
Kevin Garnett 80 22.4 5.7 13.7

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