As teammates, they were inseparable.
Well, guess what?
As MVP rivals, they ain't any easier to separate.
Finding any distance between them now is honestly harder than ever.
By now you've surely heard me and numerous colleagues wail about how tough it was to pick this season's Most Valuable Player. I know, I know: We say that every year. But I can't see how it's ever been more true. I would struggle to mount a passionate protest if any of the five guys on my official ballot end up as the NBA's 2005-06 MVP. And I can't remember ever thinking that before this, my 13th season covering the league.
The ballots in all categories -- including All-NBA teams, which I'll unveil in the final Daily Dime of the regular season Wednesday -- are due back to the league office by Thursday at 3 p.m. Here's how mine will look:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Nowitzki 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.
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.
1. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
2. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
4. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
5. Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons
October prediction: Tim Duncan
COACH OF THE YEAR
Yes. You got me.
Of course I'm going to complain about how this is still the toughest call in the awards biz. That's right: It's even tougher than the MVP logjam. So tough that you can't conclusively say who the Los Angeles Coach of the Year is -- Phil Jackson or Mike Dunleavy -- let alone find a clear-cut winner in a field that also includes Mike D'Antoni, Byron Scott and the perpetually ignored Gregg Popovich.
In the end, I came down to Flip and Avery Johnson while believing, again, that I could make a convincing case for each of the seven guys I've mentioned.
Avery's case: Dallas won 60 games with one All-Star (Nowitzki), in spite of numerous injuries and held the opposition under 94 points per game for the first time in franchise history . . . all while pundits continue to cackle about their D. The Lil' General, in other words, had the coaching equivalent of a Chris Paul rookie season.
Yet I felt a nudge inside to reward what Saunders did with the 64-win Pistons. Flip could have gone the safe route and taken over a good young team in Milwaukee but elected to step into Larry Brown's sizable shadow . . . and then presided over the best regular season in Pistons history. I don't buy that ridiculous Pistons Coach Themselves bunk. Not when Saunders pumped life into the Pistons' moribund offense, helped Billups reach a new gear by giving him so much freedom and responsibility and made sure Detroit's points-per-game defense stayed in the top three at 90.1 ppg. Oh, yeah: Detroit increased its win total from last season by 10, which isn't exactly the norm for a team that just went seven games in the NBA Finals.
I'm just as eager as you to see how the vote finishes. Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix all have an MVP candidate and a COY candidate who deserve to win. Close as I came to going with Nowitzki as my MVP and Avery as my COY, I don't think I'll be hugely surprised by any outcome.
1. Flip Saunders, Detroit
2. Avery Johnson, Dallas
3. Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix Suns
October prediction: Phil Jackson
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Why can't they all be this easy? Why can't even two of these be this easy?
Duh: It's Paul in a landslide. At 7.8 dimes nightly, Paul is averaging more assists as a rookie than Magic Johnson (7.3) or Jason Kidd (7.7). He's also scoring 16.2 points per game, adding 2.25 steals and averaging 5.2 boards (compared to Kidd's 11.7 ppg, 1.9 spg and 5.4 rpg) even though I question whether he's really a 6-footer as listed.
Most impressive, of course, is the Hornets' record: 20 more wins than last season when these Cinderellas were forecast to be among the league's worst. The coach and power forward David West were factors, too, and that's why both are strong awards candidates themselves. But Paul, as the venerable P.J. Brown likes to say, is simply "the guy."
"He's fearless, he's competitive, he's a winner," Brown told me. "He's the franchise. It's a pleasure to play with him."
Pleasure to watch him, too.
1. Chris Paul, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
3. Charlie Villanueva, Toronto Raptors
October prediction: Indiana's Sarunas Jasikevicius
SIXTH MAN AWARD
I swear that I wasn't swayed by the box of blue-and-yellow M&Ms sent by the Grizzlies to trumpet Miller's candidacy . . . and devoured by the 2 ½-year-old heir to the Stein Line: Alexander The Greatest.
Miller wins here on merit. Pau Gasol's step-up to All-Star status was the biggest development in Memphis this season, but Miller isn't far behind, welcoming (instead of fighting) his shift to a reserve role to stabilize a backcourt that lost Damon Stoudamire to injury while three newcomers -- Eddie Jones, Bobby Jackson and Chucky Atkins -- were also trying to settle in. Beyond averaging nearly 14 points nightly off the bench, Miller is also shooting almost 47 percent from the field while hitting on 40 percent of his 3-pointers and 80 percent of his free throws. Solid.
(It also didn't hurt that three of the top contenders most likely to bump Miller -- Miami's Alonzo Mourning, Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse and Milwaukee's Maurice Williams -- all missed a good chunk of time through injury.)
1. Mike Miller, Memphis Grizzlies
2. Jerry Stackhouse, Dallas Mavericks
October prediction: San Antonio's Michael Finley
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
You know by now what we wrestle with annually here. Is it the jump from non-factor to impact player? Or the tougher jump from good to really good? Or the toughest jump from really good to full-fledged stud?
I'm never sure.
Which is a problem this term because I can give you the names of five stars who became more than All-Stars this season: Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Chris Bosh, Gasol and Tony Parker. They're all scraping the upper crust now.
I can give you just as many worthy contenders in the first group: West, Gerald Wallace, (my man) Mike James, Andres Nocioni, Jameer Nelson, Chris Kaman and Nenad Krstic. I'm sure you'll e-mail me more.
But I'm going with Diaw, who's averaging 13.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists for the Suns after two seasons in Hawks purgatory.
As Nash explains: "Our starting center was Atlanta's backup two-guard last year."
It's a stunning fact that obviously didn't hurt Nash's MVP case, but it also clinches Diaw as my MIP.
1. Boris Diaw, Phoenix Suns
2. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
3. Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets
October prediction: Krstic
Throw out Bowen's undeniable (Cal State Fullerton) advantage with this voter and you'll still reach my conclusion. Or at least you should.
Perimeter defenders have never been more limited by the rules in how much they can use their hands on D, yet Bowen's legend -- and ability to frustrate scorers like Ray Allen -- only grows. He's also having perhaps his best stopper season, judging by all the complaints about him, at a time when the true legend at the rim behind him is not nearly as mobile as we're used to seeing because of Duncan's season-long bout with plantar fasciitis.
Ron Artest missed half the season after forcing his way out of Indiana. Two other natural contenders (Marcus Camby and Mourning) didn't quite play enough (games or minutes) to bid for the top slot. Duncan, Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and Detroit's Ben Wallace are always contenders here as well, as are Utah's Andrei Kirilenko and Marion and two of my up-and-coming faves: Gerald Wallace and Atlanta's Josh Smith.
But I have to take someone from one of the two most feared defenses in the league, so it's Bowen or Big Ben. And I'm going with the guy who probably guards more players of different sizes than anyone.
1. Bruce Bowen, San Antonio Spurs
2. Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons
3. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah Jazz
October prediction: Wallace
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.