Updated: April 19, 2006, 2:27 AM ET

Separated but equal . . . almost

As teammates, they were inseparable.

Well, guess what?

As MVP rivals, they ain't any easier to separate.

Steve Nash. Dirk Nowitzki. There they are, together again, filling the top two slots on my MVP ballot.

Honors System
The best defender. Most improved. Top rookie. Best sixth man. See Marc Stein's complete award choices.
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:



Steve Nash

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.


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
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



Flip Saunders

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.

Stein's ballot:

1. Flip Saunders, Detroit
2. Avery Johnson, Dallas
3. Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix Suns
October prediction: Phil Jackson

MORE: See Stein's ROY, Sixth Man, MIP and DPOY awards

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: April 8-9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15-16 | 17 | 18

No Crashing Allowed Here

Mitchell Layton/NBAE via Getty Images
Jamaal Magliore and the Bucks could not break through box-outs by Jared Jeffries and Caron Butler, nor could they dislodge the Wiz from the No. 5 seed in the East. The Wiz won, 116-103.

Slams And Dunks

Life is good in Chicago, where the Bulls already had the consolation prize sewn up (New York's No. 1 pick in the June draft) and now have the prize as well after snatching the East's final playoff berth away from Orlando and Philadelphia.

But I'm told that general manager John Paxson, nearing the end of his third season in charge as Jerry Krause's successor, didn't need a second successive trip to the postseason to ensure his continued presence running the Bulls.

Industry sources say the Bulls and Paxson have the framework in place for a long-term contract extension as they enter a critical summer for the franchise. With significant salary-cap space as well as the Knicks' pick, Paxson has the flexibility to be a major player on the summer trade market no matter what happens for Chicago in the post-season.

Golden State and Indiana could not consummate a Ron Artest trade before Sacramento swooped in for No. 93.

But you can bank on the Warriors and Pacers talking again this summer, if not sooner, regarding another big-name trade possibility: Jermaine O'Neal.

The Warriors believe a lot of their problems, as they faded from a 12-6 start to a 12th consecutive season out of the playoffs, stem from the lack of a low-post scorer with real size. O'Neal, as a result, is said to be high on Golden State's list, with general manager Chris Mullin a natural trading partner with Indiana given his close ties to the franchise as a former Pacer.

It remains to be seen whether the Pacers are indeed prepared to part with O'Neal to start over completely, but it doesn't hurt that Mullin has several young trade assets -- such as Ike Diogu (deemed off-limits in the Artest talks), Mickael Pietrus and the fast-rising Monta Ellis -- in spite of the club's postseason drought.

Number of playoff matchups that are 100-percent set entering the final night of the regular season?

Just two.

Both in the West's first round.

No. 4 Dallas will meet No. 5 Memphis after the Grizzlies' 101-95 victory Thursday night over the Los Angeles Clippers.

And . . .

The No. 6 Clips will have home-court advantage in a series for the first time in the club's L.A. history when it faces No. 3 Denver in Round 1.

Now can someone explain to me why every division champion is guaranteed a top-three seed in the current playoff system if it doesn't even get you home-court advantage for one round?

Can someone also let me know whether we're supposed to call it an upset if the Clips, as a sixth seed, beat the third-seeded Nuggets in a Game 7 at Staples Center?

Chat Excerpt

Joey (Corona, CA): Do you see Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce on the move this offseason? Who's most likely to be gone and to where?

Stein: I know for a fact that KG and the Wolves do not want to part ways no matter how many KG trade rumors you'll be hearing between now and October.

I'm almost as confident about Pierce staying in Boston.

So it's the Sixers who must be watched closest.

Philly will be forced now to look at every possibility, including AI trades, after this disaster of a finish. But as we've discussed here previously, Iverson's market is more limited than it might have been a year or two ago. Teams previously desperate for a ticket-seller, like Atlanta and Orlando, are unlikely to bust up their youthful cores for AI as he heads into his 30s.

Orlando definitely wouldn't. On second thought, maybe Atlanta would still consider it, but then the Hawks would be doing so more for business reasons (filling their half-empty building, in other words) than basketball reasons.

At this early stage, I'm openly struggling to give you a list of teams that would feasibly gamble on Iverson, not so much because he's 30 and expensive but because the Sixers have struggled for so long to find players who can be effective alongside him.

The market for Webber, meanwhile, is even more limited because of Webb's age (33), health situation (still recovering from microfracture knee surgery) and contract (he's owed $43 million for the next two seasons).

See the full Marc Stein chat transcript Insider

Film Session

Marc Stein is on the block with ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher, with both explaining their MVP selections. Watch ESPN Motion

Vin Is In!

Lance Murphey/AP Photo
Grizz center Jake Tsakalidis swats the ball away from Vin Baker, who notched six points and seven boards in his first-ever Clips start. L.A. got what it wanted with the 101-95 defeat, securing a playoff date with Denver.

Extreme Behavior

Tuesday's Best
Wiz guard Gilbert Arenas: In a shootout with worthy Bucks adversary Michael Redd, both finished with 43 points. But Arenas' Wiz won, 116-103, dropping Milwaukee to eighth in the East and making Redd "sick to his stomach." The Wiz also ensured that the East can have no more than three playoff teams with sub-.500 records; we've never seen four in one conference before.


Tuesday's Worst
The Clips-Grizz fiasco: In a game brought to you by the M1 Abrams -- yeah, that's a tank -- two playoff-bound teams weren't exactly NBA Faaan-tastic. The Clips one-upped the Grizz, who benched Pau Gasol, by plugging Vin Baker into the starting lineup for the first time this season. Then the Clips locked up the West's precious No. 6 seed . . . by falling way behind the Pau-less Grizz and losing.


Quote of the Day
"It makes me look like I'm not in control, which I am, but it makes me look like that. I feel bad, not only for myself, but for our organization. It will be addressed and it will not happen again."
-- Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks, after stars Allen Iverson and Chris Webber showed up just before tipoff for Philadelphia's regular-season home finale . . . which also happened to be Fan Appreciation Night.

See how all 95 who played stacked up

The current NBA Playoff matchups

Stock Report

A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:

Highest Rise: No. 9 Orlando Magic

In 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.

Marc Stein's Complete Power Rankings

One-On-One ... To Five

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.

Rank Comments

Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:

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.


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