- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

The NBA’s MVP race has been winnowed to two, Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki, nothing “tainted” in either choice.

Shaquille O’Neal raised the subject of basketball contaminants with the Arizona Republic last week when asked to discuss Nowitzki’s MVP chances.

O’Neal expressed bewilderment with the voting process and suggested Nash’s two consecutive MVP awards were “tainted,” if he means the Suns did not claim the NBA championship in 2005 or 2006.

O’Neal is drawing from a tired but common misperception with the MVP award. The honor is not necessarily bestowed on the best player from the championship team, although the voting often cuts that way.

The NBA actually awards two MVP trophies each season, one for the regular season and one for the postseason.

The best player from the championship team hauls away the NBA Finals MVP award, as O’Neal did from 2000 to 2002.

The Nash-Nowitzki debate is dependent on all the subjective elements of a race that is too close to call at this point.

Nash’s value to the Suns was all too clear in the four games he missed before the All-Star break. The Suns lost three of the four games, two at home. Nash’s numbers show no deterioration at 33 years old, and his vision is unparalleled in the NBA today.

Assists do not always do him justice, for an assist merely can mean a pass that results in a 20-foot jump shot. Nash undoubtedly leads the NBA in assists that lead to rim-rattling dunks or easy conversions near the basket.

Nash puts a strain on the opposition’s defense with his dribble-penetration forays around the basket. He is not unlike the quarterback of a wishbone offense in football.

Is he going to keep the ball, pitch it to a teammate or shoot it?

The defense often does not know what is what with Nash, for he waits until the last possible moment to make a decision.

This sometimes leads to comical occurrences, with the defense guessing wrong and Nash being left to shoot an open 12-footer.

Nowitzki has brought more efficiency to his floor game this season, no doubt prompted by the championship that slipped from the grasp of the Mavericks last June.

Nowitzki is shooting a career-high 50.2 percent from the field and involving his teammates with greater frequency.

He is the toughest one-on-one cover in the NBA today. There never has been anyone like him in the NBA — a 7-footer who leads the fast break and shoots 3-pointers. The only comparable players in NBA annals would be Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, both 6-9.

Nowitzki is able to shoot over most defenders because of his height. And he is able to dribble around anyone remotely close to him in height.

This is his season, his team’s time, as the Mavericks seem all but certain to have the top record going into the playoffs.

If the Mavericks or the Suns do not win the championship this season, it becomes more probable that it won’t ever happen with the core group of each team.

The Spurs are showing signs of age, the Allen Iverson-Carmelo Anthony union is not producing favorable results, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady are rarely on the floor together with the Rockets and the Eastern Conference representative promises to be fodder in June.

Of course, the same prospect was before the Mavericks in June before they allowed the Heat to crawl back from the dead late in Game 3.

Nowitzki and the Mavericks are playing as if they are still kicking themselves over that one.

The Mavericks have a 46-5 record since dropping their first four games of the season.

Nowitzki is the best player on the best team in the NBA at the moment, just as it was with Chauncey Billups and the Pistons at this time last year.

That title of respect means nothing in the playoffs.

Until then, with two months left in the regular season, Nowitzki or Nash as MVP is exceedingly clear.

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