MVP race too close to call

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Dirk Nowitzki leads a short-handed Dallas team into San Antonio and scores 30 points, carrying the Mavericks to a huge victory in the Western Conference playoff race.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich afterward called it “an MVP performance.”

So is Nowitzki the NBA’s most valuable player?

To answer that question in this year’s crowded race, you first need to tackle the tougher one: “What is an MVP?”

The best player? The most important player on a winning team? The one whose team could least afford to lose him?

Any way you look at it, as many as six players seem to have a case why they should be the winner.

Mark Cuban doesn’t need any convincing.

“There should be no question that Dirk is the leading candidate,” the Mavericks owner said. “You can’t look at any other team with a single All-Star and find one who has been more valuable to his team and has led his team to more wins.”

What about LeBron James? He scored 37 points the following day as Cleveland went to New Jersey and snapped the Nets’ league-best 14-game winning streak. In his next game, he made the game-winning basket with 0.5 seconds left to beat the Hornets.

Maybe he is the best choice.

“LeBron had a spectacular year, which has really helped our team take the next step,” Cavs general manager Danny Ferry said. “And we did it with injuries, and we did it with a first-year general manager, first-year coach, all those things, and he really led the way.”

Nowitzki and James are far from the only worthy candidates in what is shaping up as one of the deepest MVP fields in years.

There’s plenty of support for Steve Nash, last year’s winner in Phoenix, as well as Chauncey Billups of Detroit and Miami’s Dwyane Wade.

Oh, and don’t forget Kobe Bryant’s choice: Kobe Bryant.

“I’d vote for myself,” the Lakers star said with a smile.

And if he couldn’t?

“I wouldn’t vote at all.”

The people who will vote have until the day after the regular season to get their ballots in, and they may want to wait right up until the deadline to sort through the choices.

The race seems headed to a finish like 1999, when Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Duncan were separated by fewer than 100 votes; or the 1990 vote when Magic Johnson edged Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan.

Before voters decide who is the most valuable player, they first have to decide what is a most valuable player.

“What’s the criteria? Make your team better,” Knicks coach Larry Brown said. “And then look at the record. Look at the people around them and then you make a decision.

“You pick five guys out on Detroit. You look at the teams that are winning in the league. You look at Dallas right away, you look at absolutely LeBron, you look at Steve Nash not having (Amare) Stoudemire. There’s a lot of pretty neat stories.”

Nash won a close race last season, beating Shaquille O’Neal by 34 points. He seemed to be the favorite among players during the All-Star break, and has led Phoenix to a second straight Pacific Division title even though the Suns only had Stoudemire for three games.

But the Suns stumbled a bit down the stretch, possibly opening the door for someone who has a strong finish. Nowitzki and James could be the most likely candidates in that case.

Dallas had to play for portions of the second half without regulars Josh Howard, Adrian Griffin, Devin Harris, and Keith Van Horn, but Nowitzki’s play has kept the Mavs neck-and-neck with the Spurs for the best record in the West.

“He’s as valuable to his team as any player in the league,” Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “The most unusual thing about Dallas is that they lose last year’s MVP and still get better. It’s mind-boggling.”

James had a sensational stretch to lock up the first playoff berth of his career. His run of nine straight games with 35 points made him only the third player since 1970 with such a run, topped by only Michael Jordan (10 games in 1986) and Bryant (13 in 2003).

In those nine games, James averaged 38.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists. The last player to post at least those averages during a nine-game span was Oscar Robertson during the 1964-65 season.

Most importantly, James’ play prevented the Cavs from the type of second-half collapse they had last year. As Ferry said, “The guy was driven not to let that happen again this year.”

Still, James says he doesn’t get caught up in trying to become the first player since Allen Iverson in 2001 to be the MVP of the All-Star game and the regular season in the same year.

“I never worry about individual accolades,” James said. “Never have and never will. I feel like the individual awards will come with the team’s success. They recognize that, people who are voting for the MVP race, and they’ll probably realize who the MVP of the league is.”

Bryant wants to win. And if the award went strictly to the best player, he probably would. He’s set to win his first scoring title and provided the signature moment in the NBA this season with his 81-point game in January.

But the Lakers are at the bottom end of the West’s playoff race, and with so many voters focused on a team’s record, some might say Bryant isn’t even the best candidate in Los Angeles – instead preferring the Clippers’ Elton Brand.

“Kobe’s going to have a lot of detractors,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Unfortunately, we’re not 10 games over .500. We are going to be in the playoffs, that says something about his performance.”

If a team’s winning percentage is so important, then Billups is the obvious choice. Detroit has gone wire-to-wire with the league’s best record, and he always seems to come through when the Pistons need a big shot.

“An MVP has to be a great player that makes his teammates better and makes huge plays in clutch situations to lead his team to victories,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “Chauncey Billups fits that description and that’s why he would get my first-place vote for MVP.”

Billups doesn’t lead his team in scoring – then again, neither did Nash – and Detroit’s balance could work against him. Wade has superb numbers, but there is a large shadow over his campaign: Some voters will always point to O’Neal as the reason for Miami’s success.

“Dwyane was a guy that nobody really knew about, and now everybody knows about him because of his play,” O’Neal said. “And it’s unfair that people always say Oh, he’s having a great season, but he’s only having it because Shaq is there.”‘

Wade could end up being disappointed, but so will a number of other deserving players. And if they don’t understand why they didn’t win, neither did a former winner who came up short last year.

“Over the last five, six years, the award has become diluted to me,” said O’Neal, the 2000 MVP. “I don’t really know what the definition of MVP is anymore. Is it Most Valuable Player, what you do, or what your team does? That award is not really important and that’s why I don’t try to go for it anymore.”

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