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MVP talk tunes out Iverson

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JUST WHEN you thought the NBA season was finally getting down to something that actually mattered - the playoffs - a controversy has brought us together to discuss and dissect a more relevant topic.

Not the $100,000 fine commissioner David Stern has asked Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy to fork over for insinuating that the officiating in his team's first-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks smelled as fishy as Lexington Market.

Not the rematch of the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals - sorry Wizards fans, the only Eastern semifinal series that will be competitive - and the replays we'll see constantly of their infamous early-season Malice at The Palace.

Here's what everyone around the league was supposedly talking about yesterday: the Most Valuable Player race in which Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash narrowly edged out the Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal.

It was controversial.

Why not add to the controversy?

Here's my unofficial, though hopefully not uneducated, vote: Neither of them should have been MVP. Those who voted for Nash obviously paid attention to the fact that the Suns went from being a bunch of dysfunctional 53-game losers last year to the winningest team in the league this season as a result of a 33-game turnaround.

Those who voted for O'Neal took notice of the fact that the Heat became the best team in the woeful East this season, making a 17-game jump in the standings while Shaq's old team, the Los Angeles Lakers, became more irrelevant than the Clippers.

But where would Nash and O'Neal be right now if not for their ridiculously talented young sidekicks? You could make as much a case for Suns center Amare Stoudemire or Heat guard Dwyane Wade being the MVP as you could for Nash or O'Neal.

Which leads me to Allen Iverson.

And Kevin Garnett. And the Chosen One himself, LeBron James.

As much as Iverson's is not your father's point guard - or your grandfather's point guard - the Philadelphia 76ers star is probably the most unstoppable player in the league. He single-handedly carried a less-than mediocre team into the playoffs, something that Garnett and James couldn't do, something that Nash, O'Neal and even Tim Duncan weren't asked to do.

Though Garnett and James couldn't get their teams that far, what they accomplished should have made them legitimate MVP candidates.

Garnett played on a Minnesota Timberwolves team that was selfish and self-destructive from training camp, a team that saw Latrell Sprewell and Michael Olowokandi (and Baltimore's own Sam Cassell to a lesser extent) turn Flip Saunders into this season's sacrificial coach and the T'wolves into the league's biggest disappointment by far.

James played on a Cleveland Cavaliers team that faded badly during the second half of the season, in part because of a lack of talent and in part because the team's new owner did a dead-on imitation of the Redskins' Dan Snyder. Or was that Peter Angelos? George Steinbrenner? Mark Cuban?

Iverson, the league's leading scorer, was asked to change his game the last month of the season when the 76ers brought in a one-legged Chris Webber to help their playoff run. It was the worst fit of two big-name players in recent memory - a close second to Michael Jordan and Jerry Stackhouse - but somehow Iverson made it work.

But Iverson finished fifth in the voting, and the MVP somehow came down to Nash and O'Neal.

The vote was really cast by early January, when the Suns got off to a 31-4 start and then lost four straight games when Nash went out with an injury. His stats never wavered much all year, but by the end of the regular season he was not nearly as dynamic as he had been earlier because of recurring back and hamstring problems.

O'Neal became a candidate as much for what he did as what Kobe Bryant, his former sidekick, couldn't do with the Lakers. The fact that Wade, at 23, is now considered the best young player behind LeBron - and some believe just as good, given how fearless he is - should have diluted O'Neal's candidacy just a little.

Heat coach Stan Van Gundy suggested after the vote was announced that those who cast ballots didn't know what they were talking about in the first place.

"If you went out and asked any general manager in the league for the past dozen years who's the one player they've want to have, they'd say Shaquille O'Neal," Van Gundy said. "And he's been selected by you brilliant people in the team, selected as the Most Valuable Player one time. Once? Only once?"

How about some of those brilliant people from past generations who never picked Jerry West or Elgin Baylor, probably because it was difficult to discern who was more valuable to the Lakers?

Or those brilliant people in recent years who picked Michael Jordan only five times, despite the fact that he was always the best player in the league. Might have had something to do with Scottie Pippen.

Truth is, the matchup of Detroit and Indiana is more intriguing than discussing the merits of Nash and O'Neal.

Truth is, this won't go away as long as Miami and Phoenix stay on course to meet in the Finals.

Here's one vote for MVP: for neither.

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