Without Stoudemire, Nash makes point as NBA's MVP

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The Kickoff

February 13, 2006|By ISRAEL GUTIERREZ | ISRAEL GUTIERREZ,THE MIAMI HERALD

It's just past the NBA's midseason point and just before the All-Star break. What better time to predict this season's award winners?

Most Valuable Player

Canadian and Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash gives his homeland reason to celebrate, with national icon Wayne Gretzky potentially staining his name with possible involvement in the NHL gambling scandal. Nash should win his second straight MVP trophy, and this one won't be nearly as controversial as last year, when many thought the Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal was more deserving.

The Suns have played the entire season without Amare Stoudemire and still lead their division. Nash's scoring average has increased by nearly four points from last season, his assists remained steady at 11 per game, and his shooting is just a bit under 50 percent.

Other contenders: LeBron James, Cavaliers; Elton Brand, Clippers; Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks; Chauncey Billups, Pistons; Dwyane Wade, Heat.

Rookie of the Year

This is the one runaway choice, not only because Hornets guard Chris Paul has put up the most impressive numbers of any player, but his team has to be the biggest surprise of the season. Paul, in the top 10 in assists and steals, is having a Jason Kidd-type of impact on his Hornets, helping make David West a legitimate NBA star, reviving Desmond Mason and giving players such as Kirk Snyder and Rasual Butler the ball precisely where they need it.

Other candidates: Charlie Villanueva, Raptors; Andrew Bogut, Bucks; Channing Frye, Knicks.

Coach of the Year

No other coach has redefined his team this season the way Avery Johnson has for the Mavericks. He has taken one of the league's perennially horrible defensive teams and sculpted it into a model defensive unit. It's as drastic a makeover as last year's award winner, Mike D'Antoni, did with his Suns that season.

Johnson has used the Stan Van Gundy yell-at-you-now-laugh-with-you-later approach, and his players have responded to the former point guard especially well.

Other contenders: Flip Saunders, Detroit; Byron Scott, Hornets; D'Antoni, Suns; Mike Dunleavy, Clippers; Rick Carlisle, Pacers.

Top defender

Had Denver's Marcus Camby not missed significant time in the first half of the season, not only would he be an All-Star, but he would also easily be considered the favorite here. Camby doesn't seem like the intimidating presence in the paint that Alonzo Mourning or Ben Wallace is, but he gets to so many shots that he must be accounted for at all times. And he has had 20-plus rebounds three times this season.

Other contenders: Bruce Bowen, Spurs; Samuel Dalembert, 76ers; Dwight Howard, Magic; Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz.

Sixth man

Maurice Williams of the Bucks should win it based on dramatic moments alone, having hit a handful of game-winning shots this year. Williams averages better than 14 points a game and shoots better than 40 percent from three-point range on a team with no real inside presence. He scored 35 points at Washington this season and is the perfect complement to T.J. Ford, who gets past defenders with quickness but still struggles with his outside shot.

Ben Gordon might end up with better overall numbers than Ford, but the Bulls guard also might end up starting more than half his games.

Other contenders: Mike Miller, Grizzlies; Gordon, Bulls; Speedy Claxton, Hornets.

Most Improved Player

The Hornets' West has vaulted far higher than any of his other competitors in this loaded category. West has improved his scoring by 11 points, his rebounds by three and his shooting rate from 43 percent to 50 percent.

He's right behind Paul on the list of reasons the Hornets are a playoff contender.

Other contenders: Boris Diaw, Suns; Smush Parker, Lakers; Tony Parker, Spurs; Gerald Wallace, Bobcats; Chris Bosh, Raptors.

Israel Gutierrez writes for The Miami Herald.

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