I've heard it said -- by people wiser than I -- that a Shaquille O'Neal playing at, say, 80 percent, could be named most valuable player every year. That's how dominant a mobile 7-foot-1, 330-pound (340 pounds?) leviathan can be.
It makes sense, I suppose. But I'm going to differ with my esteemed colleague Marty Burns and offer up the antithesis to The Big Game-Changer. For this year's MVP, I'm going for the Little Game-Changer, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns.
Here is my five-pack of reasons for picking Nash. They should in no way be construed as a vote against Shaq, who came to Miami and did exactly what he said he was going to do.
1. Nash improved his team more than Shaq improved his.
The Heat was on its way up before Shaq came, having won 42 games last year and before giving Indiana all it could handle in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Phoenix, despite being quarterbacked over the first part of last season by Stephon Marbury, the self-proclaimed "best point guard in the NBA," won 29 games.
2. Miami can win without Shaq
It's a simple formula: Give Dwyane Wade the ball and let him run the show. The Heat did it earlier this week when, with Shaq sidelined by a stomach virus, they beat the Chicago Bulls 104-86 behind Wade's 39 points. (This is not to suggest that Miami would go far in the playoffs without Shaq.)
Phoenix? Not to denigrate Nash's supporting cast, which is quite strong, but this is a team that simply cannot play with its quarterback. Ask Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson -- they know who is dishing out the candy.
3. Nash has changed the game
Nash engineered a turnaround that fired up not only the Suns but the entire NBA. Hallelujah! We're talking about the fast break. We're talking about transition. We're talking about fun coming back into the game. The up-tempo game that Nash brought to Phoenix is the primary reason.
4. Nash can beat you in numerous ways
We tend to think of Nash in one-dimensional terms, i.e., a madcap whirling dervish of a point guard who's as much track sprinter as basketball player. But he is a much better all-around player than he's given credit for, particularly in the halfcourt. He has a deadly jumper, he's able to get to the basket, he's able to create his own shot, he gets to the foul line and, when he's there, he's an 89 percent shooter. You can't foul him at the end of games and you can bet he's going to have the ball.
5. Nash is fun
I looked back at the five-decade history of the award, which was first given in 1955-56 (to St. Louis Hawks forward Bob Pettit), and it's difficult to find anyone who's not an immortal or an immortal-to-be. That includes Shaq, who won the award in '00. Nash would be a delicious exception. I don't think his election could be considered a shocker since Phoenix's turnaround was so dramatic, and we've been talking about him as a viable candidate since December. But when the season began, he was certainly not mentioned among MVP candidates such as O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, maybe Kobe Bryant and maybe Tracy McGrady. And what is sports worth if it can't give us great surprises once in a while?