No clear-cut choice for top individual honor

The NBA MVP Race
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A heated race in the NBA is coming to a boil.

No, not the less-than-crowded scramble to reach the Finals in June.

Only three or four teams have a legitimate chance to do that, and anything other than a rematch of last year's championship series between San Antonio and Detroit will be a surprise.

A much closer race involves as many as 10 viable candidates for the Most Valuable Player award.

Rarely have so many players used the regular season to build such a justifiable case that they deserve the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Oddly, the list of worthy MVP candidates doesn't include some of the names normally associated with the award.

Shaquille O'Neal?

An improbable long shot this season, thanks to injuries and the emergence of teammate Dwyane Wade, who has been Miami's best player.

Kevin Garnett? Allen Iverson? Paul Pierce? Ray Allen?

All have put up gigantic numbers, but none has taken his team to the playoffs, and that usually dooms an individual's MVP chances.

Since 1990, only two MVPs played on a team that did not win a division title.

In 1992-93, Charles Barkley led Phoenix to a 56-26 record. The Suns finished five games behind Portland in the Pacific Division, but Barkley still prevailed in the MVP voting.

In the lockout-shortened 1999 season, MVP Karl Malone and the Jazz tied

San Antonio for the best record in the league (37-13). But the Spurs claimed the Midwest Division by taking the season series 2-1.

In the last 16 years - and calculating the Jazz's lockout-shortened season record out to 59-23 - the MVP's team has averaged 61.3 wins.

Advantage, Chauncey Billups.

Led by its veteran point guard, Detroit has already clinched the Central Division.

The Pistons will win at least 60 games - San Antonio is the only other team certain to do so - and that success makes Billups the slight favorite as this year's MVP race hits the homestretch.

On the other hand . . .

Since Michael Jordan retired, six of the last seven MVPs have played in the more contentious Western Conference, including four straight since Iverson won in 2000-01.

According to Detroit coach Flip Saunders, however, the apparent bias against Eastern Conference MVP candidates should not be a factor this season.

"If you took a team from the West and made it play in the East on a nightly basis, they would find out how tough it is," Saunders told the Detroit News. "It's such a grind. The East is tougher mentally. It's a grind night in and night out. . . . Trust me. The East is not as bad as they make it out to be."

Asked about Billups' sensational season, Saunders said, "He's more involved and he understands completely what we are trying to do. He's just in a great flow. He understands where he is as far as what he can do on the floor and he understands what his teammates can do. When you average [8.7] assists, you have a pretty good command of the game."

Billups averages 19 points, thanks in part to 43.5 percent three-point shooting. He also owns a league-leading assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.02-to-1.

In Sunday's 109-102 comeback win over Steve Nash and Phoenix, Billups scored 28 of his 35 points in the second half, when the Pistons erased a 12-point deficit.

"Chauncey was amazing," Nash said.

Asked if his performance against the reigning MVP was special, Billups told reporters, "That's not what I play for. What I play for is the wins."

Nash, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas, LeBron James of Cleveland, Tony Parker of San Antonio and Wade of Miami remain genuine contenders in the MVP race.

Nash has led the Suns to another 50-win season and Pacific Division championship, despite the fact All-Star Amare Stoudemire has played only three games because of knee surgery.

"What he's doing without Amare, and with so many new faces, is just incredible and a testament to the player that he is," TNT analyst and former NBA coach Doug Collins said.

"I think he's the best engine in basketball," Denver coach George Karl said. "He makes his team play better than any other player in basketball. Now, is that the most valuable player? I'm not sure. There are more talented players. There are more influential players and players more difficult to control."

Players such as . . .

l Bryant, the NBA's top scorer who has unexpectedly lifted the Lakers to the brink of a playoff berth few thought possible before the season.

l James, who has sparked a late-season surge by the Cavaliers and, at the age of 21, is already one of the game's best players.

l Nowitzki, a matchup nightmare for opponents who has carried the Mavericks to season-long contention in the West.

"He's as valuable to his team as any player in the league," Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said of Nowitzki.

Of course, the same thing can be said about a slew of MVP candidates, making the vote this year an unusually difficult and controversial task.

MVP Top 6

(Voting concludes the final day of the regular season on April 19, with the announcement coming during the playoffs)

Player Team Odds

Chauncey Billups Detroit 3-1

Marvelous year for 60-win team

Steve Nash Phoenix 4-1

Voters may want someone new

Kobe Bryant L.A. Lakers 5-1

81 reasons for his candidacy

Dwyane Wade Miami 6-1

More Jordan-like every day

Dirk Nowitzki Dallas 8-1

Mavs' late slide will cost him

LeBron James Cleveland 10-1