Steve Nash, who led the third-biggest turnaround ever for an NBA team, is the winner of the most valuable player award for the just-completed regular season, NBA sources said Friday.
Nash looks like he’ll be joined by Mike D’Antoni in the awards picture, as a Tribune survey shows the Suns coach with a significant lead for the NBA’s coach-ofthe-year prize.
Both would become the franchise’s second winner of the respective awards. Cotton Fitzsimmons won the coaching honor in 1988-89, while Charles Barkley won the MVP in ’92-93.
The official MVP announcement is set for Sunday, while the coaching award will be announced Tuesday.
Nash, once an obscure high school player in Victoria, British Columbia, won the MVP in an unconventional way.
He wasn’t a dominant scorer; he averaged a modest 15.5 points per game.
But his picture-perfect passes led the Suns to a 33-game improvement, from 29 wins last season to a leaguebest 62 wins this season. He led the NBA in assists with 11.5 per game.
He joins only Hall of Famers Bob Cousy of Boston and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers as pass-first point guards to have won the award.
The Suns raised eyebrows when they committed $60 million to him as a free agent last summer. But Nash — along with the improving Amaré Stoudemire, fellow free agent Quentin Richardson and holdovers Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson — clicked from the start.
Nash, speaking before word about the award leaked out, said only that, "I’m surprised to be in this position" of a horse race with the legendary Shaquille O’Neal of Miami.
Many considered O’Neal the favorite, but a lateseason tailspin by the Heat — in which Shaq missed games with health problems — might have been the difference.
The Tribune surveyed more than 80 percent of the voters for the award.
Nash led O’Neal by the narrowest of margins; Nash had 52 first-place votes, while O’Neal had 51. Nash had a slightly bigger lead in overall points, 882-875, in part because one voter did not list O’Neal in his top five.
Similarly, D’Antoni led Seattle’s Nate McMillan by only two first-place votes, 27-25, but had an overall points lead of 241-186.
That’s because D’Antoni was listed among the top three choices of 71 of the 94 voters surveyed by the Tribune, while McMillan was listed by 54 voters.
D’Antoni won praise for taking the bold step of playing a small lineup that tried to outrun opponents until they wilted. He stuck to the concept while skeptics wondered whether the nontraditional lineup would provide enough defense or would wear out over the course of the season.
In voting for D’Antoni, David DuPree of USA Today said, "Of all the coaches who had a great season, he was the one who revolutionized the game.
"Everybody is going to be looking to do the same thing next year. Whenever you can have that impact and have a great turnaround, you deserve coach of the year."
Nash said that if D’Antoni wins, "It will be well deserved.
"He did a terrific job with a young team and some new players."
D’Antoni said he would be "elated" to win the award. "Just to be mentioned in there with those other coaches. . . is an unbelievable honor."
Above all, he said, "We have great players."
The most prominent of those players this season was Nash. D’Antoni allowed his point guard to be his coach on the floor.
He not only led the Suns’ vaunted fast break, but was the key to the Suns’ unpredictable half-court offense as well.
He penetrated to the hoop and — if the defense converged — he found Stoudemire ready to score or else whipped the ball to a host of shooters who knocked down more 3-pointers than any team in history.
Nash, as usual, praised his teammates after Friday’s practice.
"They’re such good players that it makes it fun to be the point guard.
"Everyone has the respect of each other. We make each other better. I’m lucky to play with a terrific group of guys."
BONUS SHOTS: Nash originally was drafted by the Suns in the first round (15th overall) of the 1996 draft and played for them for two years. They traded him to Dallas for a draft pick that became Shawn Marion in 1998 because they were committed to Jason Kidd as their point guard.