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WADE, SHAQ SHINE AT AN EVENING AT THE IMPROV

PHILADELPHIA -- The masses, teeming as they are, want to know the best of the best in the NBA this season.

It's been quite the season.

You can define it by the Pacers-Pistons-fans brawl. Or by the cloud of another potential, devastating lockout. Or by the spate of coach firings that claimed the likes of Flip Saunders, Paul Silas and Maurice Cheeks. Or by the nuclear winter settling over the Lakers. (How's that working out for you, Kobe?)

Or . . .

You could define it by the "joie de vivre" of Miami's Dwyane Wade, every time he attacked the basket.

Or by the impossibly gifted LeBron James.

Or by the track meet that is the Phoenix Suns.

Or by the turnaround jobs performed in Chicago, Washington and Seattle -- and in Denver, where George Karl has brought discipline and purpose, and the playoffs, to a team that was foundering.

The discerning eye focuses on the latter, constantly amazed by the syncopation and improvisation you find every night on a pro basketball court. And so, the hardware, as said discerning eye sees it:

Most Valuable Player. Shaquille O'Neal, Miami. The Diesel's current team -- which was a second-round playoff team last season -- was already 14 games ahead of last season's record. The Diesel's old team -- which was in the Finals last season -- is currently 10 games below .500 and out of the playoffs.

His numbers (23 points, 10 boards and 2.4 blocks a night, shooting a league-leading .599 from the floor) never do justice to O'Neal's impact. It is tactile, overpowering. Why are guys like Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem having banner seasons? Take a guess. (Note to fans of Phoenix's Steve Nash: We love Nasty Nash. But how can you give someone an MVP award who has next to no impact at the defensive end of the floor? How?)

Coach of the year. Rick Carlisle, Indiana. You may say that Mike D'Antoni has won 59 games in Phoenix, and that Miami's Stan Van Gundy had 56 heading into the weekend, and that Nate McMillan has performed miracles in Seattle. All true.

But consider what's happened to the Pacers aside from the brawl with the Pistons, which cost Indiana Ron Artest for the season. Jermaine O'Neal (shoulder) has missed the last 21 games on top of the 15-game suspension he received from the league. Starting point Jamaal Tinsley (foot) has missed two months. Center Jeff Foster (hip) and Reggie Miller (hand) missed a month each, and backup point Anthony Johnson (hand) lost 10 games.

Instead of taking the easy alibi, Carlisle continues to plug in different players and play different styles, and is 23-14 since the All-Star break. (Karl, 30-9 since he got to Denver, has been terrific, but it's called "coach of the year," not half-year.)

Rookie of the year. Dwight Howard, Orlando. This is a virtual toss-up among Howard, Chicago's Ben Gordon and Charlotte's Emeka Okafor, who's averaging a double-double for the Bobcats. Okafor's numbers are slightly better than Howard's, but they should be -- Charlotte's an expansion team and he's the best player on it. Compare that to Howard, who has made nearly equal contributions on a team with Steve Francis and Grant Hill.

Defensive player of the year. Shawn Marion, Phoenix. When a guy is top three in rebounds (11.5), top four in steals (2.01) and top 25 in blocks (1.44), that's pretty special. When that guy is 6-foot-8 or so and has played out of position all season, nightly guarding the likes of Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kenyon Martin, Zach Randolph, and on and on -- it is remarkable. Recognition nods also go to Detroit's Ben Wallace, Chicago's Tyson Chandler and San Antonio's Bruce Bowen.

Sixth man of the year. Ben Gordon, Chicago. The rookie has been dubbed "Ben Jordan" in the Windy City for his fourth-quarter dominance. He's not in that rarified Air just yet, but Gordon has been unstoppable when he takes off the warm-ups, able to score from anywhere on the floor. Seattle's Vladmir Radmanovic and Denver's Earl Boykins also had a strong impact on their squads.

Most improved player. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas. You say, "But Dirk was already an all-star." True, but he was a one-dimensional all-star. This season, he's posted career highs in rebounds and assists. Nowitzki now initiates the Mavericks' offense. And he's become an honest-to-goodness solid defensive player, no longer abused nightly. The Clippers' Bobby Simmons, Miami's Wade and Washington's Brendan Haywood also dramatically enhanced their games.

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