The 2006 race for NBA Most Valuable Player is one of the most muddled in recent history.
No clear-cut favorite has emerged from the pack. Some dark horses have even come up to the lead pack.
Who, at the start of the season, thought Chauncey Billups would be a legitimate MVP candidate? No you didn't, Pistons fans.
A case can be made both in favor of and against each of the five leading MVP candidates. It's to the point that the selection of one shouldn't surprise more than the selection of the others.
Below, I prop up and tear down the cases for all five candidates, listed randomly. You decide.
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
The case in favor: Nowitzki is having a spectacular offensive season without the benefit of feeds from Steve Nash, without Michael Finley to draw defensive fire away from him, without anyone else in his class on the Dallas roster. If the Mavericks didn't have Nowitzki, they might be a lottery team.
The case against: Much of the credit for the Mavs' success goes to a shored-up defense, and much of that credit goes to head coach Avery Johnson. As great as Nowitzki is offensively, he is far from a premier defensive player. Stats don't always tell the whole story.
Steve Nash, Suns
The case in favor: He is the defending MVP, so in the eyes of the voters, Nash has performed on this level before. He not only softened the blow of losing Amare Stoudemire for virtually the entire season, the Suns have maintained themselves as an elite team. Nash is the ultimate floor general in the modern NBA, with top-notch passing and shooting skills.
The case against: Is Nash really worthy of back-to-back MVP awards? Usually, that type of honor is reserved for guys with names like Jordan. When teams lose a frontcourt talent like Stoudemire, most don't have a fallback like Shawn Marion. The Suns do.
LeBron James, Cavaliers
The case in favor: LeBron has reached rarified air that few players in basketball history have touched. He recently scored 35 or more points in nine straight games, a mark eclipsed only by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. LeBron has steadily stepped up his game all season, to the point that he might be the single best player in the league at the moment. He has dragged the Cavs out of the muck of eight non-playoff seasons, and they are now locked into the fourth seed in the East.
The case against: He's only 21. Most voters won't seriously consider a player that young. While LeBron has elevated his own game all season, he hasn't been able to consistently elevate his team along with him the way Nowitzki and Nash have. Cleveland has had bouts with streakiness, and must win three more games to get to the 50-win plateau.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers
The case in favor: If the majority of scorers in the league run on high-octane gasoline, Bryant runs on rocket fuel. When he is hot, he is an unreal scorer. An 82-point game against Toronto this year is the high point of a stellar scoring resume. The rest of the Lakers roster could combine for 30 points, and Bryant could still lift them to a win.
The case against: The only way Bryant honestly makes his teammates better is by scoring more than them. To that end, he hasn't really done a good job of carrying the Lakers on his back this year. As of today, they are limping along at 41-37, bound for a first-round playoff date with the powerful Spurs or Suns.
Chauncey Billups, Pistons
The case in favor: Remember when Billups was a selfish, underachieving player who couldn't latch on anywhere? Now, he is the mature, polished floor general for the league's best team.
Billups is the engine that makes the Pistons offense go. Granted, his job is made a lot easier my the presence of multitalented players like Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, but without Billups, Detroit might actually be in danger of getting dropped prior to the NBA Finals.
The case against: With Billups, the Pistons are a championship contender. Without Billups, they still might be a championship contender, just not as powerful. The Pistons are so deep and so talented, it's hard to identify a team MVP, let alone a league MVP.
Other, less-serious MVP contenders: Dwyane Wade, Heat; Elton Brand, Clippers; Tim Duncan, Spurs