MVP: Looking beyond the usual crowd

Nothing gets people riled up, it seems, quite as much as talking about MVP candidates. Last year, for instance, the heated rhetoric on either side of the Steve Nash vs. Shaq debate went streaking well beyond basketball into diatribes about racism, international basketball and the increasing prevalence of bad haircuts.

So it was with great trepidation that I dipped my toe into the shark-infested waters known as the MVP race, especially since the season is just a few weeks old.

Today, I'm focusing on a specific aspect of the race: the unexpected. Sizing up an MVP race is always tough because, almost by definition, the surprises tend to be attention-getters. Yes, you have the usual suspects. This year they include hardy perennials Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and popular preseason pick LeBron James. But each year there are at least one or two players of lesser stature who wedge themselves into the MVP race, either by playing over their heads or by leading their teams to greater heights than expected.

A year ago, of course, that player was Nash. Before he went to Phoenix, the general consensus on Nash was that he was an All-Star caliber player, but not anybody who was likely to end up with an MVP trophy sitting above his fireplace. Similarly, four years ago Jason Kidd went to New Jersey and nearly pulled off a similar feat by igniting a moribund Nets team and leading it to the Eastern Conference championship.

So what about this year? Is there a surprise MVP lurking in the shadows who can possibly challenge the year-in, year-out contenders? To answer that, I combed through the league looking for the best combinations of individual accomplishment and team performance from the game's second (or lower) tier of stars. None of these players is likely to win the award, mind you, but that's the point: We're searching for a dark-horse MVP. After careful consideration, seven players qualify. If a Nash or Kidd emerges, it should come from among this group: