HOUSTON — As is typical during any All-Star Weekend, there has been much talk here about who will win this season's MVP honor.
NBA retiree Dan Majerle agrees with TNT analyst Charles Barkley's assessment that it should be Phoenix point and West All-Star starter Steve Nash over contenders including Los Angeles Lakers All-Star Kobe Bryant.
"Steve was the MVP last year, and he's having an even-better season this year," Majerle said. "His scoring (19.3 points per game) is up, his assists (11.1) are right there. He's pretty much doing everything."
Philadelphia All-Star Allen Iverson, a former MVP himself, concurs.
"Kobe is playing great. But it's a team game," Iverson said. "You always have to look at how successful a team is, and Steve Nash is at the top of that list. With (injured) Amare (Stoudemire) being out as long as he has, Steve has been able to keep that team where they are (atop the Pacific Division).
"If I had a vote (Iverson does not; media members make the pick) right now, it would be for Steve Nash."
Another MVP candidate, however, has an alternative view on the race. Detroit point Chauncey Billups is endorsing himself.
LINEUP POSSIBILITIES: East coach Flip Saunders of Detroit has suggested he will put all four of his Pistons All-Star reserves (Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace) on the floor at the same time in tonight's All-Star Game, perhaps joined by Boston's Paul Pierce in the small-forward spot. Detroit's fifth usual starter, Tayshaun Prince, was denied.
West coach Avery Johnson of Dallas has the option of countering with five 7-footers on the floor together: Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Memphis' Pau Gasol and Houston's Yao Ming.
"If he does," Saunders said of Johnson's big-guy lineup, "we're going to play zone, and we'll see if those guys can shoot from 23 feet."
The last team to send four players to an All-Star Game, incidentally, was the Los Angeles Lakers in 1998 with Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel.
GO EASY: Many NBA coaches understandably spend much of All-Star Weekend worrying about their All-Stars getting hurt, or even worn down. One is San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who made it quite clear to West coach Johnson that Duncan should not be over-used tonight.
"I think Pop threatened him with bodily harm if I get over a certain amount of minutes," Duncan said.
Then there is Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Elton Brand, who presents similar concerns. Johnson, though, tried to alleviate whatever fears coach Mike Dunleavy may have.
"Everybody has been asking me if I'm going to play Elton Brand 48 minutes because we (the Mavericks) play (the Clippers) on Tuesday," Johnson said. "No, none of that.
"No matter what kind of relationship I have with their coaches, I have a sense of responsibility to try to spread out the minutes," he added. "Hopefully, when we leave from here, everybody can leave healthy."
YOUNG GUNS: Seven of the All-Stars playing tonight are age 25 or younger: Yao (25), Gasol (25), Washington's Gilbert Arenas (24), San Antonio's Tony Parker (23), Miami's Dwyane Wade (23), Toronto's Chris Bosh (21) and Cleveland's LeBron James (21).
It's also the final All-Star game for Garnett and Duncan before each turns 30.
HIGH CLASS: The NBA's rookie class of 1996, one of the greatest in NBA history, had six reps chosen for tonight's game: Iverson (No. 1 overall), Seattle's Ray Allen (No. 5), Bryant (13), Nash (15), injured Jermaine O'Neal of Indiana (17) and undrafted Ben Wallace.
Four others from the class — Shareef Abdur-Rahim (No. 3 overall), Stephon Marbury (No. 4), Antoine Walker (6) and Peja Stojakovic (14) — have appeared in previous All-Star Games.
CURMUDGEON: Much is being made over the fact next year's All-Star Game will be held in Las Vegas, a destination city NBA stars are sure to enjoy visiting.
For a six-time All-Star like Allen, however, this year's host city, Houston, is about as nondescript as any other recent host of the league's showcase game.
"We could be in L.A., we could be in Denver," Allen said. "We could be anywhere, because the setup is all the same."
CURMUDGEON II: Rasheed Wallace sounds thrilled — or not — about being in his third All-Star Game, and one of the four Pistons on the East roster.
"I'm happy for (teammate) Chauncey (Billups), I'm happy for Rip (Hamilton)," Wallace said. "I'm happy for the (Detroit) organization. It's great recognition for what our team has done.
"But, I would almost rather have that personal time with my wife and kids, being somewhere else — because we know it's . . . a circus here this weekend."