Trimester grades: Best and worst

Updated: December 26, 2003, 8:13 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Every Wednesday, senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on the league in "Slams and Dunks."

Jerry Sloan
Jerry Sloan had the luck of getting to the finals and finding Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Hopefully you had a happy and healthy Festivus.

Hopefully you are safely tucked away with family for Hanukkah and the rest of the holidays.

Hopefully you know what else the calendar calls for now.

Yep. With the bulk of the league having played at least 27 games -- all but Washington (26) and a curious thicket of Pacific Division clubs (five are at 26 and the Clippers are at 24) -- it's time to take stockings of the season. One-third of it is already gone.

So here goes.

Stojakovic
Stojakovic
West MVP of the Trimester: Peja Stojakovic. I know, I know. Kevin Garnett does it all, and Tim Duncan is catching up after the ankle slowed him down, and Peja Stojakovic mostly only scores. Thing is, Minnesota's Garnett is going to be at the forefront of the MVP discussion all season, because he's playing better than ever. Peja probably won't be, and we felt compelled to recognize the way he has started the season. He's scoring almost 25 points a game, sparking Sacramento to a 20-6 start ... all without the injured Chris Webber to open up the floor for him. This is an even better start than seen from the Kings the past two seasons, when they won big without Webber (in 2001) and Mike Bibby (2002). Stojakovic, furthermore, is shooting 50.2 percent from the field. That's patently sick for a perimeter player. So he's our guy for now.

East MVP of the Trimester: None. Toronto's Vince Carter, Indiana's Ron Artest and New Orleans' Baron Davis were all candidates here. But then we decided that no one in the East -- not even Indy, any more -- is playing well enough to merit an MVP candidate. Pick it up, lads.

Coach of the Trimester: Jerry Sloan. The Midwest Division has three or four Coach of the Year candidates by itself. Denver's Jeff Bzdelik and Memphis' Hubie Brown are going to be jostling with Sloan at season's end if all three teams can maintain their present pace. But let's get real. Not even the Nuggets' brief flirtations with the Midwest lead are more shocking than the Jazz, without John Stockton and Karl Malone, amassing a record that would lead the Atlantic Division. Sloan is as good as ever and as seriously self-deprecating as ever. Last week he stared right through me and said: "I'm not important." I had a good chuckle over that one. The shame, though, is that he's getting more attention for his coaching now than he did at any point in the past 15 years.

James
James
Rookie of the Trimester: LeBron James. Commence complaining, Denver. Carmelo Anthony's impact with the Nuggets is undoubtedly reflected in the standings, but LeBron has exceeded every reasonable expectation in relation to the hype that preceded his arrival. And James' outstanding, unfettered play since the Ricky Davis trade suggests that his quality start was achieved in spite of a negative team atmosphere. This doesn't diminish 'Melo's start, but it helps to have some dependable veteran help. James hasn't had much this season and is playing at an All-Star level.

Artest
Artest
Defensive Player of the Trimester: Ron Artest. With apologies to Big Ben Wallace. This Artest belongs in the same sentence with Garnett, Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal (when he's in the mood) on the list of outstanding two-way players. Artest has even seen one of his three technicals rescinded by the league. We only hope it's not just a one-trimester honeymoon period under Rick Carlisle; it'd be a great story if Artest can behave this way for 82 games. And beyond.

Division of the Trimester: Midwest. All the powers struggled early -- Spurs, Wolves and the still-struggling Mavericks -- but the improvements from everyone else are such that all seven teams are over. 500. All seven can likewise claim more road wins than home defeat, even Dallas in spite of its 3-10 road record. One or more of these teams is going to be fuming when the playoffs come and they're excluded.

We Wonder
Looking ahead to Trimester 2:
  • How many more coaching changes are in store?

  • Can Byron Scott last the season?

  • Ditto for Don Chaney with Isiah Thomas as his new boss?

  • Allen Iverson won't really sit until January, will he?

  • Will LeBron sway enough coaches to vote him onto the East squad as a reserve?

  • Is it too far-fetched to suggest that Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade can crack the top two in the Rookie of the Year race?

  • Is it really far-fetched to buy into Orlando's claims that the playoffs are not out of reach?

  • How many trades Larry Brown has already asked Joe Dumars to make?

  • Can Denver, Utah and/or Memphis keep this up?

  • Are Shaq and Kobe going to get along for the rest of the season?

  • Is Karl Malone's health more of a concern than all those external factors that were supposed to derail the Lakers?

  • Can C-Webb come anywhere close to his previous best when he returns?

  • Is C-Webb coming back in January, or will he be out even longer than that?

  • Doesn't it figure that Minnesota will try to trade Wally when he comes back, seeing as how the Wolves are rolling now without him?

  • Aren't the Mavericks bound to trade a 'Twan, or a 'Toine, if they keep losing on the road?

  • Doesn't it make even more sense that Portland will finally give in and trade Rasheed before the deadline in February, to make sure he doesn't walk away for nothing in July?

  • Are you ready for the stretch run of 'Sheed rumors?

  • This win streak means the Spurs are back, right?
  • Conference of the Trimester: East. The Leastern lads get our appreciation for a couple reasons. A) We're finally up to seven teams with records of .500 or better, which must be a season-high. B) It's gets old bashing them (but we stick with the fact there isn't an MVP).

    Surprise Team of the Trimester: Denver Nuggets. If Sloan beats out Bzdelik for Coach of the Trimester, and LeBron edges 'Melo for Rookie of the Trimester, we have to give Denver something. How 'bout Executive of the Trimester for Kiki Vandeweghe?

    Disappointing Team of the Trimester: New Jersey. Phoenix and Dallas were contenders here, but the Nets top the list. Why? Because we're tired of seeing and hearing that they're not giving Byron Scott their best. Jersey will have a new coach next season, but a change now isn't going to do any good. So it'd be nice to see Jason Kidd and his mates suck it up and grind through the rest of the schedule without complaint, which doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

    Real Disappointment of the Trimester: Injuries. There are still too many guys that we haven't even seen a dribble from yet. Hurry back, fellas. That means you Jamal Mashburn, Jerry Stackhouse, Wally Szczerbiak, Dajuan Wagner and, of course, C-Webb. Dare we even say ... Grant Hill?

    Embarrassment of the Trimester: Rasheed Wallace's exploitation "speech." As Charles Barkley recently said: "What Rasheed said may be the stupidest thing I've ever heard in 20 years in the NBA. People who work for huge corporations and aren't making any money, those are the people being exploited."

    Dunker of the Trimester: Stromile Swift. Stro has been finishing so strong at the rim that I'm starting to wonder if he's the new Shawn Kemp. The sort of power dunker who isn't tailor-made for a dunk contest, but breathtaking to watch when a dunk opportunity materializes in game-situation traffic. Of course, it remains to be seen if all Stro's slamming gets him any closer to getting traded, because Memphis has been dangling him for ages.

    Anti-Dunker of the Trimester: Darko Milicic. I was there in Cleveland when Darko got knocked back by the rim, and embarrassing isn't the word for it. It was just plain sad.

    All-Star Starters of the Trimester: We leave the All-Star ballots for the fans in real life, but this is how we'd be voting if we did punch a ballot, going by positions as the players are listed:

  • West: Kevin Garnett and Peja Stojakovic at forward, Shaquille O'Neal at center, Gary Payton and Sam Cassell at guard.

  • East: Vince Carter and Ron Artest at forward, Ben Wallace at center; Baron Davis and Michael Redd at guard.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics
  • ALSO SEE