- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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This is the awards fest Chris Rock really wanted to work.
But it's not his year. Rock is a Knicks fan, after all.
With every team in the league having played at least 54 games, we proceed without a host to our second Trimester Progress Report of the season. We did this for the first time after 27 (or so) games, and the next progress report will be our official awards ballot at the end of the regular season.
Here's where we are entering the stretch run:
West MVP of the First Two Trimesters
Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
Nash says it's Tim Duncan. Duncan says it's Nash. We picked Nash over Duncan after the first trimester and stick with that now, since Nash's Suns are still right there with Duncan's Spurs in the race for the league's best record.
Nash's staying there, though, requires Phoenix to stay up there with San Antonio and demands that the little Canadian shakes the hamstring trouble that has given skeptics cause to renew their doubts about Nash's durability.
With the Timberwolves and Lakers at serious risk of missing the playoffs, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Seattle's Ray Allen are next in line ahead of Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and L.A.'s Kobe Bryant, which you probably guessed knowing how much team success counts on our ballots.
East MVP of the First Two Trimesters
Shaquille O'Neal, Miami Heat
No change here, either. Shaq told us at All-Star Weekend that he "stopped playing for MVP after I got it in 2000," but he remains the East's leading contender (after First Trimester MVP honors) ahead of the two guys O'Neal nominated: Cleveland's LeBron James and Philadelphia's Allen Iverson.
Shaq's impact on the Heat is such that, on top of lifting Dwyane Wade and other Heaters to new levels, Alonzo Mourning wouldn't consider signing anywhere else after Toronto bought out Zo's contract. The same Zo who has never been friendly with Shaq. That's value.
Coach of the First Two Trimesters
Scott Skiles, Chicago Bulls
Seattle's Nate McMillan was our Trimester One choice and has a great shot to win this thing after Trimester Three if he can keep the Sonics on their stunning current pace of 59-23.
Yet the turnaround in Chicago has been just as dramatic, with the Bulls at 29-16 entering Thursday's play after their 0-9 start. Without an All-Star, and seemingly without hope a month into the season, Skiles has reached the Baby Bulls at last, driving them to win with defense first. In one of the shocker stats of the season, Chicago still ranks second in the league in field-goal defense at .422, behind only San Antonio (.421) and ahead of the defending champs from Detroit (.427).
Also deserving of a mention in this category: Washington's Eddie Jordan, Memphis' Mike Fratello and the Suns' Mike D'Antoni.
Rookie of the First Two Trimesters
Emeka Okafor, Charlotte Bobcats
I'm not quite ready to put Chicago's Ben Gordon ahead of Okafor, but I'm close. Reason being: Gordon has been the fourth-quarter closer -- off the bench -- for a winning team, scoring double digits in the final period a whopping 16 times to lead the league in that category. Gordon will have to tail off for Okafor to hold on, even with Emeka's averaging a double-double for an expansion team that also has more wins than expected (12).
Sixth Man of the First Two Trimesters
Ben Gordon, Chicago Bulls
Gordon has to be leading in something with all that late-game scoring.
But this will also be a tough trophy to win for the rookie with Jerry Stackhouse emerging as a key figure in the Dallas Mavericks' recent surge and Seattle's offering up multiple candidates: Vladimir Radmanovic, Antonio Daniels and, of course, Danny Fortson. Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu, and Boston's Ricky Davis also merit mention, but Stackhouse ranks as the co-favorite with Gordon if he can shake the groin problem that cost him most of February.
Defensive Player of the First Two Trimesters
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
It has to be a Spur or a Piston, since those are the only two teams holding the opposition under 90 points per game. Detroit's Ben Wallace is always a good choice, but Duncan shades it here because he doesn't have a tall teammate as good defensively as Rasheed Wallace. It also doesn't hurt Duncan's campaign that Bruce Bowen, arguably the league's premier perimeter defender with Ron Artest suspended, credits a decent chunk of his success to Duncan's presence. With Artest out, Andrei Kirilenko's having missed significant time with a knee injury and Garnett's Timberwolves floundering, the voting here will inevitably come down to Duncan vs. Big Ben.
Most Improved Player of the First Two Trimesters
Grant Hill, Orlando Magic
This is usually the toughest category and this season might be the toughest yet. That's because there are (at least) two kinds of candidates.
You have the players who make the leap from non-factor to quality contributor (Bobby Simmons, Primoz Brezec and Dan Dickau) and the guys who make the tougher leap from good to great (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire, just to name three). But then you have to decide if folks like James and Wade should even be eligible for this award, since top draftees are supposed to develop nicely. Washington's Larry Hughes would have made a fine choice until he got hurt, but Hill continues to be our choice just because he's been able to stay healthy ... and because the NBA doesn't award a Comeback Player of the Year.
Executive of the First Two Trimesters
Bryan Colangelo, Phoenix Suns
Signing Nash away from Dallas in the offseason puts Colangelo on par with Pat Riley's Shaq heist in Miami.
The tiebreaker? Colangelo's in-season moves to acquire Jim Jackson and Walter McCarty to bolster the Suns' empty bench, although Riley has since answered by signing Alonzo Mourning. San Antonio's R.C. Buford, for the record, has been overlooked in this category for too long and will win it someday, and Boston's Danny Ainge has to be making a late charge if he can give up Gary Payton to acquire Antoine Walker and then re-sign Payton a few days later.
Surprise Team of the First Two Trimesters
We repeat: Seattle is on a 59-23 pace. No matter how many times we anticipate a fade, the Sonics hold firm. They're 10-3 since going 8-7 in January and just started this month with road wins at Indiana and Cleveland. Hence, Seattle keeps its "Surprise" lead over Phoenix, Dallas, Washington and Chicago.
Disappointment of the First Two Trimesters
It's not close, is it? Not with Denver's making a strong playoff push under new coach George Karl. The Wolves are so disappointing that Kevin McHale decided he had to start coaching them. Enough said.
After two-thirds of the season, Marc Stein's awards list is full of names no one expected to see four months ago.