First Trimester Report: KG captures two early awards
Hanukkah, Festivus and Christmas have all passed. So, too, has New Year's Day.
Hanukkah, Festivus and Christmas have all passed. So, too, has New Year's Day.
Regular readers know that this usually hits our little corner of cyberspace in the midst of all that holiday mayhem, just before the calendar flips, but this time we waited until every team passed the 27-game pole.
Without further delay, then, comes ESPN.com's annual (and overdue) First Trimester Report, ushering folks back to the office by taking stock of the season's opening third:
East MVP of the First Trimester
There's a young man in Orlando who's on course to become just the second player in NBA history -- joining a guy named Chamberlain -- to average 20 points and 15 rebounds and shoot 60 percent from the floor for an entire season. But poor Dwight Howard has no shot in the MVP race. Not even when we're naming MVPs in each conference.
Garnett's impact on the Celtics has simply been too dramatic to seriously consider anyone else here, whether it's Howard or LeBron James or anyone else you wish to name. For all the considerable help he's getting from Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Garnett has transformed the Celtics defensively and emotionally, almost immediately restoring them to elite-team status after nearly 20 years of misery.
On a numbers basis, Garnett is actually down big time, playing less than he has since he was a rookie (at a mere 35.2 mpg) and averaging less than 20 points and 11 rebounds (19.1 ppg and 10.5 rpg) for the first time since his third and fourth seasons, respectively. Yet you can ask any coach, opponent or fellow Celtic why Boston entered the weekend at 27-3 -- and a few plays away from 30-0, as an ESPN.com staffer named Simmons likes to say -- and KG will be the unanimous answer.
West MVP of the First Trimester
You can't ignore the fact that New Orleans' Chris Paul is threatening to become the first player in history to average 20 points, 10 assists and three steals for a full season for the surprising Hornets. You can't help but notice that the Suns' Steve Nash has responded to the nagging discomfort in his shoulder, back and neck by shooting the ball better than ever (50.8 percent from the field, 90.4 percent from the line and 45.9 percent on 3s) while averaging more assists (12.3 apg) than he did last season (11.6) and in either of his back-to-back MVP seasons (11.5 and 10.5). You likewise can't talk about how nicely the Lakers have rebounded from the despair of a seemingly hopeless October without acknowledging Kobe Bryant's role in the rebound.
At this early stage, when even sticklers like me don't have to be so rigid, I find myself unable to resist a choice between two guys you can almost surely rule out of the MVP discussion in March or April: Brandon Roy and Captain Jack.
I know, I know; neither of these guys meets my usual No. 1 MVP requirement -- backbone for an elite team -- because neither plays for an elite team. But, again, we're only one trimester into the season. Their teams are close enough to the top of the West for us to include them now, and both Roy and Jackson have been too successful to ignore.
How successful? Roy has merely followed up his ROY season by averaging 21.2 points, 6.4 assists and 5.3 rebounds in December, during which Portland won a stunning 13 games in a row. Jackson is averaging a career-best 21.6 points per game and gets our nomination here over Roy for his unparalleled impact on the Warriors' potential and swagger, judging by Golden State's 1-6 record while he was suspended to start the season and its 18-8 record -- 11-6 on the road -- since Jack's return.
Coach of the First Trimester
Chances are it won't be this easy to settle on a COY four months from now. But a COT? One trimester in, it's C-A-K-E for us.
The Blazers traded Zach Randolph on draft night, saw Greg Oden in uniform for exactly two summer-league games before microfracture knee surgery canceled his entire rookie season and even lost LaMarcus Aldridge for five games last month. So what happens?
With the youngest roster in the league -- and the third-youngest in history with an average opening night age of 24 years and 26 days -- Portland followed up a 1-9 stretch by reeling off those 13 consecutive victories. The same Blazers who had posted a losing record in 18 consecutive months.
A practice-floor fight involving Joel Przybilla and Martell Webster on Dec. 1 is widely cited as the spark for the streak no one saw coming. But Roy also conceded recently that the leadership this team of babes gets from its coach -- as well as McMillan's slightly more relaxed demeanor in December -- is another major factor.
Rookie of the First Trimester
He is virtually the sole focus of opposing defenses. He is playing shooting guard as opposed to one of the forward slots to lessen the physical pounding that comes with all of that defensive attention. He is a 19-year-old on a team lacking depth, experience and dependable floor leadership.
Oh, yeah: Durant is also scoring more than twice as many points per game, at an even 20, as every other rookie in the league except Milwaukee's Yi Jianlian, who's at 10.9.
Which is why, in spite of all the obstacles, Durant had the actual ROY trophy clinched by Thanksgiving.
Sixth Man of the First Trimester
Ben Gordon was a starter in Chicago until Scott Skiles was fired, so he doesn't qualify here just yet in spite of his unquestioned reputation as an off-the-bench microwave.
Detroit's Jason Maxiell and Dallas' Jason Terry are blue-chip reserves for title-contending teams, but Maxiell's contributions are more subtle than statistical and Terry has struggled with consistency in his move to the Mavs' bench.
Leandro Barbosa, meanwhile, has actually fared better in Phoenix's first five -- averaging 25.7 points on 58 percent shooting in six starts, compared to 14.7 points on 43 percent shooting as a reserve -- than he's fared trying to live up to last season's Sixth Man Award.
In spite of a finger injury that has plagued him for a month and limited him to two minutes in the Spurs' last five games -- two of them losses -- Ginobili is the slam-dunk choice here. Surely you haven't forgotten Manu's two straight 37-point performances after Tim Duncan suffered knee and ankle damage in a nasty fall against Portland on Dec. 2. Ginobili, furthermore, was the only nonstarter in the league averaging 20 points a game until Dec. 22, when he could log only two scoreless minutes against the Clippers because of the bad finger.
Defensive Player of the First Trimester
Apologies, again, to Howard, whose presence defensively is unquestionably growing: 15 rebounds and nearly three blocks a night is a hard-to-miss contribution.
More profuse apologies to the reigning DPOY, Denver's Marcus Camby, who continues to cover for countless Nuggets on a nightly basis at the end they're known to neglect. Camby's defensive numbers couldn't be much gaudier: 14.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game.
But it's Garnett, once more, who leaves us no alternative. The Celts are allowing a league-low 87 points per game, holding the opposition to a league-worst shooting percentage of .415 from the floor and winning by a league-best average margin of 13.5 ppg. Although new assistant coach Tom Thibodeau has received considerable (and deserved) credit for his work with the Celts' D, everyone knows whose intensity, versatility and mobility anchors that D. Everyone knows who has made the biggest difference.
Most Improved Player of the Trimester
Dwight has to be my MIP(OFT) for the moment. For a couple reasons.
1. I wanted to reward him somehow, somewhere, for the damage he's done in KG's considerable shadow.
2. He hasn't simply made the difficult leap from good to great; Dwight went from good to full-fledged wrecking ball in one summer.
He might not even be the most improved Magician. Hedo Turkoglu probably has the biggest claim in Orlando, now that he's making a real All-Star push after seven seasons of flitting between tantalizing and frustrating.
The problem? Turkoglu is unexpectedly giving the Magic as much as the new guy with the $118 million contract -- Rashard Lewis -- but he doesn't qualify for MIP consideration based on the league's official guidelines. The MIP, according to the actual ballot distributed every year, is "designed to honor an up-and-coming player." Turkoglu has too much experience, in Year 8, to match that description.
Howard's comp during the next two-thirds of the season, then, will thus mostly come from Memphis' Rudy Gay and the two big men in Los Angeles, Kobe's pal Andrew Bynum and the Clippers' Chris Kaman. If voters decide that Howard, as a reigning All-Star, was already too good to be a MIP contender -- and I suspect some will, even though he's suddenly in the MVP conversation -- look for Gay, Bynum or Kaman to win it with Sacramento's Beno Udrih and Portland's Aldridge ranking as outsiders.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.