Updated: March 6, 2006, 1:01 AM ET


(Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this around-the-league notebook edition of the Daily Dime.)

Jon Stewart played soccer in college. Which is naturally one big plus with me in Stewart's lifelong quest to host your favorite awards fest.

But Stewart had to settle for the Oscars when I remembered that you'd rather have me do it. So ...

With each team in the league now having played at least 54 games, and without further ado, here's my second Trimester Progress Report as we enter the stretch run.


West MVP of the First Two Trimesters

Steve Nash, PG, Phoenix Suns

I went with Dirk Nowitzki after trimester No. 1. I might have to take another long look at him at the end of the third trimester -- also known as season's end -- if the Mavs can hold off San Antonio for the top spot in the West and finish in the 65-win range.

For now, though, it has to be Nash. It's looking that way again for April, too. At last check, seven members of the Amare Stoudemire-less Suns were carrying career-high averages in scoring. Does anyone in basketball make other players better than the reigning MVP?

I know, I know. You're about to tell me that Shawn Marion is just as deserving of the MVP trophy as Nash, if not more. Stop right there.

Marion is one of my favorite players and personalities in the league. I could watch him play all day. But anyone who tries to suggest that Nash isn't at least somewhat responsible for nudging Marion to the highest stratosphere of his career is forgetting where Matrix was before Nash got to Phoenix. On the trading block, in other words, with a max contract other teams wouldn't touch. Mike D'Antoni's system and Nash's ability to run it have helped create the stage on which Marion now dazzles us nightly at pretty much every position except the one.

Still in denial about Nash's MVP-worthiness? If so, ask yourself this: How would the Suns be doing if Nash was out all season and not Stoudemire?

I'll go out on a limb and say that they wouldn't be leading their division by six games and on pace to finish 57-25.


East MVP of the First Two Trimesters

Chauncey Billups, PG, Detroit Pistons

LeBron James' hopes are fading and Dwyane Wade is gaining, but you obviously still have to go with a Piston here.

Which means you still have to go with Chauncey Billups. Obviously.

As stated in our first Trimester Report, it'll probably be harder for Billups to win this trophy than it was for him to win the NBA Finals MVP award in 2004. The five-man ensemble nature of the Pistons' success is bound to work against him with some MVP voters when official ballots are cast just before the playoffs start.

But look at what he's doing. Billups is third in the league in assists (8.8 per game), second in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1-to-1) hitting 42.5 percent of his 3-pointers and 90 percent of his free throws to average 18.9 points. He's actually getting better at getting teammates involved as the season goes on. And on our list of Clutchest Players Alive, he has to be right there with Kobe Bryant and Robert Horry.


Coach of the First Two Trimesters

Byron Scott, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets

Have I mentioned how hard it is to pick out one coach in what always seems to be the category with the most worthy contenders?

Right. Every single time I do one of these columns.

Seriously, how do you choose here? Flip Saunders isn't the runaway he was after the first trimester because Detroit's lead over San Antonio and Dallas has been sliced, but he's still acing the ominous test known as Replacing Larry Brown. Avery Johnson, meanwhile, arguably deserves as much credit for the Mavericks' success as Nowitzki, and perhaps the same should be said for Mike D'Antoni with respect to Nash's Suns.

Then there's Indiana's Rick Carlisle and the Los Angeles Clippers' Mike Dunleavy, who are getting precisely zero mention in spite of the huge impacts they've made -- Carlisle holding the Pacers together through another season of turmoil and injury; Dunleavy teaming with point guard Sam Cassell to make the most dramatic culture changes in the history of Clipperland.

Yet I'm going with Scott now because (A) his team is exceeding expectations more than any team on the map and (B) I have a feeling he won't be recognized at season's end and I want to make sure he scores something for his role in the Hornets' fairy-tale season in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation.


Rookie of the First Two Trimesters

Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans/Oklahoma City

Let me get in my obligatory Sarunas Jasikevicius mention and then let's just move to the next category because CP3 has zero legitimate competition. (Let me also reiterate my never-going-away disbelief that the Atlanta Hawks, knowing Paul actually wanted to play for them, didn't draft him anyway and thereby lost the chance to trot out a Paul-Joe Johnson backcourt.)


Defensive Player of the First Two Trimesters

Bruce Bowen, SF, San Antonio Spurs

Finally. A category that a point guard can't win.

It's usually a big man here, as you know, but Bowen is right there this time. You don't even have to be a Titan to see it.

If you saw the defense Bowen played on Nowitzki on Thursday night -- and Nowitzki, for the record, has been torching small forwards all season after admittedly struggling against them in last spring's playoffs -- you can understand the sentiment. Bowen's on-the-ball defensive excellence is routinely downgraded by folks who say he'd never be this good without Tim Duncan (and either Nazr Mohammed or Rasho Nesterovic behind him), but Bowen is playing this season with a hobbled Duncan (which is why TD doesn't figure in the MVP discussion). Yet there's Bowen, still giving flat-out fits to someone like Nowitzki, who's widely considered one of the toughest (if not the toughest) individual matchups in the league.

With Marcus Camby and Alonzo Mourning no longer in contention here and Ron Artest eliminating himself, I suspect this will eventually come down to Bowen, Marion and Detroit's Ben Wallace. Big Ben figures to be the favorite in real life and no one will be able to quibble because of everything he supplies -- boards, blocks, steals and intimidation -- for the team that still has the league's best record. But Bowen deserves this award at least once and this season makes the most sense.

And finally ...

Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse is my Sixth Man of the First Two Trimesters ahead of New Orleans' Speedy Claxton, Milwaukee's Mo Williams, Memphis' Mike Miller and the Suns' Eddie House. Reason being: Dallas is 26-5 since Stack, scoring 12.6 points per game in just 25.3 minutes, returned from a 26-game injury absence to start the season.

And San Antonio's Tony Parker is my Most Improved Player of the First Two Trimesters, besting countryman Boris Diaw in Phoenix, New Orleans' David West, Charlotte's Gerald Wallace and two Clippers -- Elton Brand and Chris Kaman -- by shooting nearly 55 percent from the field to make his All-Star breakthrough.

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• Dimes Past: Feb. 25-26 | 27 | 28 | March 1 | 2 | 3

Name Game
AP Photo/Danny Moloshok
Memo to fans who don't like seeing players like Paul Pierce and Nate Robinson "pop" their jerseys: Even the MVP does it . . . and it doesn't bother Marc Stein one bit (see Box 4 below).

Western Conference
The seedings controversy that gets all the attention is the unavoidable San Antonio-Dallas collision looming in the second round of the West playoffs.

But here's another standings surprise: Denver would not have home-court advantage in its first-round series with No. 6 Memphis if the season ended Thursday, because the Nuggets' 31-27 record is a game worse than the Grizzlies' 32-26 mark.

The onus, then, is on George Karl to plot another second-half surge that enables Denver to win more games than Memphis (or whoever finishes sixth) and make the most of its famed altitude in at least one series. The fresh-blood arrivals of Reggie Evans and Ruben Patterson, frankly, should enable the Nuggets to get that done.

This will come as zero consolation after Thursday's loss at San Antonio, but Avery Johnson needs only two victories in his next seven games to record the best 82-game record ever to start an NBA coaching career.

Dallas' Lil' General is 61-14 in the regular season. Paul Westphal went 62-20 in his debut season with the Suns to set the record.

NBA front-office sources say Suns assistant general manager David Griffin is the favorite to succeed Bryan Colangelo, who left this week for Toronto.

As covered in the Midweek Dime, Suns coach Mike D'Antoni will have the organization's loudest say on personnel matters going forward in a role modeled after Spurs patriarch Gregg Popovich, with Griffin -- Colangelo's right-hand man -- likely to be the new point man for the rest of the front office.

It's believed that the Suns will promote Griffin as opposed to hiring an outsider because he has already worked so closely with D'Antoni. Colangelo, remember, brought D'Antoni back to the NBA from Europe and had great chemistry with his coach.

Question Marc

From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

Sean Smith (Detroit): Do you think there's a correlation between teams winning and having players who hold out their jerseys after a big win? I've noticed that Paul Pierce did it after they barely beat the mediocre Lakers. Nate Robinson did it after he won the (yawn) dunk contest. But you'll never see Tim Duncan or Ben Wallace -- real champions -- do that. Your thoughts?

Stein: Wow. Some of you Piston-ites are so devoted to your guys that you'll look for any reason to bash players in other cities.

Sorry, Sean. Don't have a problem with this at all. If guys were regularly pointing to the backs of their jerseys, where their names are, then it's a problem. But Paul Pierce, in a moment of triumph, making sure everyone knows he's proud to be from Boston? For Celtics fans, I can't imagine many things Pierce could do in these tough times that would make them happier.

You also forgot who you're asking. In my other universe of choice -- proper football -- I'm a sucker for anyone wearing the famous sky blue of Manchester City who kisses the badge on his shirt after scoring a goal. I fall for that Love My Club stuff every time. City's Joey Barton does it in the middle of nasty contract negotiations and, with saps like me, all is forgiven.

Good Point
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
Chauncey Billups' MVP case depends on his teammates' performance but also might be affected by them, too, since it's hard to stand out as part of such an ensemble.

Meet The Mavs

They didn't get the validation victory they were seeking Thursday night in San Antonio, but the Dallas Mavericks didn't look out of place playing at the Spurs' tempo.

It was also just the second defeat in the Mavericks' past 21 games, as they continue to surprise prognosticators who gave them little chance before the season to compete with the Spurs and Detroit Pistons for the league's best record.

In the following photo gallery, Marc Stein takes a one-on-one by look at this one-star squad, which has been completely reconfigured around Dirk Nowitzki ... and which is trying to convince the skeptics -- in spite of Thursday's setback -- that it can be a playoff power and not just a regular-season force.

Meet The Mavs photo gallery

Eastern Conference
I am curious, Detroit. Will fan worship of Rasheed Wallace dip at all if he's suspended for a game or two this season because of his T-count? What if the game or two 'Sheed misses ends up costing the Pistons home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, with San Antonio and Dallas both just two games back entering the weekend?

My suspicion is no on both counts, because 'Sheed is that popular, but it's looking increasingly likely that the Pistons' amazing ability to start the same five guys every game will be interrupted by 'Sheed's proclivity for picking up technical fouls. Not by injury.

'Sheed is not nearly as volatile as he was in his Blazer days, when 40-something technicals were the norm, but the league didn't have a policy in place to suspend guys for racking up T's back then. The good news? Three of 'Sheed's 15 T's this season have been rescinded by the league, meaning he's four away from a one-game suspension instead of one away. (Don't forget that this is the first season in which players are suspended for one game after their 16th, 18th, 20th technicals and so on.)

Averaging one T every four games, or one every five if you factor in the rescinded T's, 'Sheed is on pace to pick up five or six more for the remainder of the regular season unless he can control himself. I imagine he'll find it difficult to restrict himself to three T's in the final 25 games, but I'm betting 'Sheed gets no more than six T's in the playoffs.

His slate is wiped clean before the postseason, when players aren't suspended until the seventh technical. If 'Sheed accrues five T's in the playoffs, he'll get a warning letter.

Sam Mitchell is right there with Phil Jackson.

Not in terms of coaching stature, of course, but an enraged Mitchell could be heard in the visitors' locker room Saturday in Dallas, railing to anyone on his staff who would listen about how right Jackson was with his recent complaints about Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

The Lakers' Jackson believes referees working Mavs home games are "nervous nellies" because of Cuban's history of challenging the league office on how it runs its officiating department. Cuban responded with a blistering blog entry in which he spoke proudly of getting into the Zenmeister's head and labeled Jackson his "bucket boy."

Mitchell came away from Saturday's 115-113 overtime defeat feeling much like Jackson. Convinced that foul trouble and a few questionable calls led Toronto to blow a 24-point lead, Mitchell withheld his displeasure in his postgame media session but later called the league to protest against what he deemed excessive banter between Cuban and the referees.

The Raps looked undeniably rattled as the Mavs rallied and were guilty of numerous defensive breakdowns in blowing the big cushion, but Mitchell was also upset about Mavericks public-address announcer "Humble" Billy Hayes. Arena music or requests for noise from the PA man are supposed to stop when the visiting team has the ball, but the Raptors contend that Hayes repeatedly implored the crowd to chant when Toronto had advanced past half court and was getting into its offensive sets. Earlier this season, Jackson approached Hayes during a Mavs-Lakers game to ask him if he was part of the team's cheerleading squad.

The matter was not taken beyond Mitchell's initial call, and the Mavericks say they haven't been asked to tone Hayes down, insisting that they've heard PA men in other cities who make more noise.

The Bulls obviously didn't want to waive Tim Thomas and see him wind up with an East rival like New Jersey or Philadelphia. But even a handshake agreement stipulating that Thomas would sign with a Western Conference team after Chicago bought him out Wednesday would be a violation of league rules.

I'd say sanctions against the Bulls are unlikely, though.

Handshake arrangements, for starters, are difficult to prove. Thomas, furthermore, has stated publicly this week that Phoenix -- needing frontcourt help with Kurt Thomas joining Amare Stoudemire on the list of unavailables -- was the best option for him no matter where Chicago wanted him to go.

It remains to be seen whether the league decides to investigate anyway, with Thomas implying initially that he received a richer buyout for staying away from East suitors.

Film Session
Stein's NBA Oscars
Marc Stein makes his weekly visit to the ESPNEWS HotList to make some Oscar-themed award picks at the season's two-thirds pole.

Marc's Quote

"I'm not going to slap the organization in the face or any of my teammates in the face because we're not winning as many games as I'd like. It's my responsibility, too. I've got to make sure I honor the contract I signed."

Seattle's Ray Allen, when I asked him whether the Sonics' steep fall from the reaches of 52-30 and the club's uncertain future in Seattle because of arena issues have made him question the decision to stay with them last summer.

This is the first season of a five-year, $80 million deal Allen signed to stay with a team suddenly in rebuilding mode, just one season after Seattle played San Antonio as tough as anyone in last spring's playoffs.

Asked whether he expects to be consulted by management on the Sonics' direction from here -- especially with speculation already starting about Seattle listening to trade offers for the 30-year-old (which it was not willing to do before last week's trading deadline) -- Allen said with a grin: "Who says I'm not?"

A Fine Line
45 15-19 5 6 32


It's one thing when Shaquille O'Neal dominates inside so thoroughly that he can go 15-for-16 from the field against Seattle. But I'd have to say Shaq was trumped one game later when Wade made 14 of his first 15 shots against Toronto on Monday night and wound up with 32 points on 15-for-19 shooting. D-Wade is a guard, after all.

Then again ...

Who leads the league in points in the paint? It's not Shaq, and it's no longer San Antonio's Tony Parker, who's down to fifth.

Entering the weekend, it was Wade at 12.5 points per game inside.

Yet you can also surmise that O'Neal's improved play and consistent presence in the lineup in February certainly helped Wade lead the league in fast-break points for the month at 6.4 per game. O'Neal averaged nearly 31 minutes a game in February, his most active month of the season.


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