Updated: Dec. 30, 2006, 8:14 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION First Trimester Report Awards

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

Hanukkah, Festivus and Christmas are behind us. New Year's Day is hours away.

I don't need to remind you what the calendar calls for in between, do I?

That's right: First Trimester Report!

With almost everyone in the league having played at least 27 games as of Friday morning, except for the slowpokes (Denver, Minnesota and Sacramento) stuck on 26, it's time to take stock of the season's opening third:

West MVP of the Trimester

Steve Nash, Suns
I don't think he can win three straight MVPs. Nash certainly doesn't think so, either. But the first trimester says otherwise, even with at least five serious co-candidates in the West alone: Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming and the gate-crashing Carlos Boozer.

As Suns assistant coach Dan D'Antoni points out, one reason Nash somehow gets better as he gets older is that he has seemingly no ceiling when it comes to getting smarter and more efficient, as long as he avoids serious injury.

Nowitzki and Duncan have to be right up there using the same criteria -- backbone of an elite team -- and Boozer probably would have trumped them all if Utah hadn't wobbled lately. But I can't ignore what Nash is doing, statistically and otherwise, to bring cohesion to the Suns through a period of complicated transition just because people might be sick of him winning Podoloff trophies.


East MVP of the Trimester

Michael Redd, Bucks
Biased? Guilty.

It's no secret Redd is one of my favorite players -- LEFTY! -- on the planet. Allow me, nevertheless, to channel Hickory's Norman Dale here, because I apologize for nothing.

With Detroit and Chicago taking an ensemble approach to winning, Cleveland and Miami too close to .500 for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to get us salivating just yet and Dwight Howard not quite in this stratosphere, it's clear that the two best players in the East to date have been Redd and Gilbert Arenas.

How to choose between them? Arenas was shaky in November before this otherworldly December; Caron Butler has been Washington's most consistent player.

Redd doesn't even have that much help in Milwaukee but is starting to play a more diverse game, as the Spurs would tell you. Redd found plenty of ways to hurt them in San Antonio, on a night when he didn't even have his 3-point stroke, so he's the early choice until LeBron and D-Wade make their inevitable move.


Coach of the Trimester

Jerry Sloan, Jazz
We take Gregg Popovich, Avery Johnson and Mike D'Antoni for granted -- Phil Jackson, too -- but we've been taking Sloan for granted for almost two decades.

Even though the new rules are supposed to punish the teams that have relied on clutching and grabbing, as we've seen from Utah for years, just take a look. Sloan has Boozer and Deron Williams, both of whom were openly doubted by countless skeptics throughout last season, standing up to the ghosts of Stockton-to-Malone and challenging each other for Most Improved plaudits, even with Andrei Kirilenko still somewhat out of sorts.

As always, there's never a shortage of contenders here; Portland's Nate McMillan is an interesting case just getting the Blazers within reach of .500 in spite of Brandon Roy's lengthy absence. Yet even his peers, I suspect, would be voting for Sloan at this point. With a so-so Kirilenko and a big hole at shooting guard, Sloan's Jazz have more wins than all but two other teams.


Rookie of the Trimester

Randy Foye, Timberwolves
Like a lot of Wolves fans, I wish Foye played more. Yet I've seen enough from this guy in a couple of crunch times -- at Dallas in November and Tuesday when he scored the game-winner to save the Wolves after they had blown a big lead to Chicago -- to pick him out of a struggling group that only has one rook (Adam Morrison) averaging better than 10 ppg.

Truth is, I don't think the NBA can really claim to have a Rookie of the Year race at the minute. Andrea Bargnani is making some progress in Toronto alongside the underrated Jorge Garbajosa, Morrison and Utah's Paul Millsap have had their moments and Jordan Farmar has unexpectedly claimed a rotation spot with the Lakers, but it's not really a race yet.

The biggest rookie story, besides Roy missing so much time, has been Foye ... as much for his feature role in the Allen Iverson Sweepstakes as anything.


Sixth Man of the Trimester

Ben Gordon, Bulls
My preseason pick, Phoenix's Leandro Barbosa, looks like an inspired choice ... until you remember what Gordon is doing in Chicago. Only two sixth men in history have averaged 20 points for a whole season: Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson. Gordon entered Friday's play at 20.1 ppg after hanging 40 on Miami.


Defensive Player of the Trimester

Alonzo Mourning, Heat
The sad reality is that the Heat need even more than Mourning can feasibly give them with Shaquille O'Neal sidelined. But Zo being Zo, he's trying anyway to give them more than what's humanly possible at age 36, so he gets the early nod here as the league's No. 2 shot-blocker (2.9 bpg) in just 23.4 minutes per game.

There will be plenty of time to sort out the long-term race featuring the usual suspects: Kevin Garnett, Duncan and Marcus Camby, perimeter aces like Bruce Bowen, Shawn Marion and Kirilenko ... and the underrated Emeka Okafor, Jermaine O'Neal and Howard.


Comeback Player of the Trimester

Amare Stoudemire, Suns
In the NBA, as we repeat every year at this time, there is no Comeback award. But we're moved to maintain this category this season more than usual, watching Stoudemire's gaining-speed recovery from surgery on both knees.

Here's hoping, furthermore, that Denver's Kenyon Martin occupies this space next season. K-Mart will be trying coming back from two microfractures -- Stoudemire only faced one -- but just imagine how well his game could complement the Melo-Iverson tag team if he can make it back to a reasonable standard.

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

• Dimes past: December 23-24 | 25 | 27 | 28 | 29


Golden Child
Gilbert Arenas
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Arenas just missed out on being named East MVP of the Trimester. But Agent Zero has bigger things to worry about (see Box 3 below).


Eastern Conference

Did the Sixers get Andre Miller to keep him or trade him?

I'm told that Philly liked Miller better than any other veteran it was offered, once it became apparent that it wouldn't be getting a Shaun Livingston or Randy Foye from an Allen Iverson trade. Indiana, for example, might have been convinced to part with Danny Granger in an Iverson swap, but that still would have meant Philly taking back Jamaal Tinsley as well, with a contract that runs two years longer than Miller's. Not interested, obviously.

The Sixers, meanwhile, were prepared to take back Miller for at least three reasons.

1. He's still considered a top-10 point guard in this league by many GMs.

2. They only have to pay him an estimated $16.5 million in 2007-08 and 2008-09 if they keep him, as opposed to the $19.8 million stipulated by his salary-cap number, because Miller's original front-loaded contract with the Nuggets included a $10 million signing bonus.

3. That difference of more than $3 million, combined with his QB rep, would appear to give Miller some good trade value around the league.

Yet it's important to note, with Miller's name already coming up in new trade scenarios, that the Sixers can't package Miller or Joe Smith in a new deal before Feb. 19, three days before the trading deadline. They can be dealt again sooner if either one is the only Sixer going out in a deal, but neither can be aggregated with other Sixers in a trade until two months elapse.

Trading Smith again, though, is unlikely. The Sixers wanted him to keep him, largely because of an expiring contract that comes with a last-year salary of $6.8 million.


Just because I'm less than impressed with Cleveland's start doesn't mean I can't send Happy Birthday wishes to LeBron James, who turns 22 Saturday.

You can obsess about everything the Cavs don't have -- playmaking to make LeBron's life easier offensively and more shot-making and supporting-cast athleticism to open up the game even further -- but not without stopping to acknowledge some of the stuff LBJ has achieved at such a young age.

Entering Friday's play, James had scored 7,035 points in his three-plus NBA seasons. On the list of scorers and their totals upon turning age 22, Carmelo Anthony (5,405) and Kobe Bryant (4,240) were the next closest.

Magic Johnson has the lead in triple-doubles at the same age -- 13 to 9 -- but LeBron has almost twice as many assists (1,734 to 880) ... albeit helped by Magic missing a good chunk of his second season through injury.

LBJ also has 99 30-point games. The rest of the best at the time of their 22nd birthday: Anthony (45), Shaquille O'Neal (33), Rick Barry (28) and my beloved Bernard King (28).

(An aside: Please tell me you saw King's 60-point game from Christmas Day 1984 when NBA TV replayed it a couple times Monday. Please.)


The Wizards aren't scheduled to wear their gold-and-black unis again until Jan. 7.

This is undoubtedly welcome news for the masses who loathe the look ... but not such a promising development for Gilbert Arenas.

How do we know? In Washington's five games in Purdue colors, Arenas is averaging (no misprint) 46.4 points and 5.6 assists while shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 50.9 percent on 3s. The Wiz, not surprisingly, are 4-1 in those games.

So ...

The Wiz might not want to wait another week to wear their Jeff Arnold garb -- my favorite all-time Purdue player, in case you're wondering -- if you believe in the connection.

Of course, as one Wiz wag reminded me, Arenas and Co. are 6-1 at home this season when they get out-rebounded. Chances are that won't convince Eddie Jordan to tell his guys that they don't need to box out at the Verizon Center.



One-On-One ... To Five
Cassell

Five questions with Clippers guard Sam Cassell:

Q: What's your theory on what's wrong with the Clippers?

A: I'm the catalyst for this team, the guy who sets everything up, but I've been banged up this year. Usually I get banged up at the end of the season. But this year … strained calf, sprained ankle, now this plantar fasciitis. It's all in the same [left] foot. I guess one thing leads to another. Every time I step, this thing is like a pin in my damn heel.

Q: Where does this team feel your absence the most?

A: Elton Brand. Every shot he's taking is a difficult shot. You can't win if your go-to guy is taking 20 shots and 20 of them are difficult shots. It's frustrating and difficult to deal with for me. I expected good things for this team and we still got time to do it. [But] we've got to get healthy and guys have to understand what's at stake. The competition is getting better and better in this Western Conference.

Q: The comment I hear a lot from scouts is that the Clippers haven't look like a very motivated team lately. Effort has to factor into this, doesn't it?

A: That's everything. In this game, the team that plays the hardest wins 80 percent of the games. We were one of the top defensive teams last year and now we're not. We've got to get back to coming in the gym wanting to play basketball. Right now, it's not like that.

Q: That's hard for outsiders to understand when [Clippers owner] Donald Sterling has spent more money than he's ever spent. How can that be a problem?

A: It's not just one thing that's hurting us. It's a combination of a lot of things. What people don't realize, when you've been an organization that's always been chasing, it's different now that you're being chased. Any time we lose, it's a big win for the other team. We're not the old Clippers. Teams [that beat L.A.] are like, "Yeah, we stuck it to 'em." You've got to take a different mentality.

Q: Has all the trade talk [Allen Iverson, Ron Artest] unsettled this team?

A: I think it has. I think it has. I think it has. The only guy on this team who always gets mentioned [in trade speculation] -- and he goes through it every year -- is Corey Maggette. But he plays through it. He's kind of used to it, so it doesn't bother him.




Three-peat?

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
It's been quite a trimester for the reigning MVP, who's averaging 20 points and 11.4 assists per game for the Pacific leaders.


Western Conference
The disparity between West and East remains significant as New Year's Day approaches.

But it's not as lopsided, thankfully, as it looked in November.

The West, entering Friday's games, held a 99-68 advantage in head-to-head play, which computes to a winning percentage of .593.

The lopsided part now? Only three West teams have losing records against the East: Seattle (7-8), Portland (5-8) and Memphis (4-11).

The East, by contrast, still sports a whole division of sub-.500 teams and has just five teams total with winning records against the West: Milwaukee (10-4), Orlando (8-5), Cleveland (5-2), Detroit (6-5) and Washington (6-5).


It's even more timely to look at health issues if we're going to compare conferences, since new injuries are sprouting seemingly everywhere.

This is where the West has a lead it doesn't want.

The deeper All-Injured Team?

The West's lineup of high-profile players sidelined with ailments of moderate to grave concern would look something like this: Chris Paul (ankle) and Peja Stojakovic (back) at guard, Lamar Odom (knee) and Rashard Lewis (hand) at forward and Yao Ming (knee) at center … with Kenyon Martin (knee), David West (elbow) and Darius Miles (knee) also under consideration.

That excludes a back-soon guy like Marcus Camby, day-to-day guys like Sam Cassell and a not-all-the-way-back Tracy McGrady.

The East would counter with Paul Pierce (foot), Josh Smith (hernia), Bobby Simmons (heel), Nenad Krstic (knee) and Shaquille O'Neal (knee), excluding Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade for the same reasons we didn't include Camby and Cassell.


What happens from here with Ron Artest?

With Clips management not convinced that gambling on the enigmatic swingman is the best use of the perpetually available Corey Maggette, Sacramento will presumably keep looking for a trade partner, since it was the Kings who initiated these discussions, according to NBA front-office sources.

Yet there's a reason that the Kings' first call went to the Clippers. Coach Mike Dunleavy arguably ranks as the biggest Artest fan in the league.

If the Clips decide that even they don't want the chemistry risks involved in making this deal -- with Dunleavy hot for Artest for more than a year -- Sacramento might be forced to focus on trying to make the Artest-Mike Bibby-Eric Musselman trio work in the short term. It's not lost on the rest of the league that the Kings, after Artest had such a rousing honeymoon, reached this point after having him in uniform for only 65 games; 60 in the regular season and five in the playoffs.

The Clips might be better served making a safer move for a shooter, like Memphis' Mike Miller. Their defense has faded considerably, Sam Cassell is struggling to stay healthy and the Clips sneak up on no one anymore, but don't forget that they've played the fewest interconference games of any team in the league, at just 4-1 against East opposition. Factoring that in, L.A.'s 12-16 start looks a little less dire.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Dirk's Boy Nose (Dallas): I don't get it. When my Mavs won 58 games two years ago, we had one All-Star. When we won 60 games last season, we had one All-Star. We've got the league's best record right now, but I'm sure you'll tell me that Nowitzki is going to Vegas by himself. Why?

Stein: If it happens again, it's only because Josh Howard plays the worst position in the world when it comes to All-Star stuff: Western Conference forward.

But you're right. The Mavs' regular-season ruthlessness in the post-Steve Nash era has been taken for granted for too long. Howard has a strong case for one of the West's 12 roster spots. It's not just Dallas' 22-7 record, either, because Howard's play -- and importance to an elite program -- merits it.

I give him a lot of credit for playing through a drawn-out contract negotiation in October. Howard was the best player in Mavs camp, even amid whispers that, behind the scenes, he was a less-than-happy camper while waiting for a four-year, $41.7 million contract extension after Nowitzki, Jason Terry and coach Avery Johnson got their new contracts.

Howard gets further props for his convincing recovery from an early-November ankle sprain that cost him eight games. Despite the time away, he has already made more 3-pointers this season (36) than he did in 59 games last season (27) while hiking his free-throw shooting from 73.4 percent to 83.7 percent. More and more, Howard looks like the consistent No. 2 scorer Dallas needs next to Nowitzki.

The problem?

Even with a few All-Star candidates derailed by injury (Chris Paul, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol) and suspension (Carmelo Anthony), check out all this competition.

Yao Ming's knee injury could open up a roster spot, but Yao and Houston teammate Tracy McGrady have big leads already in the ballot race for starting spots. The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant is another lock to start, with two of the following three forwards sure to join him: San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and Nowitzki.

Let's say it's Duncan and Garnett, with both Rockets healthy enough to play. Nowitzki and the Suns' Steve Nash would then be automatic reserve choices for the coaches, leaving five roster vacancies.

Howard's comp? Utah's Carlos Boozer, Phoenix's Shawn Marion, Portland's Zach Randolph and the Los Angeles Clippers' Elton Brand are vying for frontcourt spots, too. The Suns' Amare Stoudemire also comes into play as a center, with his chances greatly increased if Yao doesn't heal in time.

Then there's Anthony, who will have played 26 of Denver's 41 games by the time West coaches are scheduled to turn in their reserve picks on Jan. 29. It remains to be seen how the coaches handle that special case, since Anthony was leading the league in scoring at the time of his 15-game punishment.

It's not like there aren't a few worthy West guards trying to get in as well. San Antonio's Tony Parker, Seattle's Ray Allen, Golden State's Baron Davis, Paul (depending on how quickly he can get back) and a new Nugget named Allen Iverson (who has an outside shot at overtaking McGrady as a starter) also clutter Howard's path. (Utah's Deron Williams and Sacramento's Kevin Martin, impressive as they've been, are totally new to this stratosphere and undoubtedly have to wait their turns behind Howard.)



Blog Excerpt
Cassell

"Just false reports," Artest counters. "I'm happy here and want to be a part of the new Sacramento Kings. We are so competitive that, when we lose, it's not something we [can] get used to. Most teams lose and you won't hear a thing the whole season. On this team, Mike will blame himself and I will blame myself. But we are playing better and Brad Miller is back, so people should expect wins."

As for Bibby, who can opt out of his contract at season's end to enter free agency, Artest added: "We talked [at Sunday's practice] and we talk every day. We have to get used to playing with each other. But we both plan to stay in Sac."

A cynic might say that Artest is saying all the right things to convince the Clips to ignore any reservations they might have and go through with the deal.

Me? I have to think Artest, deep down, knows staying or going won't be his call at all.

Read the full Marc Stein blog Insider



Marc's Quote
D'Antoni

"Probably because we owe him 80-something million over the next six years. But he takes the challenge. He's done it all his life. He's shown that at every stage of his life, that he can overcome a challenge."

Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, explaining why he granted Amare Stoudemire's request five games into the season to move into the starting lineup, even though D'Antoni admits that he "didn't have a lot of faith" that Stoudemire's surgically repaired knees were ready for that.

Stoudemire is averaging 19.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in the 23 games since, logging just under 31 minutes per game in that stretch.



Trimester Report: Moving Forward
What 2 Watch 4 in Trimester 2:

• I remain fascinated by the fact that we're actually switching basketballs in a few days and believe it just might generate a whole new debate when that starts sinking in.

• I will be watching to see if the 11 teams scoring at least 100 points per game can keep it up … or if D'Antoni wasn't joking around when he offered up this theory to explain it: "It's the new ball."

• I hope and pray that there's another one of these in our immediate future: Phoenix 161, New Jersey 157.

• I plan to pray harder that the recent rash of injuries (see Box 6) is just a freakish spell of bad luck and not some sort of twisted trend that overwhelms the season.

• I wonder if this will be the trimester that sees someone in the Atlantic Division finally reach the hallowed ground of .500.

• I eagerly await the sight of Melo and Iverson on the floor together Jan. 22 against Tony Barone's (who's?) Memphis Grizzlies.

• I welcome any and all suggestions from you, loyal readers, on how to deal with my Most Improved Player thinking, which was not omitted here by accident. This season's MIP call could be harder than ever -- I know, I know … we say that every year -- with all types of candidates.

Kevin Martin, J.R. Smith or Monta Ellis? Utah's Williams or Washington's Butler? Eddy Curry or Al Jefferson? Or David Lee? What about Boozer or Zach Randolph? I definitely need at least one more trimester to figure this one out.



 

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