Updated: March 2, 2007

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Who's first in second trimester?

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

Dividing the NBA season into thirds like a pregnancy or a three-term school year always has been the preference at Stein Line HQ. But there's a hiccup in the system.

Teams generally reach the 54-game mark right around the trade deadline, forcing us to delay our Second Trimester Report one week, which puts most clubs closer to 60 games.

Yet I suspect you'll get over all that pretty quickly and happily focus on how the award races look entering the regular-season stretch run.

West MVP of the Second Trimester

Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
I used to think Steve Nash couldn't win a third successive MVP because too many voters would refuse to put him in an exclusive club that has only other three other members: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.

But that's not so. You hear more in-season support for Nash as an MVP now than you heard in either of the previous two seasons.

If Nash fails to join Russell, Chamberlain and Bird as just the fourth three-in-a-row MVP in league history, it'll only be because his old buddy denies him.

From here? You absolutely have to favor Nowitzki to do just that. The German has to be leading this two-man race thanks to his consistent delivery -- and, somehow, his ongoing improvement after almost a decade in the league -- throughout the Mavericks' surge to 35 wins in their past 37 games.

Six times in his last 11 outings, Nowitzki suddenly has dished off for at least six assists. Four times in Dallas' 10-0 February, Nowitzki rumbled for at least 30 points and 10 boards.

You have to play at a ridiculously efficient level to trump Nash's offensive production. Nowitzki merely is shooting better than 50 percent from the field, better than 40 percent from 3-point range and better than 90 percent from the free-throw line, all while emerging as a better fourth-quarter player than he's ever been before.

The regular season belongs to Dallas and, barring some sort of hard-to-fathom fold, Nowitzki officially should be the MVP at the end of the third trimester as well. Don't be surprised, furthermore, if Nash is the loudest of Dirk's campaign managers.


East MVP of the Second Trimester

Webber

Chris Webber, Detroit
I think we're all in agreement that the East has zero contenders for the formal MVP race. Not with only one team (Detroit) on pace to win 50 games.

But since we're focused on this specific chunk of 27 (or so) games, you'd have to say Webber's value to his new team stands out in a close call over Toronto's Chris Bosh.

Bosh's Raptors have been a revelation in 2007, going 19-8 in the New Year entering Friday's play … and he does have my lefty bias in his favor. Yet Webber's mid-January arrival has rejuvenated a franchise that seemed to be drifting from the elite.

Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas all regularly wow us on an individual basis, but the most impressive development in the conference in this stretch is the Pistons' 15-3 mark since Webber became their starting center, restoring Detroit to contender status.

There you go.


Coach of the Second Trimester

Van Gundy

Jeff Van Gundy, Houston
It's the usual struggle. Jerry Sloan, Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott and maybe Avery Johnson most of all …you couldn't be wrong if you picked any of them.

But I'm going with Van Gundy, entering the season's final third, because of the Rockets' 19-11 resilience without Yao Ming. Tracy McGrady is obviously a huge part of that, but T-Mac is the one who keeps saying that it takes five and a top coach.


Rookie of the Second Trimester

Nowitzki

Brandon Roy, Portland
Blazermaniacs undoubtedly will be livid that Nate McMillan didn't generate a mention in the previous race, but their consolation is Roy's increasingly vise-like grip on the ROY lead.

He averaged 17.2 points and 4.9 assists in February to put Andrea Bargnani, Adam Morrison and Randy Foye in hurry-up, catch-up mode.


Sixth Man of the Second Trimester

Nowitzki

Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
I could have picked David Lee if I wasn't wondering whether that recent charade of Jerome James as a Knicks starter was actually coach Isiah Thomas' attempt to preserve Lee's Sixth Man Award eligibility.

I could have picked Ben Gordon, except that he's a regular member of Chicago's first five now and will soon have more starts than sixth-man appearances for the season.

I could have picked my pre-season choice -- Leandro Barbosa -- but went for Ginobili because he moved back to the bench in this trimester, uncorked a 40-point game as a sub last month and will make this a legit three-man battle (along with Barbosa and Lee) for the actual Sixth Man trophy if he continues in a reserve capacity for the rest of the season.


Other Categories

Defensive Player of the Second Trimester
Dikembe Mutombo.

Comeback Player of the Second Trimester
Amare Stoudemire (again).

Most Improved Player of the Second Trimester
Sorry. Turns out I need one more trimester to decide if I'm going with a Kevin Martin/Jason Kapono/Monta Ellis type ...

Or a Deron Williams/Luol Deng/Eddy Curry type ...

Or a Carlos Boozer/Zach Randolph/Caron Butler type.

I welcome another round of suggestions from you, loyal readers, on how to narrow my MIP field.

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

• Dimes Past: February 24-25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | March 1 | 2


Detroit Distraction?
Pistons
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Go on and celebrate Chris Webber's second trimester. There's no doubt he's brought harmony to the Detroit Pistons. But don't forget that they usually don't embrace praise. (See Box 10.)


Eastern Conference

The Heat indeed tried to move James Posey's expiring contract in scenarios small (for Chucky Atkins), medium (Corey Maggette) and large (Mike Bibby) before the trading deadline.

But Miami, according to NBA front-office sources, maintains that there is a benefit to retaining Posey, who figured to lose minutes as soon as the Heat reacquired Eddie Jones.

When Posey's $6.4 million salary drops from the payroll at season's end, it should give the Heat sufficient distance from luxury-tax territory to match comfortably contract offers to free agent-to-be Jason Kapono.

Miami's sharpshooter, earning $1.2 million this season, has only two years of service time with the champs. Salary-cap restrictions will thus prevent the Heat, who are way over the cap, from offering Kapono a new contract with a first-year salary greater than the league's average salary/mid-level exception.

The good news?

With free-agent money again likely to be tight all over the league this summer, it's unlikely that Kapono would receive an outside offer that starts above the exception, which was $5.2 million this season.


Wade

Missing Miami's final four games in February didn't stop Dwyane Wade from finishing as the league's top scorer for the month. Wade still had enough points to qualify and, with a scoring average of 30.6 points per game, edged Kobe Bryant (29.7 ppg) for February's top spot.

That means we've had a different leading scorer in each of the first four months of the season, which amazingly hasn't happened since the 1983-84 season.

Allen Iverson led the league in November at 31.7 ppg, followed by Gilbert Arenas in December (34.1), Ray Allen in January (30.4) and Wade.

In '83-84, Utah's Adrian Dantley finished first in November at 30.2 ppg, followed by Dallas' Mark Aguirre in December (32.3), San Antonio's George Gervin (30.6) and New York's Bernard King (32.9).


Exaggeration alert: Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins is just like you and me.

The artist formerly known as the Human Highlight Film -- one of Nique's go-to lines these days is, "I'm human now, the highlights are gone" -- wants to see big names back in the league's annual dunk contest as much as the rest of us.

Wilkins, still a Hawks executive, also rejects the notion that LeBron James and other noted fliers who haven't made themselves available for the contest in recent years after participating in their younger days (such as Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady) have more to lose reputation-wise by joining in than they can gain from beating out a stacked field.

"I can only speak for our [era]," Nique says. "We wanted to know who the best was. Michael [Jordan] and I would talk [during the season]. We'd call each other and say stuff like, 'I might get you this year.'

"This is an entertainment business. It's not going to hurt you [if you don't win]. Some of the greatest dunkers in the history of the league didn't do well in the contest -- Shawn Kemp comes to mind. It never hurts your career."



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Mike (Sacramento): I work for the California State Lottery and help film the Super Lotto Plus draw twice a week. Those machines don't use Ping Pong balls but rather something closer to rubber. I don't know what the NBA uses, but it might not be Ping Pong balls. Can you check it out? Don't take this the wrong way. I'm just writing in with a little bit of inside lottery info.

Stein: Sweet. A new source for the Rolodex. Since we had none in the lottery community before today, many thanks.

However ...

Sorry to disappoint, but plastic Ping Pong balls are indeed what the NBA prefers. (Yes, we asked.)

The balls are numbered 1 to 14, meaning there are 1,001 possible four-ball combinations. The team with the league's worst record is assigned 250 of those combinations

Pictures and more details available here.

In short, there's no ball controversy here. Don't expect a plastic versus rubber debate, a la leather versus microfiber, as the lottery in May draws near.

The major talking point -- especially in Boston and Memphis -- will be incessant media reminders that the team with the worst record has come away with the No. 1 overall pick only three times since 1990: New Jersey in '90, Cleveland in 2003 and Orlando in 2004.




Eyes On The Prize
Dirk Nowitzki
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
While Dirk lines up this 3-pointer and a shot at the MVP award, his Mavs are on target for even greater things. (Read below.)


Western Conference

You don't have to like them as much as Professor Hollinger, but here's a good reason -- on top of their championship know-how -- to presume that the Spurs will be more formidable in the playoffs than they've appeared in the regular season.

For all the concerns about the creaky (and thin) supporting cast around them, none of San Antonio's three stars has taken on a bigger minutes load in response to Dallas' widening division lead.

Reason being: Gregg Popovich won't let them.

Knowing that the Spurs' postseason hopes depend more than ever on his Big Three, Pop stopped worrying about the runaway Mavericks weeks ago and held firm to his plans to keep Tim Duncan under 35 minutes nightly, Tony Parker in the 32-33 minute range and Manu Ginobili below the 30-minute barrier for the fifth successive season.

"I had a conversation with Pop about that," Parker shared recently. "I said, 'Pop, I'm just 24. I can play a lot of minutes. … Play me more minutes, I'm ready.' "

We probably can't print what Parker was told.


The problem with using statistical superlatives to praise the Mavericks' success through fiftysomething games is that few positions in NBA history have been more statistically favorable than holding a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.

Which obviously didn't work out too well.

That said …

The Mavs entered Thursday's nationally televised hook-up with Cleveland with more numbers to make them feel as good as a team can at this stage of the season.

Dallas had the sixth-best record in league history, at 48-9, with 25 games to go in the regular season. All five teams above them went on to win the championship.

The list:

YEAR TEAM W-L WIN PCT.
1995-96 Bulls 51-6 .895
1996-97 Bulls 50-7 .877
1982-83 76ers 50-7 .877
1971-72 Lakers 49-8 .860
1966-67 76ers 48-8 .857
2006-07 Mavs 48-9 .842


So much happened in February -- with the trading deadline, All-Star Weekend, etc. -- that this was easily overlooked: Ron Artest and Bonzi Wells made it through their reunion game in Houston without incident shortly before the break.

Not that we were ever expecting any real trouble. Ron-Ron and Bonz remain tight to this day.

It's just that we can't forget Artest's hilarious all-in-jest threats over the summer that he was going to tie Wells up in the bathroom and whale on his legs -- or kill him -- if Wells didn't re-sign with the Kings.

In a recent Weekend Dime, Wells confessed that he still thinks about the costly collapse of his negotiations with the Kings "every day."

"It consumes my life," Wells said at the time.

Artest's view?

"It was a joke that backfired on me," Artest said of what he considered proclamations of confidence that Wells would be staying.

"I miss Bonzi on the Kings. I wish we had him like last season. But I love my team and organization."

The consensus in Sacramento holds that Kevin Martin's emergence wouldn't have been possible if Wells had stayed. But why? Doesn't Bonzi's rep for saving himself for the playoffs suggest otherwise?

And I still say, wherever you stand on the matter, that using the money earmarked to bring back Wells to sign John Salmons as a fallback option was an ill-advised choice.

Not that the Kings have any time to rehash history now, with the less than a third left in a season filled with in-house tension. After unsuccessful attempts to ship out Mike Bibby in a starting-over deal before the trading deadline, pressure is mounting on first-year coach Eric Musselman with the Kings at 25-32 entering the weekend. Artest, meanwhile, still is struggling to find harmony with a group that posted big victories -- by 17 points at Indianapolis and by 15 at home over Charlotte -- in the two games he's missed in the past week.






Talkin' Hoops
Reggie Miller to the Mavs? Marc Stein explains why it won't happen -- and delves into the differences between his weekly Power Rankings and John Hollinger's daily automated version -- in a visit with ESPN Radio (103.3 FM) in Dallas.

Listen to the podcast



Chatter Box
Gasol

One man's take on Pau Gasol and whether Chicago will regret not trading for him, from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:

"He is a perfect fit for the Bulls in the sense that they don't have anybody who can do what he does. He can draw the double team, put the other team's big men in foul trouble and score out of the post or pass out of the post. But I don't know that you can call him a franchise player. He's [considered] a franchise player because of the market he plays in and because of the guys he's played with.

"He doesn't have a great history of finishing games. And if he hasn't shown that by now, we're probably not going to see it. If the Bulls did give up [Luol] Deng for him, it wouldn't be because they wanted [Gasol] to take the big shot. You'd want Pau to draw the defense and kick it out to [Kirk] Hinrich or [Ben] Gordon to take the big shot.

"The best analogy I can draw is that Pau is like an aircraft carrier. He can't win you the war, but he can put you in a much better position to do so. For 3 quarters, he is going to do a lot of damage to the other team.

"If you're forcing me to say whether I would have given up Deng and made the trade, I probably would have. I'd have to be convinced that Deng is going to be an All-Star more than once or twice [to make him a deal-breaker]. Pau has never played next to somebody like Ben Wallace before -- somebody that tough -- and that would definitely make him better.

"But I can also see why the Bulls were torn. They're going in the right direction, so they didn't need to take a risk right now. And they know Memphis will make [Gasol] available again [in May] if they don't get one of the top two picks in the lottery.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this whole thing wasn't financial anyway. Pau has a lot of money left on his contract [$63 million over the next four seasons]. Maybe [Bulls] ownership wasn't ready to take that on."



Marc's Quote
Marion

"I kind of like them being neutral. If they want a team, they can have one. It's not my decision. But I like it being a city that doesn't have one. I like it being separate [from the NBA]. Vegas is Vegas … anything goes."

Suns forward and former UNLV star Shawn Marion, when asked if he supports the growing push to put an NBA franchise where he played his college ball.



Rank Comments
It's one of the readers' favorites and we do it every week: Trot out five (or so) responses to the latest edition of my NBA Power Rankings to make sure you have your say.

Straight from the rankings mailbag:

E. Hamady (Battle Creek, Mich.): I want you to go into the Pistons' locker room and say that the Eastern Conference has no dominant team now or looming, as you wrote the other day. Then let us all know what they said, if you are still able.

Committee's counter: Are you kidding? The Pistons would thank us for that declaration. They still love being dissed. They hate being darlings. They honestly believe that all the hoopla surrounding last season's great start helped contribute to their downfall. We don't, but they do.

Paul Fuller (Dallas): In years past, I used to call you a Mavs Hater. In hindsight, I think your skepticism was justified. But now it's all moot. These Mavs are freakishly good. They don't have games on their schedule. They don't play other teams. They conduct practice for the playoffs. Avery will decide to turn the third quarter into a deny-the-shooter drill and Iverson gets two charges and shoots 0-for-4 in the period. Or he decides that tonight is Offensive Rebound Night and they'll get 25. Freakishly good.

Committee's counter: We will continue to believe that the West playoffs won't be nearly so easy to negotiate, but it's getting increasingly difficult to dispute such claims in the regular season.

Read the full Marc Stein blog Insider



 

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