Updated: January 8, 2011, 6:41 PM ET
Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire No need to adjust your goggles. Marc Stein has a crystal-clear view of the early NBA award winners.

1. Best Of The First Trimester

By Marc Stein

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing warmed the heart at Stein Line HQ during the holidays more than the tweets and e-mails that flooded in asking what happened to our traditional First Trimester Report that usually rolls out right around Christmas.

Fear not, friends.

It was pushed back a week or so purely because of a scheduling quirk and the wanton desire to distract you at work instead of running this when you were home with the family.

Most teams are closer to 35 games played than the usual 27- or 28-game cutoff, but hopefully you'll ignore such trivialities to join us in taking stock of what we've seen in the first third of the season through the prism of the league's major award categories.

East MVP of the First Trimester

Amare Stoudemire, New York Knicks


One thing we should all be able to agree on: This is the toughest call on the board after 30-something games.

You can accept LeBron James' publicly issued invitation to delete him and Dwyane Wade from consideration because they allegedly neutralize each other in the MVP race … which was actually a thinly veiled/pretty sly way to try to force voters to do the exact opposite.

You can also notify Dwight Howard that we'll check back in during Trimester 2 after we've had a longer look at the Magic's extreme makeover … since all of Dwight's undeniable offensive improvement to go with his peerless command of the paint can't change the fact that Orlando started so poorly that management felt it had to shake things up dramatically with two big trades.

You'd still have to find a way to separate Stoudemire and Derrick Rose after all that.

Good luck.

If you can pardon the Bulls for Wednesday's deflating crunch-time failure in New Jersey, Rose has the Bulls on a 55-win pace even though Carlos Boozer has missed 15 games and Joakim Noah has missed 10. That's the stuff that should wow you even more than Rose's gaudy statistical production (23.8 points, 8.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds per game) and how he's hiked his success rate from 3-point range to a robust .394.

Stoudemire, however, is the guy who was undaunted by the prospect of being painted as New Yorkers' consolation prize when the Knicks didn't get LeBron, fully confident (delusional?) that he could single-handedly lead the Knicks back to prominence … and actually has them pointed that way faster than anyone imagined. The Knicks have little depth, play little D and started 3-8, but Stoudemire leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring (7.4 ppg) and has quickly hushed all of us media mavens who said his numbers would drop off dramatically without Steve Nash spoon-feeding him. No Nash? Amare simply formed a successful new partnership with Raymond Felton instead.

I know you're probably wincing as you brace for the inevitable speech about how much team success always plays in the MVP thinking here, but the standards are actually a little looser at the first-trimester pole. Stoudemire has little to apologize for anyway with the Knicks at 20-14, which computes to a 48-win pace, with No. 7 Indiana sitting four games under .500 and five games back.

Common sense says the Knicks won't maintain that pace as the schedule gets tougher and the regular-season grind starts to wear on Mike D'Antoni's tight rotation. But that likelihood -- along with the well-worn stat about how we haven't seen an MVP from a team that won less than 50 games since Moses Malone in 1981-82 from the 46-win Houston Rockets -- only helped break this Amare/D-Rose deadlock.

Translation: Rose can probably count on factoring heavily in the MVP race all season. I wanted to make sure, since Stoudemire doesn't have the same luxury, that he's properly feted now for delivering in the harshest media glare in the league.

West MVP of the First Trimester

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks


If LeBron and D-Wade cancel each other out -- which we're not ready to commit beyond this trimester exercise -- you're bound to make the same leap with the superb San Antonio guard tandem (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) that's allowing Tim Duncan to scale back for once. Ditto for the highest-scoring duo in the league (Kevin Durant and the faster-starting Russell Westbrook) in Oklahoma City.

Right. None of those four stars, splitting loads as they do, can trump Nowitzki in the West at this stage.

Also slightly out of contention: Utah's Deron Williams and New Orleans' Chris Paul. D-Will is having a career year statistically and Paul is the most efficient and steals-happy player in the league as he continues to work his way back from last season's knee troubles, but their teams have been up-and-down for weeks. Which can't be ignored when there are so many teams (Boston, Miami, San Antonio and Dallas) that have gaudy records.

Nowitzki, meanwhile, was shooting a career-best 54.5 percent from the floor before he sprained his right knee on Dec. 27 -- compared to 50.2 percent in his MVP season of 2006-07 -- and was rated as the player with the league's most positive impact on the scoreboard in his 29 games.

To be more specific: Dallas outscores opponents by an average of 13.3 points per 48 minutes when Nowitzki is playing … and gets outscored by an average of 13.7 points per 48 minutes when he's resting on the bench. It's likewise true that no team in the league has a bigger drop-off from its leading scorer to its No. 2 scorer than the Mavs, with Nowitzki averaging 24.1 points and Jason Terry at 15.5 ppg.

So you don't have to be a lifelong Dirk devotee to agree with this premise: With Nowitzki lined up next to the long, springy Tyson Chandler -- who does all the things Dirk can't and easily ranks as the best-fitting frontcourt sidekick he's had in his 13 seasons -- Dallas has reinstated itself to the Western Conference elite. And that's despite the fact that it realistically doesn't have anyone besides Dirk who will sniff the All-Star Game, unless Chandler somehow sneaks in.

Without Nowitzki? You've seen how that looks in the Mavs' past six games and presumably can't take much more of it.

Coach of the First Trimester

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat


Just making it to the second trimester, after we all had South Beach staked out for a swoop downstairs from Pat Riley when the Heat were 9-8, has to make Spoelstra an automatic COFT selection.

Doesn't it?

OK, OK. Not quite.

The competition is too good here to draw conclusions that quickly, mostly because of Boston's Doc Rivers and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich.

All Doc did was provide the usual leadership and stability he regularly oozes to help the Celts weather injuries to Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett -- with Kendrick Perkins still out and Jermaine O'Neal rarely available -- while blending Shaquille O'Neal in and (somehow) keeping Nate Robinson plugged in. The 27-7 Celts, I should say.

As for Pop? Thanks to his guidance and willingness to change with the times, San Antonio has transitioned to a well-chronicled new (faster) approach offensively while also cutting down Tim Duncan's minutes and role dramatically to keep TD as fresh as possible for the playoffs … all of which requires Pop to trust a handful of youngsters and newcomers. The Spurs, incidentally, are a league-best 29-6.

We barely have the room or time to get to the job done by Rick Carlisle in Dallas or Mike D'Antoni in New York or Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, where the rookie coach and Rose have hooked up to lead the upstart Bulls into the East's top four despite the lengthy absences of Boozer and Noah.

Yet I'd still argue that Spoelstra, after all the heat he faced early, sticks out even among such luminaries. He faced the Heatles' first crisis -- and the first authority challenge from James -- without a flinch and quickly helped get Miami playing like us know-it-alls were forecasting back in October.

Any coach who can turn to James, Wade and Chris Bosh is bound to look smart eventually, but Spoelstra has to receive a slice of the credit for how suddenly they've all found a niche, as well as the stifling brand of team D emanating from Miami that has made sure the Heatles capitalized on the mostly favorable schedule since their Nov. 27 team meeting in Dallas. (Don't forget the well-chronicled limitations outside of Miami's three-man core, either.)

Rookie of the First Trimester

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers


Easiest Trimester selection ever?

Blake has to be up there.

John Wall simply hasn't played enough -- or consistently well enough because of those knee and foot problems that have cost him 12 games -- to provide the sort of push Griffin was expecting. The Knicks' Landry Fields, meanwhile, is the undeniable rookie Cinderella, after lasting all the way to No. 39 in the draft last June and contributing significantly to New York's surprising start. But Griffin is clearly levitating in a different stratosphere with those 22 consecutive double-doubles … and the tantalizing idea that he's not anywhere near his ceiling yet.

Put another way: What were the odds, coming into the season, that one solitary Clipper would convince us to stop caring about the team's record and have everyone geeked up about All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles more than all the potential Lakers participants combined?

Dimes past: Dec. 22 | 23 | 24 | 25-26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | Jan. 1-2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

2. Trimester Awards, Part Deux

Most Improved Player of the First Trimester

Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers


Can't remember a season where so many of my colleagues have tossed elite names into the MIP discussion. Also can't blame 'em.

Just to name a few: Chicago's Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, Memphis' Rudy Gay and, of course, Minnesota's Kevin Love.

So many of the kiddies from last summer's Team USA squad have made such noticeable strides, as detailed here recently, that it's tough to be a stickler about our usual policy suggesting that top-five picks like the Fab Four above aren't so much improving as they are developing at the rate you'd expect and demand from guys drafted in franchise-player territory.

Yet I still struggle to stifle my inner romantic when the MIP debate starts, especially so early in the season. Significant production that we didn't see coming? Always gets me in Trimester 1.

The list, furthermore, is plenty long even if you exclude the deserving likes of Love, whose bid to become the first 20-and-15 man since Moses Malone in 1982-83 -- while also solidifying himself as a floor-stretching threat who makes 43.2 percent of 3s -- is undeniably hard to resist. Let's be real: Love is the first guy since Dennis Rodman, with apologies to Ben Wallace, to make board work cool enough for regular "SportsCenter" run.

Arguments can likewise be made for any and all of the following: Utah's Paul Millsap, New York's Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler, Golden State's Dorell Wright, Dallas' DeShawn Stevenson, Washington's JaVale McGee, Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday, Indiana's Roy Hibbert (at least until his December dip), Denver's Arron Afflalo and Eric Gordon of the Los Angeles Clippers … who has responded to his perceived snub from yours truly and the high standards laid out in the aforementioned Team USA piece by shooting 43 percent on 3s in December and playing the best all-around ball of his life.

(Minnesota's Michael Beasley and Atlanta's Al Horford, for the record, are two more upper-crust draftees who are deservedly in the conversation with all the potential MIPs mentioned already.)

However …

Some slight recent slippage from Matthews can't keep me from singling him out of this crowded group. The five-year, $34 million contract he snagged from the Blazers in the summer, which so many of us loudly questioned at the time, made total sense by Christmas thanks to the undrafted Matthews' fearlessness and productivity when asked by Portland to do some of the things Brandon Roy's knees aren't letting him do these days.

The responsibility Matthews has been forced to shoulder for a franchise in crisis has been immense. Had to find a way to recognize his largely unforeseen ability to handle all that, as evidenced by his 15.4 points in 31.3 minutes per game.

Defensive Player of the First Trimester

Tyson Chandler, Dallas Mavericks


Opening myself up to some heat here -- as well as the usual taunts about my Dirk biases -- to cast a vote for someone other than one of two foremost defensive anchors in the game: Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett.

You could easily stick to the old reliables when Howard, covering for teammates left and right as always, still has Orlando in the top five in defensive efficiency even after his GM swapped out almost all of Dwight's supporting cast for an entirely new one before we even reached Christmas. And when Garnett was finally starting to resemble the highly disruptive rover who led Boston to a championship in Year 1 of the KG era until he was felled by a calf strain last week.

But Chandler's impact in Dallas has been one of the stories of the early season, so he's getting some extra credit now that will much harder to come by when ballots are sent out in April and Howard inevitably snaps most of the votes up.

Nowitzki himself swayed me to Chandler with his recent proclamation that the Team USA big man has changed the defensive culture in Big D in a way similar to the difference KG made when he joined the Celts in 2007-08. The Mavs, for so long labeled softies, have emerged as a top-five (or close to it) defensive team this season -- as well as the NBA's leading and most successful practitioner of various zones -- thanks largely to what Chandler supplies in terms of rim protection, communication and inspiration to the historically vulnerable-on-D likes of Dirk and Jason Terry.

Honorable mention: Our man Andrew Bogut doesn't get enough spotlight in Milwaukee for his shot-blocking, rebounding and charge-taking … all with lingering pain in that surgically repaired right elbow. Also: Chicago's Joakim Noah, when healed, will be a name of considerable interest in this category and maybe in the MIP field, too, for his big jumps offensively and on the boards if he can sustain them with Boozer back. Another also: LeBron and D-Wade have indeed been ferocious on the perimeter lately to anchor the Heat's smothering resistance.

Sixth Man of the First Trimester

George Hill, San Antonio Spurs


Couldn't bear the thought of completing this exercise without rewarding at least one player from the team with the league's best record. Especially since Hill has taken over a role typically manned by the best sixth man of the 2000s and isn't far off the standards for off-the-bench efficiency and impact that Manu Ginobili has established over the years.

Going with Hill, though, means snubbing Boston's Glen Davis, which pains me because Big Baby plays well pretty much every time I get the chance to watch him. Or maybe that's my impression because he's such a consistent co-star to Rajon Rondo (and the injured Kendrick Perkins) in the Celts' next-gen core, playing defense and finishing at the rim with greater effectiveness and energy than ever before to go with that trusty jumper.

Other names on our radar include Utah's C.J. Miles, Denver's Al Harrington and, of course, Dallas' Jason Terry and Atlanta's reigning Sixth Man Award winner, Jamal Crawford. You have to believe the latter two vets will be heavy favorites to win the actual award come springtime. Terry, in particular, isn't shooting the ball as well as he can but has uncorked a succession of fourth-quarter eruptions already … along with his new habit of frequently raising four fingers late in games to make sure everyone knows that's his time.

3. Eastern Conference

Perhaps it comes as little surprise after Danny Granger earned a spot on Professor Hollinger's All-Disappointing Team, but there are some fresh rumbles in circulation that the Pacers are softening their no-trade stance on the Team USA swingman.

The Pacers have generally resisted trade interest in Granger, including feelers from Denver earlier this season about Indiana's willingness to include Granger in multiteam Carmelo Anthony trade scenarios.

One source with knowledge of Indiana's thinking, however, said this week that the Pacers -- 6-11 and fading since their big November wins over the Heat and Lakers -- have not dismissed every recent proposal that includes Granger. Another source insisted to ESPN.com that the Pacers, although they naturally would be seeking a lot in return, quietly listened to a few Granger pitches last season, as well.

It seems far safer to suggest that the Pacers would make a move before the Feb. 24 trading deadline with one of their expiring contracts, such as Mike Dunleavy or T.J. Ford, but here's another way to put it: Roy Hibbert, despite his own December fade, has emerged as the more untouchable piece in Indiana's eyes than Granger, who is shooting just 41.6 percent from the field, is going to the free throw line just 5.1 times per game as he too often settles for jumpers … and has three pricey years left on his contract after this season valued at $40 million.

Some numbers of note in the East this week:

26.4: Amare Stoudemire is averaging 26.4 points this season, good for second in the league. Only four Knicks have ever posted a higher single-season scoring average: Bob McAdoo (three times), Patrick Ewing (twice), Richie Guerin (once) and Bernard King (once). King is the only Knick to lead the league in scoring, averaging 32.9 points in 1984-85. Stoudemire, meanwhile, also is averaging 7.4 points per game in fourth quarters this season, up from 4.0 points in fourth quarters last season.

3: When LeBron James shot 51.1 percent from the floor and 44.6 percent on 3s in December, it marked the third time in his career (along with April 2009 and January 2005) that he shot better than 50 percent from the field and better than 40 percent from long distance for an entire month. James averaged 25.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists in December in co-leading Miami to a 15-1 record with Dwyane Wade.

3: When Toronto's Jose Calderon totaled 20 points and 17 assists in Wednesday's win at Cleveland, he joined Deron Williams and Steve Nash as the only players to record a 20-point, 15-assist game this season.

3: Hedo Turkoglu's 10 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in Monday's win over Golden State gave him three career triple-doubles … all with Orlando. Hedo thus surpassed Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Bo Outlaw and Scott Skiles -- each of whom had two triple-doubles for the Magic -- for the franchise lead.

392: Kris Humphries' 20 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday's win over Chicago accounted for the first 20/10 game of the forward's career … in his 392nd career game. The Elias Sports Bureau reports that the only other active players who took that long to post at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in the same game are all guards: Steve Blake (499), Earl Watson (499) and Mike Bibby (452).

Anderson Varejao is the Cav generating the most trade interest, according to NBA front-office sources, but Antawn Jamison is also a popular target and the player Cleveland sees as more likely to move before the deadline.

As for its $14.5 million trade exception and the Nets' attempts to make use of it to help facilitate their long-running pursuit of Denver's Anthony -- as detailed by ESPN The Magazine colleague Chris Broussard and in last week's Weekend Dime -- one source with knowledge of Cleveland's thinking continues to insist that the Cavs are determined to acquire at least a first-round pick with no or limited lottery protection for the right to make use of their exception.


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