1. Stein's First Trimester Awards
The Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are already there. Every other team in the league will join them soon enough.
We're naturally referring to the 27- or 28-game mark on a standard NBA schedule, which ranks as a holiday unto itself at Stein Line HQ. And hopefully not just on my calendar.
The arrival of Christmas, in basketball's blissfully lockout-free winter, signifies the return of the First Trimester Report. Thanks to that dreaded work stoppage none of us will ever forget -- I hurt for hockey and its fans every time I see a tweet about how poorly NHL labor talks are going -- our trusted trimester concept had to take a one-season hiatus in 2011-12.
So join us now, with normal service resumed, to take stock of what we've seen one-third of the way through by sizing up the league through the prism of its major award categories.
Eastern Conference MVP of the First TrimesterCarmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
What I said before the season holds even truer two months in: LeBron James ranks as undisputed king of this league.
He's the best player on the planet as he approaches his 28th birthday next week and happens to have launched his first title defense by shooting (54.2 percent from the field and 43.4 percent on 3s) and rebounding the ball (8.5 boards per game) better than ever before.
Yet I'd still say, looking exclusively at the season's maiden trimester, that Anthony's start is a narrow notch better than all that, given how much progress Melo has made from a villainous 2011-12 season that ultimately drove away Mike D'Antoni and Jeremy Lin.
For all the credit we routinely dish to various other Knicks, as you'll see again in the Coach of the First Trimester passage, let's not overlook what stands as maybe the biggest reason why New York has been able to use the Dallas Mavericks' one-star championship blueprint from 2011: Anthony, like Dirk Nowitzki at his peak, is a matchup nightmare at the 4 spot who is legitimately devastating as a play-finisher when surrounded by the right role players.
Just like in 2008, Melo returned from the Olympics in top shape and fully focused. The results: Anthony is scoring as rampantly as ever (28.0 ppg), shooting 46 percent from the 3-point line (compared to 33.1 percent on 3s for his career) and carrying an offense that ranks No. 1 in the league even though the other players in the Knicks' top six apart from Tyson Chandler (namely Ronnie Brewer, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and Rasheed Wallace) are shooting a combined 40.4 percent from the floor.
The reality is that in April, LeBron is going to be incredibly hard to dislodge from the top spot on most MVP ballots, even if we were to exclude the Western Conference from consideration and reduce the field to James and Anthony. Our inclination, then, is to give Melo this trimester nod to ensure that he's recognized, because I've been as guilty as anyone in taking for granted how much the modern-day Bernard King has done to expand his game, trust his teammates more and establish the Knicks, without warning, as the new top threat to LeBron's Heat in the East.
Western Conference MVP of the First TrimesterKevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
The margins aren't any wider on the left side of the conference divide. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul both make a strong Best in the West case, with the Clippers' record right up there with the Thunder's & and with CP3 on pace for merely the fourth season of his career in which he's averaged better than 15 points and nine assists nightly while somehow racking up more steals than turnovers.
You're invited to try to rewind through history to find another point guard who's pulled that off.
Yet there's Durant, playing more of an all-around game than ever before in the wake of James Harden's controversial departure, setting himself up to be the first player to average at least 27 points, eight boards, four assists and 1.5 steals since David Robinson back in 1993-94.
You've undoubtedly heard how Durant has broken into exalted 50/40/90 territory as a shooter: 52.1 percent from the floor, 42.7 percent on 3s and 90.4 percent at the line. No one's suggesting that he doesn't have help, since Serge Ibaka has responded to the faith management has shown in him by taking a big-time leap alongside a sharper Russell Westbrook, but the line forms behind KD when we talk about how impressively OKC has weathered the departure of an All-Star caliber talent.
The only team in the league, by the way, yet to lose two games in a row? Yup: Durant's Thunder.
Rookie of the First TrimesterDamian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
I think it's been fairly obvious since the summer, when I got my first chance to really observe Anthony Davis from close range during his Team USA stint, that you're dealing with a Unibrow fan here.
That said ...
I can't help but point out that Lillard's early Rookie of the Year case has only been strengthened by the fact that he's been more durable so far than his primary competition, which has to serve as some small measure of justice to long-suffering Blazermaniacs after all the injury woe they've taken in watching Walton and Bowie and Oden and Roy.
Let's be clear, though: Lillard has delivered much more than durability for the rebuilding Blazers. Frequently flashing beyond-his-years poise and feel after announcing himself to the NBA with a spectacular summer league, Weber State's first-ever NBA first-round pick is averaging nearly 19 points per game to go with his 6.3 assists, all while logging 38 minutes nightly to rank in the league's top 10 in PT alongside Portland teammates LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum.
Which means that the presumptive preseason Rookie of the Year favorite from New Orleans has a lot of ground to make up to serve up the two-man ROY duel so many of us expected, even if Davis has finally shaken the ankle woes that cost him 13 of the soon-to-be Pelicans' first 20 games.
Coach of the First TrimesterMike Woodson, New York Knicks
Stop me if you've heard this one before or actually just let me prattle on -- but it's been a great trimester for coaches.
Oklahoma City's Scotty Brooks has had a big hand in stabilizing the Thunder in the wake of the James Harden trade shock. Atlanta's Larry Drew, in what was largely projected to be a season of salary-cap management, has the Hawks playing better at both ends in the wake of Joe Johnson's exit. Chicago's Tom Thibodeau, Dallas' Rick Carlisle and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich have continued to grind out wins in the face of significant injuries. Orlando's Jacque Vaughn and Charlotte's Mike Dunlap, meanwhile, are rookie coaches whose sub-.500 teams are widely regarded as overachievers anyway thanks to their higher-than-expected win totals heading into Christmas.
None of the above, though, can even crack our top two after the season's opening third. Not with what's happening in New York and the Bay Area.
Wednesday's embarrassing loss in Sacramento notwithstanding, Mark Jackson is legitimately changing the culture in Golden State after just one playoff berth over the past 18 seasons, prodding the Warriors into significant improvement defensively and especially on the boards despite the fact that Andrew Bogut has played in all of four games. Relying heavily on a rejuvenated Steph Curry and David Lee and three rookies -- starting Festus Ezeli in 21 games if you want to get specific -- Jackson has the Dubs at 17-9. Which qualifies as getting the most of your talent.
Yet we've officially reached the stage where what Woodson's doing with Jackson's beloved Knicks can no longer be underplayed. Since Woodson took charge on March 14, New York is a tidy 36-12, second only to San Antonio (42-11) in that span. Combining with the likes of Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler to get through to Carmelo Anthony like no coach ever has, with more team-first ball revolving around Melo than we've ever seen, Woodson has masterminded the third-best start in franchise history.
The only two starts that were better, in 1969-70 (23-2) and 1972-73 (20-5), led to titles. So it's Woody, justifiably, who leads this crowded pack heading into Trimester 2.
2. First Trimester Awards, Part Deux
Sixth Man Award of the First TrimesterKevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder
One of the better races on the board. Golden State, for starters, has given us two off-the-bench options who've made huge contributions to the Dubs' fairy-tale start: Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. New York's J.R. Smith, Miami's Ray Allen, Atlanta's Lou Williams, Milwaukee's Mike Dunleavy and Charlotte's Ramon Sessions have all had their moments, too, while San Antonio's ever-reliable Manu Ginobili gradually plays his way into the discussion.
Yet it's essentially a two-man game as we proceed into the season's middle third, not unlike the battle for West MVP honors that pits a Clipper against an OKCer. Similar scenario here: Jamal Crawford versus Kevin Martin ... with no wrong answer.
Crawford leads the league in 20-point games off the bench (10) and has formed a devastating tempo-changing combo with fellow sub Eric Bledsoe. Martin's production, meanwhile, is almost identical to Crawford's yet comes with the glossy bonus of doing what he's doing as the direct replacement for 2012 Sixth Man Award winner James Harden.
And that distinction, for now, swings it on this scorecard. Despite the inherent pressures of replacing Harden so abruptly after training camp ended with a team that went to the Finals last season -- and after his own long wait in the wilderness with various nonplayoff teams in hopes of finally getting to play for something -- Martin is shooting 45.8 percent on 3s. What pressure?
The ultimate judgment on Martin, of course, won't be rendered until we see what the Thunder look like in the postseason. Be advised, though, that Martin's numbers per 36 minutes are right there with Harden's from last season (or even exceed them) apart from the lefty's playmaking that so often bailed the Thunder out.
Defensive Player of the First TrimesterJoakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
The Lakers' rough start hasn't merely endangered L.A.'s chances of finishing high enough on the West ladder to at least have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It's also submarined Dwight Howard's anticipated return to overwhelming favorite status among DPOY contenders, throwing this race wide open.
Tony Allen and Marc Gasol will both have a shot at the real thing at season's end if the Grizzlies can maintain their hold on the league's No. 1 spot in defensive efficiency. Perhaps a solitary candidate, such as Roy Hibbert or Josh Smith, emerges from the group efforts Indiana or Atlanta have put forth to make unexpected jumps into the top five alongside Memphis. Milwaukee's Larry Sanders (see Most Improved Player section) is one of the league's better stories so far, Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka is the new Howard in the sense that he's become a fixture in this conversation ... and New York's Tyson Chandler might still thrust himself into in the running if the Knicks can put a halt to their recent defensive slippage.
For now, though, it's undeniably Noah in the lead. Defense is what has the Derrick Rose-less Bulls atop the Central Division, with Noah not only serving as Chicago's anchor on D and enabling them to weather Omer Asik's departure but also increasing his work load by nearly 10 minutes per game from last season up to a whopping 40.2 mpg. As one admiring official from a rival Eastern Conference club said this week, taking stock of Noah's 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals coming nightly from Noah: "He's their Kevin Garnett."
Most Improved Player of the First TrimesterAnderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers
Some of you are bound to find this pretty Scroogish, but I can't help it: Evan Turner, Kemba Walker and Stein Line favorite O.J. Mayo -- all undeniably playing at a noticeably higher level compared to where we left them last season -- were all drafted too high to fit into what I've always seen as the true spirit of the MIP.
The standard policy here, remember, holds that lottery picks are supposed to keep developing into franchise cornerstones. If they make a huge jump, in other words, it generally also means they were underperforming before, which slices into our enthusiasm for spotlighting them here.
There's no shortage of players who come closer to the Cinderella-story criteria we have in mind.
Omer Asik was my preseason MIP pick and has duly lived up to billing by averaging a double-double in Houston. Andray Blatche has gone from amnesty discard in Washington to trusted backup big man in Brooklyn. Two former mid-first-round picks have likewise caught the eye: Jrue Holiday for how much he's giving Philly back since getting his $41 million contract extension on Halloween ... and Milwaukee's Larry Sanders morphing from a little-used backup in late November into the league's top shot-blocker a month later.
Varejao, though, has 'em all beat, bringing it every night even though he's stuck, at least for the moment, on the bottom-feeding Cavs. He turned 30 before the season and appeared in just 56 games over the previous two seasons thanks to a series of injuries, but he's made the bold leap from complementary player to nightly terror, averaging 14.1 points and 14.7 boards through 25 games to nearly double his career norms in both categories.
3. Eastern Conference
Mike Woodson is the hottest coach going, as covered in Box 1, but the next trimester -- if you're prepared to indulge this week's commitment in Weekend Dimedom to dividing the season into thirds -- is bound to be the trickiest one for Woody.
Amar'e Stoudemire's forthcoming return will put the onus on Woodson, more than anyone else at Madison Square Garden, to try fit Stoudemire in without disrupting the Knicks' chemistry, which has been up there with the league's best so far. Woodson has proven to have a deft touch with Knicks vets, connecting this group better than anyone expected, but the Stoudemire situation is a massive challenge thanks to all of the subplots and variables expertly laid out in Friday's New York Times by my man Howard Beck.
At least one source involved, though, is expressing optimism that Stoudemire will try to blend in, unlikely as that seems after hearing him speak of a "return back to dominance" earlier this week. Convinced Amar'e knows New York has no hope of trading the 30-year-old with two seasons and more than $45 million left on Stoudemire's contract after this one and all those injuries on his résumé, our insider says: "He has to fit in. There's no other option."
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
23: LeBron James has scored at least 20 points in all 23 of Miami's games this season. That's the longest such streak to start a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, since Karl Malone did so for Utah in the first 24 games in 1989-90. The record since the NBA-ABA merger is 1976 is George Gervin's 45 games with at least 20 points to start the 1981-82 season.
4: If LeBron wins another MVP trophy in the spring, it'll be the fourth of his career, putting him in an exclusive club alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four).
46.4: Carmelo Anthony is shooting a career-best 46.4 percent on shots from at least 15 out this season.
40: Paul Pierce recently became just the second Celtic to post a 40-point game at the age of 35 or older. Larry Bird, also 35, scored 49 points in a double-overtime victory over Portland in March 1992.
2: Milwaukee's Larry Sanders, who was in the running above for Defensive Player of the First Trimester and Most Improved Player of the First Trimester, is also trying to become just the second reserve in league history to lead the league in shot-blocking. Sanders has started only five Bucks games to date and has blocked 3.04 shots in just 23.8 minutes per game to rank narrowly behind Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka. Golden State's Manute Bol led the league with 4.3 swats per game in 1988-89 despite coming off the bench in all but four games.
4. Western Conference
Space is at a premium in the team-by-team comment section of the Power Rankings every Monday morning. So I'll concede that what might seem clear as day to me in six lines might in rare, rare instances need some elaboration.
The Spurs' comment Monday morning noted that Tim Duncan is on course to be the first player ever to average 17 points and nine rebounds "this late in life." Which is true: Duncan would rank as the first player in NBA history to hit those marks in his 16th season or later as long as he stays reasonably close to his current average of 17.6 points and 10.4 boards.
The confusion? Utah's Karl Malone was 36 -- like Duncan is now -- when he averaged 25.5 points and 9.5 boards in 1999-2000 ... but that was in Malone's 15th season. The Mailman continued to be a prolific scorer over his final four NBA seasons but never averaged nine rebounds after season No. 15.
Moses Malone averaged 18.9 points and 10 rebounds for Atlanta in 1989-90 in his 16th pro season, but that includes the two seasons that Moses spent in the ABA.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
23,000: Former Wake Forest star Tim Duncan is the newest member of the NBA's 23,000-point club and just the second ACC alumnus, along with North Carolina's Michael Jordan, to reach the milestone. Duncan is also just the fifth player born outside the United States (Virgin Islands) to cross the 23,000-point threshold, joining Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946 points/Nigeria), Dominique Wilkins (26,668/France), Patrick Ewing (24,815/Jamaica) and Dirk Nowitzki (24,134/Germany).
7: Kobe Bryant's recent run of seven straight games with at least 30 points is the longest in league history for a player 34 or older. Michael Jordan (five in a row in 1997-98) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (five in 1981-82) were the previous record-holders.
258: Sacramento and Golden State combined for 258 points in the Kings' unexpected 131-127 triumph Wednesday night, easily surpassing the season's previous single-game high of a combined 240 points.
510: The Clippers' Chris Paul was the fifth-fastest player in league history to 500 assists, needing just 510 regular-season games to get there. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only Oscar Robertson (467), Magic Johnson (472), John Stockton (483) and Isiah Thomas (490) were faster.
Kobe Bryant spoke last week about what a "crazy year" it's been for the Lakers, who are on their third coach and still awaiting Steve Nash's return to the lineup"Stability," says Kobe, is the "thing that's been missing." Sources close to the situation say it's also that elusive stability that prompted the Lakers to pass on signing free-agent point guard Delonte West after strongly considering it during a 1-6 start to December. The Lakers decided it was wiser to wait for Nash, who's expected to return to the lineup by Christmas Day at the latest, rather than try to incorporate yet another new piece to the puzzle. Bringing in another point guard hasn't been ruled out, sources say, with Nash's backup Steve Blake still out after abdominal surgery. But the Lakers are in no rush. ... Sacramento's Tyreke Evans acknowledged in a recent visit with ESPN.com that he does feel the need "a little" to prove himself all over again after two so-so seasons in Sacramento. But Evans also insists he can tune out trade speculation. "I'm just here to play basketball," he said. "If I get traded, that's what happens." The 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year likewise brushed off the notion that it was a significant setback not to receive a contract extension from the Kings before the Halloween deadline -- " I wasn't worried about it," Evans said -- and expressed optimism about the state of his game before a knee bruise cost him six games this month. "I've been working on my jumper all summer," Evans said. "When it goes in, that opens up a lot of other things for me."
5. Marc's Quote
"I got a personal vendetta against myself right now. ... Because I don't like me."
Miami's LeBron James, taking a lighthearted tone in confirming to reporters on Tuesday night that he's indeed been known to travel to and from home shootarounds and games this season on his bike.
The longstanding rule in this section is that the only quotes typically considered are those said in my actual presence, preferably during a one-on-one conversation.
Sometimes, though, you have to make exceptions. And I couldn't resist in this case because LeBron was indulging in one of my favorite sports when he was explaining his bike habit to the assembled media following a home win over Minnesota.
The sport of self-loathing.
So when LeBron starts talking about how he doesn't like himself right now, even when he's speaking in jest, he's speaking my language. Even when I'm some 1,100 miles away and, until Miami's visit to Dallas on Thursday night, hadn't actually partaken in one of those standard interview scrums around him since the Olympics.
After a ridiculously soft stretch of schedule that called for the Heat to play only one road game in a span of 32 days until they disassembled the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavs, Thursday's return to the road seemed to restore the edge Miami has been frequently lacking in December, with James predictably all over the floor with a vengeance that earned him a full fourth quarter of rest because the score was so lopsided.
But LeBron, when I finally had the chance to check with him directly, insisted after the 110-95 rout that the "vendetta" rolls on. The bike didn't make the trip, obviously, but that's not the point. James is clearly resorting to mind games to keep driving himself, determined to manufacture in-season challenges if necessary to ensure that his glittering 2012 -- in which he collected his first championship ring and second gold medal to go with MVP trophy No. 3 -- is not the peak of a career that has reached its 10th season.
"Nah, not yet," LeBron said of lifting the vendetta. "I got a long way to get where I want to go."
6. Let's Hear It For New York
7. One-On-One ... To Five
Five questions with Sixers guard Jrue Holiday:
Q: How do you break down the season so far?
A: Obviously we're going through a slump right now, but I think that happens to all teams. It's too early in the season to really tell what's going to happen.
Q: And your own play up to this point?
A: I think I've been all right, playing pretty well.
Q: What were your individual goals for this season?
A: One thing I'd love to be is to be an All-Star, but more so it was trying to be a leader. We had a lot of guys last year who were basically the leaders of the team. We came in and they kind of told you what to do. On the court, they ran stuff. I think now I'm kind of dictating the tempo for our team, just trying to be that floor general.
Q: You got your contract extension just before the deadline on Halloween. How much pressure does that take off you on a daily basis?
A: On a daily basis, I'm not sure, but obviously it takes off some pressure. When it comes down to it ... I don't think I felt it too much. If I play my game, I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do.
Q: And now that you're committed for the long term, how curious are you about what this team will look like with Andrew Bynum and how much are you thinking about the future and the Sixers being able to keep him?
A: More so than curious, I'm just excited. I'm excited for him to finally play, and I'd love to play with him. (But) I think the season at hand is the most important thing.
8. Chatter Box
Ben & Skin: Marc Stein
Marc Stein joins the ESPN Dallas trio of Jean-Jacques Taylor, Tim MacMahon and Landry Locker to talk about Dirk Nowitzki's impending return from knee surgery and the prospects for the Dirk/O.J. Mayo tag team on ESPN 103.3 FM.
9. Christmas Wishes
Thunder vs. Heat: What are you wishing for?
Stein: I'm wishing for what I can't have. I'm wishing this game would have been in Oklahoma City so I could have gone to it. I'm a somewhat whiny long-distance driver -- 'cause I feel like the proverbial hummingbird trapped in a sandwich bag if I don't have the license to type -- but that three-hour ride to OKC for the right to see a Finals rematch would be a skate. The Heat won it all, however, so hosting the Christmas Day rematch is their right. With my luck it'll be a Bron vs. KD throwdown for the ages.
To read the entire 5-on-5 roundtable previewing the Christmas schedule, click here.
10. Film Session
Marc Stein joins host Henry Abbott for their weekly TrueHoop TV visit to look ahead to the five-game slate that awaits on Christmas Day.