Chauncey, Dirk are league's leading men so far
Christmas has passed, Hanukkah is half over and New Year's Day is mere days away.
By now, surely you know what else the calendar calls for, amid all of the holiday revelry.
That's right. It's time to take stock of the NBA season and its top performers with the Trimester Report, given that every team in the league has played one-third of the regular season (25 to 29 games).
It'll probably be harder for Billups to win the league's MVP trophy than it was to win the NBA Finals MVP.
Someone from the winning team is guaranteed to win that trophy, even when it's a champ fueled by the collective effectiveness of its five starters as opposed to the dominance of two or three stars. In the regular season, fair or not, even the most productive player from the team with the best record is bound to miss with some voters, especially when that team is known for winning as an ensemble.
Billups shouldn't be disappointed, though. He's finally getting the recognition that has been long overdue and playing such a well-rounded game that he'll surely crack the top five in MVP balloting if this keeps up. To go along with the usual handful of big shots he's known for draining, Billups is also running his team better than ever: He is No. 3 in the league in assists per game at a career-best 8.6, and No. 1 in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.67-to-1.
Folks forget that the Pistons' original interest in Billups was spawned by the playoff punishment he inflicted on Dallas for Minnesota in 2002 ... under a coach named Flip Saunders. The reunion with Saunders' free-flowing system, on top of the maturity he gained from Larry Brown's constant nudging, has taken Billups to a new level.
Only one team out there has managed to prevent Detroit and San Antonio from creating major separation from The Other 28. Dallas is stubbornly (and unexpectedly) trying to stay in the same sentence with those NBA Finals rivals, and Nowitzki's efficiency is the catalyst, powering the Mavericks to rousing home wins over both teams and several more impressive performances in the face of a steady injury stream.
Stop Nowitzki and you have a good chance of beating Dallas. Yet it rarely happens, even though the Mavs still don't know night to night who will emerge as their second scoring option to take some defensive focus off the German. (To wit: Dallas is 20-2 when Nowitzki scores at least 20 points, and 11-0 when he scores 30-plus, compared to 1-5 when he's held below 20.)
Nowitzki has more competition here than Billups, with Tony Parker topping even Tim Duncan for first-trimester consistency in San Antonio, Kobe Bryant keeping a thin Lakers team over .500 and reigning MVP Steve Nash leading Phoenix to the top of the Pacific Division despite the absence of Amare Stoudemire and a variety of other Suns injuries.
But you know by now that we look to the teams with the most success for our MVP candidates -- even at the trimesters -- and you have to be wowed by the Mavericks' start. That gives Nowitzki a slight edge on this deep field entering Trimester 2.
As always, I find this one to be the most crowded category. In search of the top coach one-third of the way into the new season, you can make an eloquent case for Dallas' Avery Johnson, either of L.A.'s coaches -- Mike Dunleavy of the Clippers and the Lakers' Phil Jackson -- and the reigning COY (Phoenix's creative and vastly underrated Mike D'Antoni).
Saunders, though, doesn't really need the eloquent case. Given that the Pistons were supposed to miss Brown badly, or at least sputter at the start getting used to the new guy, Saunders manages to stand out for his role in Detroit's starting 22-3 -- matching the second-best record in league history after 25 games.
For all the talk about how this team polices itself, Saunders has already pepped up Detroit's dormant offense without hurting its famed D. At the trimester pole, what else is there?
My reflex (biased) answer is Indiana's Sarunas Jasikevicius, who will remain my favorite rookie, no matter what happens for the rest of the season.
But let's be real. Paul was billed as the most NBA-ready rookie in the 2005 draft class and, on cue, has instantly made the Hornets more respectable than anyone imagined after last season's 2-29 start and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina leading into the season.
How much must it hurt for the Atlanta Hawks' (dozens of) fans to not only know that they could have drafted Paul ... but also that Paul wanted to be a Hawk before the grateful Hornets nabbed him at No. 4? How many rookies ever dream of Philips Arena? Ouch.
Michael Redd has been brilliant since signing a max deal in Milwaukee, and the Bucks have likewise been fortified by the return of backcourt spark T.J. Ford and the frontcourt depth provided by newcomers Jamaal Magloire, Bobby Simmons and Andrew Bogut.
Just don't forget Williams, who has emerged as a textbook game-changer off the Bucks' bench. Williams has won two games with buzzer-beaters already to move to the top of a sixth-man list that generally takes a clearer shape as the season gets deeper.
Other candidates to monitor as we progress include Golden State's Derek Fisher, Denver's Earl Boykins, Dallas' Devin Harris, Phoenix's Eddie House, New Orleans' Speedy Claxton, Cleveland's Donyell Marshall and, of course, Chicago incumbent Ben Gordon.
You know I'm struggling to resist the Spurs' Bruce Bowen here. It's equally tough to snub Miami's Alonzo Mourning, given Zo's dramatic reemergence as a shot-blocking demon just two years since undergoing a kidney transplant.
Yet you simply can't pass on Camby and the Fountain of Youth season he's assembling at 31, after nine seasons of work that never rose above solid. Only another long-term injury can sour Camby's unforeseen jump to averages of 16.3 points, 12.9 boards and 3.12 blocks; let's hope this week's trip to a hand specialist won't uncover such a setback.
I hate to be the guy who's always reminding folks that this award no longer exists, but I feel obliged to start this section with the same sentence every year because it's so quickly forgotten that the NBA dropped its comeback award in 1985-86 in favor of a Most Improved Player award. (The leader there, incidentally, is likely Camby.)
Yet I also feel obliged to resurrect this award in my trimester report cards because MIP voters are specifically instructed at the top of the league's official ballot not to vote for comeback candidates, which makes it harder to recognize resurrections like Ford's and Zo's. Sadly for Mourning, he barely loses out here as well, because Ford's comeback from a career-threatening spine ordeal might be even more impressive than Camby's late blooming.
Bucks coach Terry Stotts said so with zero hesitation in the exhibition season: "You'd never know T.J. was hurt." He obviously wasn't exaggerating, given how Ford has been zipping in and around the paint with no fear.
We leave the All-Star ballots for the fans in real life, but this is how we'd vote today if we did punch a ballot -- adhering to the positions in which players are listed on the actual ballot.
F: Dirk Nowitzki
F: Tim Duncan
C: Marcus Camby
G: Steve Nash
G: Kobe Bryant
F: LeBron James
F: Jermaine O'Neal
C: Ben Wallace
G: Chauncey Billups
G: Allen Iverson
We repeat: All selections are based on where players are listed on the official ballots.
That's why, needing a center in the East until Shaquille O'Neal plays at least half of Miami's games, we can't put Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal and create a starting spot at forward for Boston's Paul Pierce (or maybe even Orlando's Dwight Howard). The Pacers' O'Neal has indeed played mostly center in the first trimester, but he's listed on the ballot as a forward.
Another close call: Duncan (playing through plantar fasciitis) over the Clippers' Elton Brand at West forward.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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