Updated: December 27, 2009, 2:36 AM ET
Harry How/NBAE via Getty ImagesPau Gasol, who missed the season's first 11 games, can point to team success during his L.A. tenure.

1. Handing Out The First Trimester Awards

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

The opening third of the NBA season really did go that fast.

Every team but San Antonio resumed life after Christmas having played at least 27 games.

So it's time, as always, for ESPN.com's annual First Trimester Report to take stock of what we've seen so far through the prism of the league's major award categories.

Gasol
Gasol
West MVP of the First Trimester
Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers)
This is the best (and sleekest) Carmelo Anthony we've ever seen in Denver. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki has never started a season with more conviction. And Phoenix's Steve Nash, at 35, looks a lot like two-time MVP Steve Nash, which has emphatically hushed the skeptics who said for years that he needed Mike D'Antoni's system to even be considered in this category.

There's also a chap in Los Angeles named Kobe Bryant who is generally regarded as the most feared player in the world, even when he's shooting 28 percent from 3-point range and averaging almost as many turnovers per game (3.1) as assists (4.4).

Any of those four franchise players would be a worthy selection for Best in the West … except that the season's first third truly belongs to a lanky Spaniard who actually missed the Lakers' first 11 games.

L.A.'s muted start without Gasol and its 15-2 record since Gasol returned from a hamstring injury have been handy reminders that it was Pau's arrival in February 2008 that triggered the Lakers' return to glory and reconfigured the league's landscape. He's simply the perfect complement to Kobe -- thoroughly content to be a No. 2 but sufficiently long, mobile and skilled to supply down-low commodities that Kobe can't -- and seems to be getting better with age like Nowitzki and Nash. One example: Gasol is suddenly averaging 12.2 rebounds per game after eight seasons during which he never topped 9.8 boards.

We know Pau has no shot at ever contending for the actual MVP trophy. We also know that he was as punchless as any Laker in the Christmas Day debacle against the Cavs. But the clincher for this Trimester shout-out was the three-year, $57 million contract extension that the Lakers gave Gasol earlier in the week. The Lakers' thinking behind that expensive commitment was clear: No way Kobe can resist signing an extension now that Pau has been locked up for the long term.

Howard
Howard
East MVP of the First Trimester
Dwight Howard (Orlando)
It's way simpler over here.

We say so even when Toronto's Chris Bosh has edged closer to Dwyane Wade's zip code in Miami with the gaudiest numbers of his career. We say so even as we pause to at least acknowledge Boston's supremely efficient Paul Pierce or Atlanta's perpetually underrated Joe Johnson.

In the East? It's either Cleveland's LeBron James or Howard at the one-third marker.

And we're going with Dwight, at this stage, despite LeBron's trademark statistical supremacy as well as the monster load he has to carry to keep Cleveland up there with the rest of the title contenders, knowing James will undoubtedly be one of the two or three leading MVP contenders at season's end.

You can also bank on plenty of renewed discussion down the road about the holes in Howard's offensive game or the frailties exposed by the Magic's desultory performance against the Celtics on Christmas. This, though, is an opportunity -- with the Cavs not really clicking until this week and LeBron not playing the same breakthrough D we saw last season -- to highlight the stability provided by the game's best big man. Howard has held his team together through plenty of early upheaval and with so many new guys moving into the Magic Kingdom.

Orlando's season began with Rashard Lewis' 10-game suspension and more recently featured the loss through injury of spiritual leader Jameer Nelson. Those are undeniable setbacks even with the depth Howard's bosses have stockpiled, but Orlando has remained a top-five force in the league in spite of the various curveballs, transitions and tension. That's thanks largely to Howard and how much easier he makes the game at both ends for others, even though he's averaging 3.4 shots less per game than last season amid all the change.

Westphal
Westphal
Coach of the First Trimester
Paul Westphal (Sacramento)
I know you don't want to hear my annual speech about how tough it is to keep our list of coaching contenders tight. So we managed to narrow things down more than usual.

Our list of contenders this time comes exclusively from the Western Conference. Atlanta's Mike Woodson and Milwaukee's Scott Skiles did get some consideration, but the proliferation of surprise teams out West -- Phoenix, Houston, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Sacramento -- made it easy to focus on the coaches involved with those teams.

Alvin Gentry's role in the resurrection of the Suns and especially Rick Adelman's ability to keep winning in Houston with Aaron Brooks and Trevor Ariza as his stars and Chuck Hayes as his center are particularly worthy of COFT status. The Blazers' Nate McMillan got a late look, too, after we saw him on crutches this week, dealing with his own ruptured Achilles on top of the loss of both Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla … and still keeping Portland in the mix for a top-four slot in the conference standings.

None of the above, though, can top Westphal's story so far. He hadn't been a head coach in the NBA since early in the 2000-01 season. He wasn't supposed to win 20 games with the Kings' kids, even before he lost Kevin Martin to a wrist injury five games in. Westy's back-in-the-day critics would say he was too lax with veterans, but he's been inspirational with a young group willing to listen and learn, somehow convincing these kids to believe that they're supposed to be flirting with .500 ball.

They're not.

Evans
Evans

Rookie of the First Trimester
Tyreke Evans (Sacramento Kings)
Lots of us were ready to skip the next two trimesters and hand the Rookie of the Year trophy right to Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings after his 55-point eruption against Golden State in his seventh game as a pro. Surely you haven't forgotten that not even Wilt Chamberlain uncorked a 50-point game that fast.

But an icy December for Jennings (only two 20-point games and 36.4 percent shooting) and his Bucks (3-8) has enabled Evans -- with his self-described build of "a fullback" and a thoroughly unexpected cocktail of productivity, consistency and maturity at a mere 20 -- to muscle into the ROY lead.

Jennings has more regularly supplied the spectacular, but the little lefty is going to need every bit of his quickness to keep up with Evans' strength and steadiness. Forced to be the Kings' go-to guy with Martin sidelined  with a thoroughly unrefined jumper Sacramento's coaches are trying to fix on the fly -- Evans is amazingly on course to become just the fourth rookie in league history to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists ... joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Although he had no shot to be our favorite Sacramento rook with the relentless Omri Casspi around, Evans was an easy choice with the Kings needing just five more wins to exceed last season's total of 18. Our fondness for southpaws and absolute giddiness about Casspi's start -- dare we say he's the third-best rookie in the league so far -- can't change the obvious.

Landry
Landry
Sixth Man of the First Trimester
Carl Landry (Houston)
This isn't a sympathy vote just because I had an up-close seat last week when Landry lost five teeth in an unfortunate under-the-basket collision with Nowitzki in Dallas. Landry is the choice largely because he sports an NBA-best average of 6.8 points per game in fourth quarters … after showing up for the season with a career average of 8.8 points.

Landry also leads the league in 20-point games off the bench with 13 … and needed every one of them to beat out Atlanta's Jamal Crawford for the Trimester nod among sixth men. Still waiting for his first taste of the playoffs in his 10th season, Crawford has backed up his longstanding claim that he was merely a victim of circumstance stuck on bad teams by emerging as the second-leading scorer for the fast-rising Hawks. Six times already, Crawford has scored at least 25 points off the bench.

Don't be surprised, furthermore, if this race quietly turns out to be as good as any other on the board.

Denver's J.R. Smith just outdueled Crawford with 41 points on Wednesday night -- making him the first player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77 to ring up at least three 40-point games as a reserve -- and isn't far behind Landry with an average of 6.4 points in fourth quarters.

New York's Al Harrington has nine 20-point games as a sub for a Knicks team that is starting to approach decency, posting a passable record of 7-4 in December.

And we're bound to hear a lot more from the four vets who are supposed to be the leading contenders and haven't quite joined the race yet: San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, Phoenix's Leandro Barbosa, Lamar Odom of the Lakers and and reigning Sixth Man Award winner Jason Terry of the Mavs.

Artest
Artest
Defensive Player of the First Trimester
Ron Artest (Los Angeles Lakers)
The Lakers cruised into their Christmas Day showdown with the Cavs -- as if they didn't have enough going for them -- as the league's top-ranked team in defensive efficiency.

One spot higher than the Celtics, who have reunited the interior ferocity of emotional compass Kevin Garnett with the nightly perimeter havoc caused by Rajon Rondo.

Six spots ahead of the Dwight Howard-anchored Magic, too.

Artest shouldn't get all the credit, of course, but he deserves to be singled out as the catalyst given how neatly he's fit in with the Lakers so far amid countless suggestions that he would hurt the defending champions as much as he helps them.

Although the list of defenders who merit a Trimester mention is as long as we can remember -- Houston's Shane Battier, Oklahoma City's Thabo Sefolosha, Denver's Chris Andersen and Atlanta's Josh Smith are all on it -- Artest has generally accepted his secondary role in L.A.'s offense while providing a physicality on D that the champs didn't have before … until the toughness mysteriously disappeared in the Cleveland game.

Assuming that the Lakers' Christmas performance was a one-game blip, their rivals in the West that were hoping for an Artest-inspired implosion will be praying for it even harder now.

Smith
Smith
Most Improved Player of the First Trimester
Josh Smith (Atlanta Hawks)
Marc Gasol in Memphis, Joakim Noah in Chicago and Chris Kaman of the Clippers.

Kendrick Perkins in Boston, Gerald Wallace in Charlotte and either Brooks or Landry in Houston.

All of the above have announced themselves as MIP candidates … along with the guy in Atlanta who would get our vote if ballots were due today even though his minutes and scoring numbers are actually down from last season.

Reason being: Smith is playing smarter and more efficiently than ever before at the offensive end, which meshes nicely with his return to prominence defensively. The 24-year-old completely cut 3-pointers out of his game, ranks No. 2 in the league in shot-blocking behind Orlando's Howard and has combined with Joe Johnson and Crawford's arrival to trigger Atlanta's bid to expand the East's elite from three teams to four.

Smith just strikes you as more mature, which is just another word for improvement. Right?

Dimes past: Dec. 4-5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10-11 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18-19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23

2. Western Conference


This probably won't crack the top-10 list of memories that haunt the minds of Sonics fans at night when they're longing for the team that traded Seattle for Oklahoma City starting with the 2008-09 season and keeps building so nicely around Kevin Durant.

But I've been waiting for a reason to revisit the tale of Peter Fehse.

The Sonics took Fehse with the 48th overall pick in the 2002 draft -- with no first-round picks that year and seven spots ahead of San Antonio's selection of Luis Scola at No. 55 -- largely because he was a blond 7-footer from Germany with (you guessed it) a perimeter game.

Fehse, though, did not come close to becoming the next Dirk Nowitzki or even a poor man's Detlef Schrempf.He's endured an injury-plagued career and was essentially forgotten on these shores until earlier this week, when the Thunder sent Fehse's draft rights to Utah as part of a trade that netted the soon-to-expire contract of the retiring Matt Harpring and rookie point guard Eric Maynor.

The Jazz, making this trade purely for payroll-slashing reasons, wanted Fehse because (A) Oklahoma City had to give them something to complete the deal and (B) they know Fehse will never play in the NBA and thus won't ever cost them a cent.

How do we know Fehse, 26, has no NBA future? He's never logged even one national-team minute alongside Nowitzki … in a country that doesn't exactly have the depth to turn away NBA-caliber talent.

The Sonics, at the time, said they learned of Fehse from Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who was coaching Benetton Treviso in those days and wanted to bring Fehse to Italy. D'Antoni, though, was hired by the Suns about a week before the Sonics made the pick.


Some numbers of note in the West this week:

6: Golden State's Monta Ellis has played all 48 minutes six times this season. The last player with more complete games: Cleveland's LeBron James with 10 in 2004-05.

20: Twenty of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball had fewer than six complete games from their starting staffs last season.

1: Dallas and Phoenix both held Shaquille O'Neal to one basket in a back-to-back set last Sunday and Monday. In 1,138 previous regular-season games, Shaq finished with fewer than two field goals only seven times.

1: Zach Randolph is the first player in Grizzlies history to post back-to-back games with at least 30 points and 15 boards. He's also the first player in the whole league to do so since Orlando's Dwight Howard in December 2007.


This weekend's reading material to catch you up on three newsy topics out West:

• An update on the Mavericks' protest of a Dec. 18 overtime loss to Houston can be found here.

• The specifics on Pau Gasol's contract extension with the Lakers can be found here.

• More on Utah's willingness to part with Maynor less than halfway through his rookie season can be found here.

3. One-on-One … To Five

Roy
Roy

Five questions with Blazers guard Brandon Roy:

Q: Is this the season from hell?

A: It's tough, man. These are bittersweet wins because now we're two centers down for the rest of the season. It's frustrating [to lose Joel Przybilla to a season-ending knee injury after Greg Oden's season-ending knee injury].

I've played basketball for a long time and I've never been part of such a season where everybody is so excited about it … we get Andre Miller, Greg's healthy, great offseason and then it all goes, bam, down.

So my thing, as the leader of this team, is to just try to stay positive and just keep trying to let guys know there's an opportunity for guys to step up and make a name for themselves. It's a chance for me to try to lead.

It's unbelievable, though. It's unbelievable. I don't know how you spin a positive out of it. When Joe went down, I was like, "I don't believe this." We were just looking at each other [on the court] like, "Can you believe this?"

Q: I'm guessing I don't need to brush you up on the history of this franchise. And I know there's really no such thing as a curse …

A: I don't believe in curses and those things. I think this is just a little bit of adversity. I'm hoping at the end of my career I can look back and say that was a small portion [of it]. That's just the mentality you've got to have. You've got to have that or we might as well stop playing and say we're cursed.

Q: On top of all the injuries, there's been a lot of trade speculation surrounding Andre and this team. Do you think that has affected you guys, too?

A: I really don't think it has. I don't know about Dre, but we haven't talked about it at all [as a team]. … I think he's here, he's going to be here and right now we need him. I don't think we're going to do any trades, but that's not my side of the job.

Q: If you guys don't make a move, can you survive [in the West] with the bigs you have?

A: I don't know. It's hard to say. I don't know what moves they can make. It's one thing to [get by at center] for the next 10 games but we've got to hold it down for the next 50. But with [so many] guys out, I don't even know if there's moves available.

Q: In general would you say that the mood of the team is pretty good considering everything that's happened?

A: It is pretty good, because even with the injuries we haven't gone on a really bad losing streak or gotten blown out. We've been pretty competitive. We're still playing well and I think that's key. If you keep playing well and keep guys motivated, then guys don't get down on themselves.

It's scary in a way because guys are looking around like, "Who's next?" It's unfortunate, but, again, I'm just taking it as an opportunity where I'm just going to keep trying to show up, keep trying to lead and keep this team at a high level where people look back and say, "That wasn't that bad of a year for us."

4. Weekend Update

nba

A mere seven days into the season, at a time when defenses have historically been way ahead of offenses, leaguewide scoring was up significantly compared to last season, suggesting that some really big numbers might be forthcoming once offenses really found some rhythm.

But that's not how it's working out.

Scoring and shooting are historically at their lowest in the first month of the NBA season and then steadily climb, but teams have not been able to maintain their hot early pace from November. The leaguewide scoring average was only one point more per game than last season's leaguewide norm entering Friday's five-game Christmas menu.

Shooting of all kinds, furthermore, is actually either flat or down from last season despite the abnormally scorching start covered here (along with the new rims quietly ushered in by the league this season) by your Weekend Dime correspondent … and here by Professor Hollinger … and covered here by Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus.

This is the data breakdown of the first two months of this season compared to the first two months of last season:

GAMES PLAYED LEAGUEWIDE
2009: 423
2008: 420

LEAGUEWIDE PPG AVERAGE
2009: 99.6
2008: 98.6

LEAGUEWIDE SHOOTING PCT.
2009: .457
2008: .453

LEAGUEWIDE 3-PT PCT.
2009: .348
2008: .358

LEAGUEWIDE FT PCT
2009: .756
2008: .768

*All totals, in both seasons, are from opening night through Dec. 24.

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