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docpaul
03-02-2013, 03:43 PM
http://espn.go.com/nba/dailydime/_/page/weekenddime-130301-02/weekend-dime



The month of March has arrived. As has the first Friday after the NBA's annual trade deadline week.

You don't have to be a Hollinger to do the math here.

The first Friday after deadline week means it's time, as always in a lockout-free season, to trot out ESPN.com's annual Second Trimester Report.

With every team in the league having reached the 55-game range entering the weekend, let's take stock of the season so far, as the final third of it looms, through the prism of the various individual-award races.


Eastern Conference MVP of the Second Trimester
LeBron James, Miami Heat
Let's be real: It would be a waste of everyone's time to spend more than a paragraph attempting to "justify" the notion that No. 6 is all alone in this category. Especially when he's assembling the best individual season statistically since Michael Jordan in 1988-89 or 1989-90 … and after he just became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, way back in March 1983, to take more than 200 shots in a calendar month and make at least 64 percent of them. LeBron Raymone James isn't merely playing chess to everyone else's checkers; he's an "NBA Jam" joystick in a league with 400-something walking board games. So let's move on.


Western Conference MVP of the Second Trimester
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Had you asked me to surrender my actual MVP vote at the end of January, as opposed to the real-life deadline of April 18, Durant would have been the recipient.

Yes. Even over LeBron.

Then February arrived and rendered that stance horribly out of date. For all of Durant's undeniable improvement as a rebounder, defender, passer and leader, all of which has insulated OKC from slippage in the post-James Harden era, LeBron has been playing in another stratosphere since the calendar flipped … as his 72.6 true shooting percentage for the month would suggest.

That said …

Durant remains otherworldly in his own right, which certainly helps in a conference that houses most of the other names vying for the 3-through-5 slots on the official league-issued MVP ballots that will go out to voters: Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant and Harden. New York's Carmelo Anthony, whose MVP hopes have faded over the past couple of months thanks to the Knicks' 16-15 rut since their 18-5 start, is really the only other nominee you ever hear in this discussion.

Yet KD lords over all of them apart from LeBron. He's leading the league in scoring -- which will net his fourth straight scoring title if he hangs on -- while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor, 42.6 percent from 3-point range and 91 percent from the line. No scoring champ ever has qualified for the storied 50/40/90 club in the same season.

It just happens to be Durant's misfortune, in strictly MVP terms, that LeBron also happens to be shooting a career-best 56.8 percent from the field and a career-best 41.1 on 3s while surrounded by less top-shelf help than Durant has on a nightly basis. KD is clearly doing something right in terms of gap-closing, because my kids are besieging me for a fresh pair of his signature socks every time we go to the mall these days, but his insane stat line doesn't quite rise to the level of crazy-insane because of what his Miami counterpart is doing.

Fun factoid that separates the two of them from the rest of the field even further: Both LeBron and Durant are on course to go down as the first two players to average at least 25 points per game, while shooting at least 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep, since Seattle's Dale Ellis (27.5 PPG, .501, .478) in 1988-89.


Coach of the Second Trimester
Frank Vogel, Indiana

The regression from Cinderella status that we've witnessed in recent weeks by the Knicks and Bulls and Warriors has completely reshuffled a typically thick deck of COY contenders. Mike Woodson, Tom Thibodeau and Mark Jackson have all descended from front-runner territory, giving way to the game's consensus top coach … and one of the best young ones.

Gregg Popovich has to be a serious threat to win his second straight COY trophy given how San Antonio has edged out to a two-game lead over second-seeded Oklahoma City despite the fact that Tim Duncan (10 games), Manu Ginobili (13) and Kawhi Leonard (20) have all missed significant time.

At this intermediate juncture, though, I'm going with Frank Vogel heading into the stretch run, because I don't remember too many folks touting the Pacers to emerge as the consensus top threat to Miami after a 4-7 start and with Danny Granger missing the season's first 55 games.

Under Vogel, Indy has fashioned the league's No. 1 team D in terms of defensive efficiency and watched Paul George morph into an All-Star who has supplanted Granger as the new face of the franchise. Oklahoma City's Scotty Brooks also merits consideration for his role in the Thunder's post-Harden success, but Vogel has the narrow lead heading into the final turn.


Rookie of the Second Trimester
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have predictably (and some would say willingly) slipped from playoff contention, but they're pretty much guaranteed to win something at season's end. Because Lillard, even when you factor in his 41.5 percent shooting in February and defensive deficiencies we all tend to overlook, hasn't slipped at all here.

You can't slip if there's no sustained pressure coming from the chasing pack, which remains the case. New Orleans' Anthony Davis, Washington's Bradley Beal and Detroit's Andre Drummond have all flashed wow potential when healthy -- especially Beal with his prowess from behind the 3-point line since the calendar flipped to 2013 -- but we'd be fudging to suggest that Lillard is hearing any footsteps.

The same Lillard who's bidding to become only the sixth rookie to average 18 points and six assists for a full season, which would put him in an exclusive club with Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson and Steve Francis.

As stated in Trimester 1, no one could begrudge long-suffering, injury-tortured Blazermaniacs if they over-the-top-celebrate the fact that durability, heaped onto all the Year 1 production and poise coming from Lillard while operating from the toughest position in the game, clinches the actual ROY trophy for the pride of Weber State. I suppose you have to allow for the possibility that something could change during the next 20-odd games, but there has been no such evidence yet.

(And maybe I'll eventually give up and stop mentioning how the rudderless Kings drafted Thomas Robinson one spot ahead of Lillard, then shamefully traded Robinson after 51 games in a Sacramento uniform. But not yet.)




Sixth Man Award of the Second Trimester
Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
The campaign to get Golden State's team spokesman/conscience in contention for what looks like this season's deepest individual award actually has a name: Jack Of All Trades.

That's the pitch coming from the Warriors to make Jack's case in comparison to those flammable scorers who've hogged most of the sixth-man attention so far, whether that's Jamal Crawford or Kevin Martin or J.R. Smith.

And you know what? The Dubs make a strong case. Jack's combination of timely scoring and handy playmaking have established him as a serious impact player, integral to everything happening in the Bay Area except on those nights when Steph Curry turns flamethrower and decides to heave in 11 3s.

Example: Jack recently became the first NBA reserve with back-to-back games of at least 23 points and eight assists since … Clyde Drexler all the way back in 1985. Another example: Jack has five 15-and-10 games this season, more than all other NBA reserves combined.

The reality, though, is that this race can go in any number of directions now that we've moved into Trimester 3. Crawford (captain of a ridiculously deep bench in Clipperland alongside the underappreciated Matt Barnes) and Martin (still fitting in seamlessly on offense and coping far better defensively than he'll ever get credit for) are still right there playing significant roles for powerhouse teams. Sixth Man Extraordinaire Manu Ginobili (see Box 3) is gradually starting to look more Manu-esque as the playoffs approach. And Vince Carter has been strangely ignored despite consistently looking like the best Maverick not named Dirk Nowitzki or Shawn Marion for a team still clinging to playoff life. (Also gotta mention Utah's blossoming Gordon Hayward, who surely gets the least attention of all the worthy sixth men.)

What's clear is that Jack -- even if you want to tune out the campaign motto -- is a serious threat. It has been argued that the presence of Carl Landry as a studly seventh man somehow diminishes Jack's claim to the sixth man lead, but he's the one Warrior, above all, whom Coach Jack turns to when the Dubs really need someone to make a play.

(Editor's note: "Jack" really was and is Mark Jackson's go-to nickname. Not Jax. Not M-Jax. It's been Jack for years, which might even help explain why the blossoming second-year coach and the 29-year-old point guard have been so good together.)


Defensive Player of the Second Trimester
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Dwight Howard used to make this one so easy. He was a near-automatic DPOY choice, year after year, which probably explains why you're tempted to vote for about 20 different guys now that this race is so up for grabs.

San Antonio's Tim Duncan. Memphis' Marc Gasol. Atlanta's Al Horford. Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka. Milwaukee's Larry Sanders. Indiana's Roy Hibbert or, yes, Paul George. The Clippers' Chris Paul … as well as that sturdy, linebacker-ish fellow named James in Miami. Give me the time and space and I can submit a passionate, well-reasoned argument to convince you that any one of those gents has to rank as the best defender we've seen so far this season.

The problem?

I can't talk myself out of Chicago's Joakim Noah here.

And I did try, given that Noah was my First Trimester selection and because we've been known on occasion at Trimester Central to try to spread some of this (mythical) hardware around before the real-deal ballots have to be turned back into the league office.

The issue is that I simply can't come up with an anchor from one of the league's top-10 defensive clubs who has to do more on a nightly basis than Noah, especially with Chicago letting defensive specialist Omer Asik walk and still waiting for Derrick Rose's return. For all the justified talk about Thibodeau's unrelenting emphasis on D and the success of his well-worn schemes, Noah is the point man who makes it all work, involved in virtually every possession with his ability to make his presence felt on the perimeter as a helper harassing smaller guys and, of course, with those speedy recoveries to the rim to relentlessly rebound and challenge shots.

Complicating matters further is the fact that so many of the top defensive teams have top defenders inside and outside. Gasol is flanked by Tony Allen and the oft-overlooked Mike Conley. Horford has Josh Smith at his side, Ibaka partners with Thabo Sefolosha (and now Ronnie Brewer) … while Hibbert and George have formed quite the stifling tag team.

In other words? Check back in about seven weeks, because we're going to need that much extra time to truly sort this one out.

(For the record: Noah's selection, for those of you wondering, was indeed made and submitted to ESPN.com's team of NBA editors before he decided to rumble for 23 points, 21 boards and ELEVEN blocks Thursday night against Philly.)


Most Improved Player of the Second Trimester
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
You know me. Normally this is where you'd read a lecture about how George, as a former lottery pick selected 10th overall in 2010, was drafted too high to get front-of-the-line MIP consideration from me, because lottery picks -- as we always say -- are supposed to keep developing until they are fully fledged franchise cornerstones.

But George is a different case. The season started inauspiciously for the Danny Granger-less Pacers, only for George to gradually assert himself as a two-way impact player so noticeable on both ends that (A) he got selected by East coaches to go the All-Star Game and (B) Granger is now widely regarded as a near-certain candidate to be traded in the offseason to accommodate George's growing stature in Indy.

That's improvement.

Now I can't deny that, at season's end, I'm apt to revert to form and cast my MIP vote for more of a we-never-saw-it-coming type. Someone like Portland's J.J. Hickson, New Orleans' Greivis Vasquez, Orlando's Nikola Vucevic or Milwaukee's Sanders.

Or it might well be Philly's Jrue Holiday, who was taken 17th overall in 2009 -- as the fifth point guard in the draft after Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Steph Curry and Brandon Jennings -- and made himself an All-Star alongside George after actually taking a step back last season. (OKC's Serge Ibaka, inching closer to All-Star status thanks to the offensive refinements he has made to complement his superlative D, is another quality option.)

Two trimesters in, though, it's George. With a lot of mulling until next time.