First Quarter Scores

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005; 4:12 PM

The first quarter of the NBA season is complete and while certain things have gone according to plan -- Detroit and San Antonio, the two participants in the NBA Finals, remain the top two teams; the Raptors, Hawks and Blazers are duking it out for the No. 1 pick in next June's draft; Allen Iverson is still scoring buckets by the boatload and Pat Riley has replaced Stan Van Gundy as coach of the Miami Heat (What? No matter how it was explained, who didn't see this coming?) -- there have been a few alterations to the script.

Arguably, the best two-way player in the NBA is on the trading block a little more than a year after he wreaked havoc on Detroit Pistons fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Ron Artest has managed to stay clear of roughing up fans in the stands, so he has decided to sabotage the Indiana Pacers in another way. He has asked to be traded, then asked for forgiveness and asked for reconciliation. Speculation abounds about where Artest could end up, but the Pacers have made it obvious that they no longer want him around.

The Clippers were the best team in Los Angeles last season, but not many could've foreseen that they'd have the third-best record in Western Conference at this point -- and that they'd rob most of the spotlight from the city's glamour team, the Lakers.

Okay, Van Gundy was not expected to step down because of family reasons 21 games into the season -- especially with Shaquille O'Neal back in the lineup after missing 18 games with an ankle injury. Van Gundy probably didn't suspect that he'd be roasting chestnuts on an open fire while the Heat battled the Lakers on Christmas Day -- but there had been speculation that if the Heat wasn't up to par by then, he wouldn't last much longer. Riley is back in the saddle, and that's good for the NBA. The game's been missing the slicked back hair and the Armani suits.

The New Orleans Hornets won 18 games in all of last season but they already have 11 wins, including victories against the Spurs, Suns and Clippers. Just about everyone's pick to win the Northwest Division, the Denver Nuggets are sputtering along after already enduring not one, but two suspensions to Coach George Karl, a trade demand from Voshon Lenard, a season-ending knee injury to Nene, and a series of other ailments to Kenyon Martin, Earl Boykins and Marcus Camby.

And, were the Knicks supposed to 6-17 in their first season under Larry Brown? A whole lot can change between now and the end of the regular season -- remember, the Bulls started the season 4-15 last year before rallying to finish fourth in the East and the Orlando Magic started 13-6 before the bottom fell out -- but let's take a look at the best and the worst to this point.

MVP of the Quarter

Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons

The problem with discussing MVP so early in the season is that people begin pushing one candidate and momentum begins to build before anyone else has a chance to enter the debate. It happened last season with Steve Nash, who was practically handed the award in December. This year's trendy pick has been Elton Brand of the upstart Clippers. Indeed, the Clippers have been the feel-good story of the season, but why not recognize the best player on the best team in the league?

Nobody seems to be seriously paying attention to what's happening in Detroit, where Chauncey Billups is playing the best basketball of his career and the Pistons have been the best team in the league to this point. The Pistons' starting five is considered the best of any in the league and they can be led in scoring on any given night by Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace or Tayshaun Prince. But where would they be without Billups, who is averaging career highs in points (19.0), assists (8.8) and free throw percentage (92.9 percent) in his ninth season? Billups, 29, is spreading the wealth, inspiring victories in clutch situations (it doesn't get much bigger than his game-winner with 0.3 seconds left in Memphis on Monday) and directing the most efficient machine in the league (much like Nash did last season, when he proved that you don't need to average 20 points to win the MVP award).

While Billups has yet to make an all-star team -- which should be a lock this season -- he has already been MVP of the NBA Finals and could've won it twice had the Pistons beaten the Spurs last season. Billups has been the difference-maker in helping the Pistons adjust to new coach Flip Saunders' system this season. Saunders once coached Billups in Minnesota and is helping Billups take his game to a level that even Larry Brown couldn't. "I'm playing the best I've ever played right now," Billups told the Detroit Free Press this week. "I have that freedom now to run the show, and I know the offense inside and out. I know where people are going to be at, and I know my teammates -- all of them."

Rookie of the Quarter

Chris Paul, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets

The Hornets are 11-13 this season after starting last season 2-29 (they didn't reach their 11th win until Feb. 14 against Washington last season). The Hornets were displaced from their home by Hurricane Katrina but rookie Chris Paul has moved them from the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Despite playing the most demanding position in the league, Paul leads all rookies in scoring (16.7 points), assists (7.1) and steals (2.3). He had his best week as a pro last week, as he averaged 18.5 points, 7.8 assists and 3.25 steals and led the Hornets to victories over Phoenix, the Clippers and San Antonio. He came just one assist shy of his first career triple-double -- and committed just one turnover -- during the Hornets' surprising victory over the defending champion Spurs. His best assists, however, was purchasing 50 bicycles for chidren living in Oklahoma City who were forced to flee New Orleans following the hurricane.

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