The envelopes, please!
This season, the races for the most prestigious awards have been more competitive than usual, particularly for Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year.
Team publicists have been filling mailboxes with documentation, hats and T-shirts in support of their favorite sons.
Showing no malice against the team whose promotional T-shirt failed to survive the wash, here are our personal selections:
* Most Valuable Player: Say MVP and you trigger the endless debate as to whether this means the best player or the one indispensable to his team's success.
If you favor the original premise, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan would win every year, since he consistently leads the league in scoring and has earned a spot on the all-defensive team the past three years.
It could also be argued that the Bulls would be a mediocre team without Jordan's unique ability to control a game in crunch time. But the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks would likely be less than average without the dominating inside presences of Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, respectively.
Houston (54-25 after beating Phoenix last night), surprise leader in the Midwest Division, has shown the most marked improvement of playoff teams, already having won 11 more games than last season. And Olajuwon, apparently over all his contract squabbles, has sparked the Rockets' offense and defense.
Ewing has been almost as effective for New York, but the Knicks' offense is built around his low-post game, and Olajuwon has registered twice as many assists. So our MVP ballot reads: 1, Olajuwon; 2, Barkley; 3, Ewing.
L * Coach of the Year: Choosing the top coach is even tougher.
The Suns' Paul Westphal already has set a record for victories by a rookie coach. And the Knicks' Pat Riley has proved he can win as many games with intimidating defense as he did in Los Angeles with the Lakers' "Showtime" offense.
Westphal may boast the most talent, and Riley had to get acquainted with seven new players, including starters Charles Smith and Doc Rivers.
But we're just tossing out false leads. Our coaching search centers on Texas, with Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich and the San Antonio Spurs' John Lucas, and out west with the Seattle SuperSonics' fiery George Karl.
Tomjanovich has transformed a team of chronic underachievers into a division champion. Lucas had the difficulty of not having the Spurs in training camp, inheriting the job from Jerry &r; Tarkanian.
Lucas' rapport with his players and democratic approach to bench coaching, plus his own troubled past, brought him inordinate media attention as the Spurs reacted favorably to his unorthodox approach. But Lucas always can call on David Robinson in an emergency, just as Tomjanovich has Olajuwon.
Karl boasts no such trump card in Seattle, although gifted power forward Shawn Kemp is fast approaching such lofty status.
So our coaching vote reads: 1, Karl; 2, Tomjanovich; 3, Lucas.
O'Neal, who ranks among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, is clearly the reason the Orlando Magic went from last place to playoff contender. But his statistics are only modestly better than those of Charlotte Hornets strongman Alonzo Mourning, whose aggressive attitude drew praise even from Barkley.
O'Neal is the focal point of the Magic offense, whereas Mourning is only one of the Hornets' many scoring options. It's strictly a two-man race, with O'Neal winning by a nose -- or 3 inches, to be exact.
* Miscellaneous of the Year: The Portland Trail Blazers' multi-talented Cliff Robinson should waltz away with the Sixth-Man Award now that two-time winner Detlef Schrempf is starting for the Indiana Pacers.
And Robinson, who has become the Blazers' personal MVP, also deserves serious consideration for Most Improved Player honors.
Executive of the Year honors go to the Suns' Jerry Colangelo for pulling off the Barkley trade, risking breaking up a winning combination for a hard-to-handle superstar. New York's Dave Checketts also deserves praise for adding depth to the Knicks while sacrificing little talent.
Is Pistons captain Isiah Thomas more interested in qualifying for the playoffs or the draft lottery?
The point guard was ejected twice last week when his team desperately needed his services. The Pistons survived against the Washington Bullets, but lost to the Knicks on Saturday when Thomas was tossed in the third quarter for kicking Doc Rivers.
Former Indiana forward Chuck Person criticized the Pacers for giving center Rik Smits a six-year contract extension worth $17.3 million.
"He's 7-4, and should control the paint, but he can't do anything but score," Person said of Smits.
And how has the outspoken Person helped improve the Minnesota Timberwolves? The Wolves own the league's second-worst record (18-60) and have won only three more games than last season.