MVP debate centers on Olajuwon, Robinson


Hakeem Olajuwon. David Robinson.

Ask 100 people their choice for the NBA's Most Valuable Player this season, and you'll probably get nearly a 50-50 split.

The only certainty here is that a player from Texas will become the first center to win MVP honors since Moses Malone did it with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983.

Last year, the Phoenix Suns' Charles Barkley won the award BTC because voters were tired of seeing Michael Jordan walk away with the trophy. This season's battle could produce one of the closest races in the history of the award.

Need help deciding? Remember that the honor is based on regular-season performance. Robinson leads the league in scoring (29.4), is third in blocks (3.30), 15th in rebounding (10.5) and has the best average among centers in assists (4.8) and steals (1.78) while leading the San Antonio Spurs to the third-best record in the Western Conference.

Olajuwon is third in the league in scoring (27.3), second in blocks (3.61), sixth in rebounding (11.9) and eighth in field-goal percentage (52.8) while leading the Houston Rockets to the Midwest Division title and the second-best record in the conference.

Robinson. Olajuwon.

My mind changes almost daily, and today's sentiment is with Olajuwon. Ever since he entered the league in 1984, his numbers have been consistent (his current scoring average is a career best, and he never has averaged less than 20.6). There isn't a player in the league who works harder at his game, and, even though he has played in the NBA Finals before, you sense he's on a mission to win a title.

Decide for yourself. The two will meet in a nationally televised game tonight (8, TNT).

Other awards:

* Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls, with Lenny Wilkens of the Atlanta Hawks a close second.

With almost the same players on a team that barely made the playoffs last year, the Hawks will finish the season with the most wins in franchise history.

Yet Jackson has taken a team that lost the best player in the history of the game, Jordan, and has them within four games of their win total last year.

* Rookie of the Year: Chris Webber, Golden State Warriors.

Anfernee Hardaway of the Orlando Magic has recovered from a brief slump and is finishing up a phenomenal season. But Webber has been consistent from end to end, averaging 17.4 points (second among rookies), while shooting 55.0 percent from the field (fourth in the league) and grabbing 9.1 rebounds (19th in the league, tops among rookies).

* Defensive Player of the Year: David Robinson.

If he wins MVP, then Olajuwon gets this award.

* Most Improved Player: Don MacLean, Washington Bullets.

MacLean has shined, averaging 18.5 points (up from 6.6 last season). He's effective with his short jumper or his strong drives to the basket.

No Mourning glory

If there was a Bonehead of the Year Award, it would have to go to Charlotte Hornets center Alonzo Mourning, who was ejected for punching Bulls center Luc Longley on Friday. The punch got Mourning a one-game suspension, crucial because the Hornets are desperately chasing a playoff spot.

Mourning missed Sunday's game against New York, and was able to avoid a lot of heat when Charlotte beat the Knicks to move within 1 1/2 games of the fading Miami Heat and a chance to secure the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

If Charlotte were to win all four of its remaining games, Miami would have to win two of its last three.

Charlotte's four: two against Washington (one home, one away), at home against Detroit and on the road against Boston. All three teams are below .400.

Miami's three: home against Minnesota tonight, home against Atlanta on Thursday and at Indiana on Saturday. Two games against playoff teams, for a team that has dropped five straight and 12 of its past 15.

Asked after Sunday's loss to the New Jersey Nets whether the season was slipping away, Miami forward Grant Long told the Miami Herald: "Like sand in the hourglass go the days of our lives."

So long, Isiah

Tonight's game between the Magic and the Detroit Pistons seems meaningless: The Magic is virtually locked into the fourth playoff spot, and the Pistons (20-58) are tied for the third-worst record in the league.

But the game is significant in that it might be the final home game for team captain Isiah Thomas, 32, who will have his family present tonight.

"I'm bringing in my family, but other than that, I'm going to treat it like a regular game," Thomas said over the weekend. "I don't know what it will be like, because I've never faced anything like that. If it is over, it's been a great run."

Thomas, who helped lead the Pistons to two NBA titles (he was the NBA Finals MVP in 1990), said a decision will not be made based on not being able to compete at the NBA level.

"There is no doubt in my mind that I can still play and play well," he said.

Even if the front office is in his future, as is rumored, fans still will be able to see Thomas play this summer as a member of Dream Team II at the World Basketball Championships.

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