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Olajuwon gets this MVP vote

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's still months before the end of the season, when the league will hand out its annual awards. But as the NBA takes a brief break this weekend for the All-Star Game in Phoenix, here's a look at the half-season top performers:

* Most Valuable Player -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets.

Some fans may take this as Shaq-bashing, which is wrong. The Orlando Magic's Shaquille O'Neal has improved his game tremendously and leads the league in scoring (30.0), but my MVP is the guy I'd like to have take the big shot at the end of the game.

Olajuwon, last year's MVP, continues to do that -- and a lot more. He's third in the league in scoring (28.2), fourth in rebounding (11.2), second in blocks (3.5) and seventh in steals (1.9). He's still the master of the low post and is not resting on the laurels of last season's NBA title.

* Coach of the Year -- Mike Fratello, Cleveland Cavaliers.

No coach has done more with less than Fratello, who lost Brad Daugherty and Gerald Wilkins to season-ending injuries, saw Mark Price sidelined with an injury toward the midway point of the season and still has Cleveland near the top of the Central Division. The Cavaliers may prove to be a bust by the end of the season, but that doesn't take away from what Fratello accomplished the first half.

* Rookie of the Year -- Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons.

The voting probably will be a lot closer at the end of the season, with Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard, Milwaukee Bucks forward Glenn Robinson and Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Kidd mounting a challenge to Hill. As long as Hill stays healthy and maintains the nice-guy image that earned him a starting spot in the All-Star Game, he'll win.

* Most Improved Player -- Larry Johnson, Charlotte Hornets.

Let's just say that Johnson looked nothing like an All-Star over the summer, when, recovering from an injured back, he played like someone's Grandmama during the World Championships in Toronto. But coming back, Johnson has showed he's a better passer and perimeter shooter and was picked as an All-Star reserve.

Now, if the award were given in the traditional sense to a player making drastic statistical improvements, then give it to Cleveland forward Tyrone Hill, Philadelphia 76ers guard Dana Barros or Phoenix Suns guard Elliot Perry -- three players who are getting the opportunity to display their talents.

* Sixth Man Award -- Dan Majerle, Phoenix Suns.

While back in the starting lineup now, Majerle spent much of the first half of the season coming off the bench. He almost could share this award with teammate Danny Manning, who also came off the bench to help Phoenix share the best record in the league with Orlando.

* Worst Off-Season Acquisition -- Ron Harper, Chicago Bulls.

Why are more NBA fans becoming more familiar with Jud Buechler? Because Harper has played so poorly that Buechler, Pete Myers and Steve Kerr are used in crunch time ahead of Harper. A 19.3-point scorer coming into this season, Harper is averaging 7.6 points -- not what you expect for a five-year, $19.2 million contract.

Snubbed

So, how did some of the league's All-Star wannabes respond to getting snubbed for the free trip to Phoenix this weekend? Here are a few comments from players surprised not to be in the spotlight this weekend:

* Portland Trail Blazers forward Clifford Robinson: "Detlef [Schrempf] made it? Awww, that's how it's going."

* New Jersey Nets forward Derrick Coleman, a first-time All-Star last year: "I'm the best [power forward] of all. People in basketball know who the best players in the league are."

* Nets teammate Kenny Anderson, who like Coleman was an All-Star last year: "If you go on ability and stats, I know I should have made the team. It's the coaches' call, so what are you going to do? I'm not going to jump off a roof or anything."

Two guys who had reason to whine -- and who chose not to -- were Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson of the Mavericks. Jackson is the fourth-leading scorer in the league, and the last time the fourth-leading scorer didn't make the All-Star Game was 1986, when the Golden State Warriors' Purvis Short was left off. Mashburn is the sixth-leading scorer; the last sixth-leading scorer who didn't make it was Dale Ellis in 1988, when he was with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Around the league

Los Angeles Clippers center Eric Riley has acquired NCAA and NBA championship rings -- without playing. He got his NCAA ring at Michigan in 1989, when, as a redshirt player, he contributed only in practice. He was on the inactive roster for the Houston Rockets in the playoffs last year during their championship run. "[The rings] are nice to have," Riley said. "But now I'm in the mood to play." . . . Barros is the first Sixers All-Star since Charles Barkley in 1992, and, at 5 feet 9 1/4 (he's listed at 6 feet), just the sixth all-star under 6 feet in NBA history.

Quote of the week

Miami Heat forward John Salley, after being presented with a Pistons jersey by former teammates Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson before halftime of a recent game: "It's amazing, two guys who never passed me the ball just passed me my jersey."

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