O'Neal and Hill get the jump, but Robinson, Kidd grab the votes


Here it is, less than a week left in the regular season. And here I am with a stack of ballots for postseason awards, not knowing whom to vote for.

There are difficult decisions in every major category: Is it David Robinson or Shaquille O'Neal for Most Valuable Player? Did Jason Kidd's late surge during his team's run for the playoffs give him Rookie of the Year, or was Grant Hill's early-season popularity too much to overcome?

My choices have been changing daily, and chances are that I won't complete my ballots until the deadline Friday. But, as of today, here are my choices.

* Most Valuable Player: David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs.

Had you asked me a month ago, when the Orlando Magic was dominating the league, I would have said O'Neal. But, since then, Robinson has helped the Spurs to the best record in the NBA, at one stretch winning 15 straight games -- without Dennis Rodman.

Robinson, last year's scoring champion, ranks second at 27.8 points (O'Neal is first, averaging 29.6 points going into last night's game against Washington). He's fifth in the league in rebounding (10.9) and fourth in blocks (3.31).

Also, he's versatile in his offensive game, with the ability to post up or set up on the outside, where he hits his jumper or is able to take defenders off the dribble.

In addition to leading the league in scoring, O'Neal was second in field-goal percentage (58.3), third in rebounding (11.4) and sixth in blocks (2.42). But free-throw shooting (53.7 percent) has been a major flaw, to a point where the Magic isn't even looking at O'Neal in the offense at the end of close games because of his ineffectiveness from the line.

The final tally will be close, with Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone probably finishing third. With Hakeem Olajuwon winning last year, it will mark the first time since Moses Malone won the award in 1982 and 1983 that centers have won in back-to-back years.

* Rookie of the Year: Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks.

No, Kidd can't shoot but he sure did look impressive when he hit eight three-pointers, scored 38 points and posted his third triple-double in seven days during a thrilling win over the Houston Rockets last week.

Sure, it's hard to give the award to someone shooting less than 40 percent. But when Kidd was knocked for not putting the ball in the basket, he showed he could be a scorer after Jim Jackson was injured. And the things he does don't necessarily show up statistically, although he is ninth in the league in assists (7.7) and seventh in steals (1.95).

Grant Hill is the most well-rounded player among a talented class of rookies (including Milwaukee's Glenn Robinson, Washington's Juwan Howard and Sacramento's Brian Grant), but has yet to develop the ability to take over games the way Kidd did as his team made a run at Sacramento and Denver for the last playoff spot in the West.

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

Del Harris did a fine job with the Los Angeles Lakers, as did Bob Hill with the Spurs. But during a season in which injuries crippled many teams, Fratello has the Cavaliers limping into the playoffs.

* Most Improved Player: Dana Barros, Philadelphia 76ers.

Improving his scoring from 13.3 to 20.7 points a game, he was the top-scoring point guard in the league. He developed into a first-time All-Star this season, and one of the most sought-after free agents.

* Sixth Man Award: Anthony Mason, New York Knicks.

He averages 9.8 points and 8.4 rebounds and does all the dirty work for the Knicks.

* Defensive Player of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo, Denver Nuggets.

Mutombo gets the nod, though I might be doing a bit more research after watching Robinson score 42 points on him Sunday.

Then there are the Nets

If there were awards for Most Gutless Performance and Biggest Tank Job, the New Jersey Nets would win in a clean sweep.

Two weeks ago, the Nets were actually in the hunt for a final playoff spot in the East. But Derrick Coleman has missed seven straight games with a sprained wrist, Benoit Benjamin is at his home in San Antonio with a sore back and Kenny Anderson missed two games during the stretch with a sore back as well.

The Nets have lost nine of their past 10, but mathematically are eliminated from recording the worst record in the league.

"We get paid for 82 games," said forward Jayson Williams. "I think it's embarrassing when little nicks and knacks keep us down. Let me tell you this: If we got paid by the game, there'd be people in this locker room."

It's amazing that general manager Willis Reed has failed to discipline a single member of the team this season. His lack of leadership may cost him his job.

Then again, the "strong" finish that should garner more pingpong balls in the draft lottery could be in Reed's favor -- only if the owners don't think too much about last year's first-round pick, Yinka Dare. "Stinka" played one game and was scoreless in three minutes this season before being put on the injured list with tendinitis in his right knee.

Around the NBA

The Boston Celtics likely will land the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but there's a good chance coach Chris Ford won't be back. Apparently the Detroit Pistons, who are expected to fire Don Chaney at season's end, have an interest. . . . Knicks coach Pat Riley has won 50 games in each of his 13 years of coaching, but if his team fails to catch Orlando, he'll fail to win a division for the first time. . . . New York's John Starks last week became the first player in history to hit 200 three-pointers in a season. . . . Two milestones last week: Knicks center Patrick Ewing scored his 18,000th point, and Utah Jazz forward Tom Chambers went over the 20,000-point mark. . . . Jeanie Buss, daughter of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, is in the May issue of Playboy. Said Jerry Buss: "Oh, I'm not going to look at that. Of course, it's the only Playboy I haven't looked at in 27 years."

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