Here's a midseason look at some of the NBA's best and worst performances:
Most Valuable Player: What had the appearance of a runaway vote last month has become tighter. Shaquille O'Neal still is the favorite, given that he leads the league in shooting percentage and is second in scoring and rebounding. But the recent slump by the Los Angeles Lakers has brought some other, viable candidates into the hunt, such as the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett.
Rookie of the Year: This, too, looked like a one-sided race early on. While Lamar Odom has kept up his numbers, the Los Angeles Clippers have fallen apart. It now looks like a three-man competition among Odom, Steve Francis of the Houston Rockets and the fast-improving Elton Brand of the Chicago Bulls.
Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson seemed like a lock when the Lakers were riding that 16-game winning streak. But their recent slump and potential fade down the stretch, when they play four more road games than the Portland Trail Blazers, opens the door for other candidates. Orlando's Doc Rivers could get a lot of votes if the Magic makes the playoffs.
Comeback Player of the Year: Sam Cassell (Dunbar) found success early in his NBA career, playing with the world-champion Rockets as a rookie in 1994. But a series of trades -- including three teams during the 1996-97 season -- and injuries (he played only eight games last season) threatened his future. But Cassell has found something other than a home in Milwaukee. He has learned how to play point guard and is second to Jason Kidd in assists per game.
Most Improved Player: A bust as a rookie with the Lakers last season, Ruben Patterson went to Seattle looking for a fresh start. He's gotten one and now seems to be a fixture in the frontcourt for the SuperSonics. He's a big reason for Seattle's improvement over last season's fifth-place finish.
Disappointing player of the year: Shandon Anderson left the Utah Jazz for big money in Houston, but things have not worked out for him with the Rockets. Aside from having to split time at shooting guard with Cutino Mobley, Anderson's game seems more suited to being a supporting player in Salt Lake City rather than a star in Houston.
Biggest surprise: Take your pick of anybody on the Magic's low-budget roster. Perhaps it's center John Amaechi, whose previous pro experience came in his native England. Then there's reserve point guard Chucky Atkins, who is becoming to Darrell Armstrong what Armstrong was to Penny Hardaway a few years back.
Most disappointing team: The Milwaukee Bucks will be sending their two leading scorers, Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen, to Sunday's All-Star Game. Cassell is having a career year. So why are the 26-24 Bucks struggling to stay above .500? Center Ervin Johnson has not been magic in Milwaukee, and a lack of rebounding could mean a quick exit if the Bucks make the playoffs.
Most (pleasantly) surprising team: Two choices here. Despite a rough spot last month when it lost eight straight after starting out 16-11, the Magic has far exceeded expectations and was two games under .500 after Wednesday night's 107-96 win over the Washington Wizards. So have the SuperSonics, who are 31-20 going into the break and are just a half-game behind the Sacramento Kings in the top-heavy Pacific Conference.
Teams most likely to reach the NBA Finals: nals: The Trail Blazers have again passed the Lakers for the best record in the league, and they have too much depth for anyone in the West to handle. The Indiana Pacers, deep everywhere but center, need to improve on an 11-14 road record if they want to beat out the Heat and New York Knicks for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Next coach likely to be fired: The easy call would be Don Casey, who survived a disastrous start by the New Jersey Nets. With the Nets in the process of changing management, new part owner George Steinbrenner could bring in just about anybody. But the more interesting situation surrounds Lenny Wilkens, the NBA's all-time leader in victories. If the Atlanta Hawks continue to self-destruct around J. R. Rider, Wilkens' 27-year coaching career might be over.