Karl Malone considers the question for a few seconds, then shrugs his massive shoulders.

Sure, he believes he's playing better now than he did last season when he won the league's Most Valuable Player award. The Utah power forward still uses his brute strength to subdue an opponent. But he's also learned when to let the offense come to him and seems to have a better feel for the game.This calm is reflected in Malone's attitude toward capturing another MVP trophy. He doesn't campaign for the award as he did last season, telling all who listened how he longed to be placed in that elite class. Instead, he casually talks about how either he or Chicago's Michael Jordan will win the award and goes about his business.

"I think it can be either one of us," Malone said. "It would be great to have it again, but you can't argue with what Michael is doing in Chicago.

"I think it's us, one and two, however it works out."

A vote for Jordan is never misguided. His Highness is arguably the greatest ever to grace the sport. Sentiment will also be on Jordan's side since his remarkable career may be at an end.

Considering Jordan didn't win the award two or three times when it was deserved - the only explanation is the voters were bored by his brilliance and looked for someone else to reward - no one should begrudge him the sentimental vote now.

Jordan is poised to lead the league in scoring for a record 10th season. He has a few more steals than Malone.

But those are the only two major statistical areas in which Jordan enjoys an edge. Malone has a better field goal percentage. And he has more rebounds, assists and blocked shots than the Bulls' star.

"If you line the numbers up, Karl is having a better year across the board," said Scott Layden, Utah's vice president of basketball operations, who is quick to admit he's not objective on this topic. "Karl has kept the Jazz strapped on his back and winning.

"To me, that's the bottom line. Winning. It's not about scoring championships or who has the best stats. It's can you make your team win. I think Karl really proved himself when Stock (John Stockton) was out. He kept us on a winning note."

Both teams have won big. The odds are either the Jazz or Bulls will finish with the league's best record.

Stockton missed the first 18 games of the season. Malone led the Jazz to an 11-7 record in his absence. This was done despite the demotion of two starters - center Greg Ostertag and small forward Bryon Russell, who weren't playing up to their standards of last season.

A similar argument can be made for Jordan. He carried the Bulls during Scottie Pippen's absence. But he got more help from Dennis Rodman than Malone did from any of his teammates.

Jordan is relentless in practice. So is Malone. He's usually found in the team's weight room two hours before every practice, pumping iron. He rides the exercise bike and uses the stair-stepper.

Malone has played the entire season with a damaged tendon on the middle finger of his shooting hand. He has delayed the surgery until the playoffs are over. He led the Jazz to a sweep of the Bulls (2-0) in the regular season, a feat that could be significant if these two teams meet again in The Finals.

Add it all together, and Malone deserves to edge out Jordan for the MVP award.

"He's in an elite group of pro athletes that goes beyond the MVP award or the Hall of Fame." Layden said.