Duncan, Bird, Jordan look like runaway winnersTim Duncan described his first trip to San Antonio as a scene from the movie "Wizard of Oz." Thousands of Spurs fans turned out to welcome the No. 1 draft pick to town. And though it wasn't exactly the Emerald City, the home of the Alamo did have a yellow brick road for the Wake Forest product to follow. Duncan also had an experienced guide in David Robinson to help along the way.

Six months later, the rookie's journey is nearly complete. The munch-kins are on their feet. This guy didn't disappoint. He never strayed from the winding course that is the NBA regular season. While some veterans were busy choking their coaches or getting arrested, Duncan steered clear of such distractions.His reward? A probable unanimous election as NBA Rookie of the Year and top five consideration for the league's Most Valuable Player award.

"He continues to amaze me. I thought he was great before the season started. He's even showing the little things that guys take 10 or 13 years to try to figure out in this league," perennial all-star John Stockton recently said of Duncan. "He's figured out a lot. So he's one whale of a player."

By winning every NBA Rookie of the Month award this season, Duncan has made things easy for the 115 media voters who will honor this year's top newcomer.

If only the rest of the awards were so easy. Writers and broadcasters representing all 29 NBA franchises will join a panel of national voters in determining winners of the league's annual individual accolades. Ballots are due today. Honorees will be announced throughout the upcoming NBA playoffs.

A look at some of the races:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Citing his possible retirement and performance in the NBA Finals, voters appear certain to give Bulls guard Michael Jordan the award he narrowly lost to Utah's Karl Malone a year ago. An informal Deseret News survey conducted late last month indicates Jordan will likely win handily, despite the fact that Malone has better statistics in all major categories except points and steals.

"Last year there was some sentiment for Malone because he hadn't won it," Chicago Tribune NBA writer Sam Smith said. "This year that sentiment should switch back to Jordan. There will be a great sentimental vote for Jordan. You can't believe what we see in every city. The media falls over itself for Jordan. He should win by a lot. A comfortable victory."

Others aren't so sure.

"Malone has a legitimate shot to win it," Chicago Sun-Times sports writer Lacy J. Banks said. "It'll be neck-and-neck again. It should be a photo finish."

Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers, Seattle's Gary Payton and Duncan should round out the top five, though Miami's Tim Hardaway may work into the equation. The MVP award is the lone honor that asks voters to rank their top five candidates. All other NBA individual awards are limited to just a single nomination.

Projected winner: Jordan.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bird, as in Larry Bird, is the word here. The first-year Pacers coach, who led Indiana to a franchise record number of wins and the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, heads a list of at least nine others expected to receive votes.

"I think it's a joke," Bird said of his status as favorite to win the award. "I'm not big on that stuff. I've had my share of awards throughout my career. There are a lot of great coaches in this league who have been around for a long time and are very deserving."

The list of candidates includes: Jerry Sloan (Utah), Danny Ainge (Phoenix), John Calipari (New Jersey), Jeff Van Gundy (New York), Dave Cowens (Charlotte), Mike Fratello (Cleveland), Phil Jackson (Chicago), 1996-97 winner Pat Riley (Miami), Danny Ainge (Phoenix) and George Karl (Seattle).

Bird, Ainge and Cowens have joined several media-types in endorsing Sloan, but it'll be hard for anyone to top the legend - Larry Legend, that is.

Projected winner: Bird.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: The only question here is if Duncan will be a unanimous selection. New Jersey's Keith Van Horn or Cleveland's Brevin Knight may garner a vote or two to spoil the sweep.

Projected winner: Duncan.

SIXTH MAN AWARD: If NBC had its way, Lakers teen Kobe Bryant would win this award hands down. A late-season slump and post NBA All-Star Game fallout, however, have closed the gap considerably. Before his recent knee injury, Suns veteran Danny Manning was moving toward the front of the pack. The question is, did he make up enough ground? Other candidates include Atlanta's Alan Henderson and Chicago's Toni Kukoc, both of whom played starters minutes this season.

Projected winner: Bryant.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Though the likes of Orlando's Nick Anderson and Portland's Arvydas Sabonis come quickly to mind, the NBA ballot specifically asks voters to choose an "up-and-coming" player for the award. Thus, if the media adheres to the spirit of the honor, Sacramento's Corliss Williamson, Atlanta's Henderson and Donyell Marshall of Golden State must be considered the frontrunners. Philadelphia's Theo Ratliff and Charlotte's Matt Geiger also warrant attention.

Projected winner: Marshall.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Many feel Payton will claim this honor as a consolation prize for not winning the MVP award. "The Glove" certainly deserves consideration. Others likely to draw votes include Atlanta's Dikembe Mutombo, Jordan, Duncan and Robinson.

Projected winner: Payton.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

NBA Awards: And the winners are . . .

... Most Coach Rookie Sixth Most Defensive

... Valuable of the of the Man Improved Player

... Player Year Year Award Player of Year

Greg Boeck Malone Sloan Duncan Manning Henderson Mutombo

USA Today

Hubie Brown Jordan Fratello Duncan Bryant Marshall ---

TNT

Loren Jorgensen Malone Sloan Duncan Ellis Henderson Payton

Deseret News

Mitch Lawrence Jordan Riley Duncan Manning Henderson Payton

N.Y. Daily News

Jackie MacMullan Jordan Bird Duncan Manning Henderson Mutombo

Sports Illustrated

John Schumacher Jordan Bird Duncan --- Williamson Payton

Sacramento Bee

Ira Winderman Jordan Sloan Duncan Bryant Williamson Robinson

Ft. Lauderdale

Sun-Sentinal

Bob Young Jordan Ainge Duncan Manning Williamson Mutombo

Arizona Republic