Random thoughts by Sam Smith

Most Valuable Player

Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers

We're sorry, but every time the playoffs arrive and O'Neal dominates, people want to change their vote. Shaq is the only unguardable player in the NBA, the league's most potent force. Yet he has just one MVP award. He may play only 65 games as he prepares for a fourth title, and missing 15 games last season cost him the award. It shouldn't.

Watch out for...

Eddie Griffin, Houston Rockets


The long-armed 6-foot-10 inch forward got lost in the mess of a poor Houston season. But he could combine with Yao Ming to block more shots than any front line.

Scoring champion

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers


More responsibility falls on him with O'Neal's health problems. But coach Phil Jackson wants to play Bryant more on the wing, the position in the triangle offense where Michael Jordan was so successful. Jackson also wants to lessen Bryant's ballhandling responsibilities to keep him fresher.

Coach of the Year

Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz


Byron Scott said he deserved the award over Rick Carlisle last season, and it's expected the league will check with him before announcing the winner. But it's about time the award goes to a great, overlooked coach instead of the flavor of the month. Sloan has done a wonderful job of holding the Jazz together, and no coach gets his players to work harder.

Most Improved Player

Darius Miles, Cleveland Cavaliers


The award probably shouldn't go to a first-round draft pick who finally gets an opportunity. But Miles, who didn't average in double figures in his first two seasons, should double his scoring with the pathetic Cavaliers. If he learns to shoot the ball and stops making himself dizzy by punching himself in the head after baskets, he could even make a run at the scoring title. With Dajuan Wagner ill and Zydrunas Ilgauskas scheduled for foot problems, he'll get plenty of scoring opportunities … as will the Nets' Richard Jefferson, who moves into Keith Van Horn's spot.

Sixth Man of the Year

Corliss Williamson, Detroit Pistons


He should go back-to-back. He's in the unusual position of being a reserve who is also the team's go-to guy down the stretch with the departure of Jerry Stackhouse. It's unlikely the team will look to newcomer Richard Hamilton, and Williamson is the only true post threat Detroit has.