There's nothing like an expansion draft to force teams to make
tough choices. Quite a few difficult decisions must be made by
June 14, when 25 of the NBA's 27 existing clubs have to decide
which of their players to leave unprotected for possible
plucking by the expansion Toronto Raptors and Vancouver
Grizzlies, who are slated to begin play next season. (The two
teams in the NBA Finals will submit their lists at the
conclusion of the post- season, which can end no later than June
21.) In the late June draft ``there will be some very good
players left unprotected,'' predicts Nugget coach and general
manager Bernie Bickerstaff.

Each of the existing teams must lose a player, and by the rules
a team can shelter only eight of the 12 players on its roster.
Thus, several high- salaried but ineffective veterans could find
themselves in the expansion pool, such as Bull guard Ron Harper,
who has a five-year, $19 million contract, a 7.1 points-per-
game average through Sunday and even less of a role in Chicago
now that Michael Jordan has returned. Other well-paid players
who could be dangled: King forward Li- onel Simmons (five years,
$15 million) and Blazer forward Jerome Kersey ($3.8 million next
season).

Some teams could use the expansion draft to clear salary-cap
room to sign free agents. That could happen in Houston, where
either Kenny Smith or Vernon Maxwell could go from starting on
an NBA championship team last June to being left unprotected
this June. Second-year Rocket Sam Cassell is primed to take over
for Smith at point guard, and the volatile Maxwell was probably
right when he said that he took the Rockets' acquisition of
shooting guard Clyde Drexler in February as a sign that his days
in Houston are numbered. The departure of either Smith (who
earns $2.6 million a year) or Maxwell ($1.7 million) would
create cap room for the power forward the Rockets are looking
for -- possibly the Knicks' Anthony Mason, an unrestricted free
agent after this season. Likewise, the Lakers may not protect
veteran point guard Sedale Threatt, who earns $2.4 million a
season. The Lakers also may expose little- used second-year
forward Antonio Harvey (3.1 points-per-game average through
Sunday) to the draft.

But management in Toronto and Vancouver may well be more
interested in two players with Canadian ties who might be left
unprotected: Celtic forward Rick Fox and Bull center Bill
Wennington. Toronto native Fox spent his early years in the
Bahamas, played high school ball in Indiana and spent his
college career at North Carolina, but he is still a hot ticket
in Canada. When he played for the Canadian team in the world
championships in Toronto last summer, the Toronto Sun cut a
full-size photo of Fox into sections and printed one section
each day for a week, so that a different Fox body part appeared
daily. And the well-traveled Wennington, who was born in
Montreal, was a member of the Canadian team in the 1984 and '92
Olympics.

Even if the Bulls don't lose Harper, the word is that they will
say farewell to assistant coach Jim Cleamons, who is the
front-runner in the race to become the first Raptor coach.
Cleamons or anyone else who takes the reins in Toronto or
Vancouver could have his work cut out for him for several
seasons. The new teams' agreement with the league stipulates
that they will be ineligible for the first pick of the college
draft until 1999 at the earliest. If either team happens to win
the lottery before then, it will pick second.

LINE OF THE WEEK

Mookie Blaylock, Hawks, March 22 against the Heat: 2-20 FG, 1-13
3PT FG, 2-4 FT, 7 PTS. In a 98-84 Atlanta loss, Blaylock missed
all nine of his three- point attempts in the first half, which,
had he stopped there, would have tied Isiah Thomas's record for
most treys missed in a game without a make. Blaylock then
clanked his first three-pointer of the second half before
finally nailing one. His line indicates how even the best of
players can go from riches to rags in the NBA. In Blaylock's
previous game, a 106-102 victory over the Clippers two nights
earlier, he sank 11 of his 17 shots, including five of nine
three-pointers, and scored a career-high 35 points. And two
nights after his Miami mishap, Blaylock was back on the beam
again with a 20-point, nine-assist performance in a 75-74 Hawk
loss to the Cavaliers.

AROUND THE RIM

When Maverick guard Jason Kidd was named NBA player of the week
on March 20, he became only the third rookie guard to receive
the honor since 1980. The other two? A couple of guys named
Magic and Michael. . . . Quinn Buckner's disastrous (13-69)
stint as the Mavericks' coach last season apparently didn't
torpedo his employment prospects. His old Celtic teammate Kevin
McHale, the Timberwolves' new vice president of basketball
operations, is considering Buckner for a front-office job,
perhaps general manager. Says Maverick forward Jamal Mashburn,
``I guess once you play in Boston, you can always get a job. I
hope he'll be a better general manager than he was a coach. I
wish him the best, but I know one thing. If I ever get traded, I
won't be going to Minnesota.'' . . . Magic center Shaquille
O'Neal isn't revealing why he's shaving his head again after
letting his hair grow for about two weeks, but teammate Dennis
Scott has a possible explanation. ``He's too pretty with hair,''
Scott says. ``He needed to become the old Shaq again, the one
that scares people. When Shaq's bald, he's an animal.'' Maybe
O'Neal should retain the hairless look for the next time he
visits Indianapolis's Market Square Arena, where he has lost six
straight games to the Pacers, including last season's
first-round playoff-clinching defeat. His overall record at
Indiana is 1-6. . . . Another notable recent box-score line:
Bullet center Gheorghe Muresan, March 23 against the Sonics:
11-16 FG, 4-6 FT, 7 REB, 2BLK. The 26-point effort -- a career
high -- was only the most recent bit of evidence that the 7 7"
Romanian is a player. Such a performance is a measure of the
progress made by the 24-year-old Muresan, only two seasons
removed from the French League.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Expansion may mean that Toronto native Fox (44) can go home again. [Rick Fox.] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYERMuresan (towering over Net Jayson Williams) is producing numbers to match his dimensions. [Gheorghe Muresan.] COLOR PHOTO & CHART: SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU STRONG IN THE STRETCH Want to win the NBA championship? It helps to finish fast, if the records of the last 10 title winners over the season's final 20 games are any guide.Since1984-85, the team with the best record (including the '88-89 Pistons of Isiah Thomas, left) or second-best record over the last 20 games has won the championship seven times.No champion has played less than .600 ball in the season's final quarter. [Text Not Available.]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)