The leading candidates for the league's major awards will be on display as the NBA playoffs move into full swing Thursday night.

The playoffs began with Philadelphia's 104-97 victory over the Washington Bullets tonight. Ten of the other 16 teams still in contention for the league championship will begin play Thursday, led by players vying for individual honors ranging from most valuable player to the defensive player of the year.

First and foremost among the elite players is Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. With members of the media in each NBA city doing the voting at the end of the regular season, the Celtics' do-everything forward is the prime candidate to win his second consecutive MVP award. Bird ranked among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding, three-point field goals and free throw shooting.

Bird's teammate along the Celtics' front line, Kevin McHale, is also a likely choice to win his second straight Sixth Man award. When one combines those two with all-star center Robert Parish, it's easy to understand why the defending champions are overwhelming favorites to oust the Cleveland Cavaliers in their best-of-five games series.

Rookie of the year? The only names truly worth consideration, Akeem Olajuwon of Houston and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, are also on playoff teams. Jordan also will receive consideration for most valuable player. For the Bulls, Jordan merely did everything, leading the team in points, rebounds and assists. The Bulls open in Milwaukee against the Bucks on Friday.

Olajuwon, the No. 1 pick in last June's draft, averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, as did last year's No. 1 choice, Rockets teammate Ralph Sampson. Houston, which won 47 games in the regular season, almost 20 more than a year ago, open against the Utah Jazz. The Jazz boasts a strong candidate for defensive player of the year, 7-foot-4 center Mark Eaton, who blocked 456 shots this season.

Cleveland's George Karl deserves a great deal of credit for rebounding his Cavaliers from a horrendous 2-19 start. But the NBA's coach of the year probably will be Denver's Doug Moe or Milwaukee's Don Nelson. Moe, under fire at the start of the season, took his Nuggets to the top of the Midwest Division standings.

Nuggets President Vince Boryla will also gather some votes for executive of the year, primarily because of the offseason deal that brought Wayne Cooper, Layfayette Lever and all-star forward Calvin Natt from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Kiki Vandeweghe. The Nuggets will face San Antonio in their first-round series.

If Boryla doesn't receive the executive's award, Nelson probably will. Nelson, who also is Milwaukee's director of player personnel, revamped his team, trading away mainstays Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings to the Los Angeles Clippers for Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce.

The trades saved Milwaukee about $800,000 in salaries, and the suddenly young Bucks discovered a new sense of purpose, winning 59 games and taking the Central Division title easily.

The best all-around player in the Western Conference, Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson, leads his team against the undermanned Phoenix Suns. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still a dominant force and other greyhounds like James Worthy, Michael Cooper and Byron Scott should prove to be too much for Phoenix, which lost more than 200 man-games to injury.

Looking for a player who might compete with Jordan and Magic Johnson for the all-NBA back court spot? You could do worse than Detroit's Isiah Thomas and New Jersey's Micheal Ray Richardson. Thomas set an all-time record for assists in a single season with 1,123. But the Pistons open the playoffs against the Nets, who beat them five of six times this season. In New Jersey Coach Stan Albeck's NBA career, his record against Detroit is 20-3.

It is perhaps fitting that the two teams without individuals in the running for postseason honors are meeting in the first round. The systems are the stars for both Dallas and Portland. Their coaches, Dick Motta and Jack Ramsay, wouldn't have it any other way. It's hard to argue with either man: both have more than 700 career NBA victories.