There are a number of NBA players, including Portland guard Clyde Drexler and Phoenix forward Larry Nance, who are on course for career-best seasons. And old standbys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan have maintained their levels of excellence. So who are people talking about as a potential MVP? How about Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley.

A second-team all-NBA performer last season, Barkley was averaging 29 points per game (second in the league) and 12.6 rebounds (also second), and hitting 62 percent of his field goal attempts (first) and 42 percent of his three-point field goal attempts (ninth) as the week began.

"He's the one guy in the league that I'm afraid of, that I don't believe that anyone on our team can do anything about," said one Eastern Conference coach. "If you put a big, strong guy on him, he just takes him out on the open floor and drives past him to the basket. If you put a small, quick guy on him, he'll throw him out of the low post and dunk the ball."

Barkley says it's nice he's gathering support but questions whether anyone "can truly say that Magic is better than Bird or that Bird is better than Michael Jordan. All I want is to be named all-NBA, then I'll know that I'm one of the best."

Despite his impressive three-plus NBA seasons, there are still those who believe that the estimated 265 pounds he carries on his 6-foot-4 frame (the press guide says 6-6) will lead to the premature end of his career.

"His back is going to go out one day; either that or his knees," said another Eastern Conference coach. "People think that Larry Bird's body will break down because he plays so hard, but Bird plays a floor game. Barkley is up leaping and slamming all the time. That takes a toll on a body. If he starts getting hamstring pulls, that's going to lead straight to his back." Odd Man Out

The release of former Maryland star Adrian Branch by the New Jersey Nets this week didn't come as a surprise to anyone who had watched the team recently.

Just before the start of this season, Branch was traded to the Nets by the Los Angeles Lakers, where he spent the 1986-87 season. Although he started in the Nets' first three games (playing 39, 29 and 30 minutes), Branch was considered a fill-in for forward Orlando Woolridge, who missed time early with a lacerated finger.

In the three games following Woolridge's return in mid-November, Branch played just 14, 10 and 11 minutes and, according to team sources, did little to try to stay in shape. Nets interim coach Bob MacKinnon didn't play Branch at all in two of his final four games with the club; the final straw probably came during a 103-94 loss in Cleveland on Dec. 18. In the closing minutes of that game, Branch turned over the ball twice, which some team officials felt cost New Jersey a chance at victory.

The Nets have yet to name a coach to replace Dave Wohl, fired earlier this month. Among the names mentioned as possible replacements are Bulls assistant Phil Jackson and former Knicks head coach Hubie Brown.

Jackson, a former Nets assistant, won't confirm or deny that he's a candidate. In any case, his present boss, Chicago Coach Doug Collins, isn't sure that a move away from interim coach MacKinnon would be beneficial to the team, anyway.

"What's an interim coach?" Collins asked. "That's gotta be one of the toughest things to do. The big reason is that there's no practice time after the season starts so you can't put in anything new and expect it to stick. We started our season on a Saturday and then we were playing four games in five nights for the next month. There's no way for someone to teach something entirely new." From Piston to Oblivion

Just two seasons ago, Kelly Tripucka was one of the NBA's most dangerous scorers, averaging 20 points a game and coming off two all-star game appearances. That was when he was a member of the Detroit Pistons; today, Tripucka sits at the end of the Utah Jazz' bench -- the team's 12th man. Until last night, the 6-6 veteran had played in just 16 of the team's 25 games, averaging a little over 10 minutes and four points per game. Against Cleveland last night, Tripucka scored 15 fourth-quarter points, 13 in the final five minutes.

Last year, in his first season after being dealt to the Jazz in exchange for former DeMatha High star Adrian Dantley, Tripucka was expected to light up the defensively weak Western Conference, but his average was only 6.4 points per game. What happened?

"I think the trade bothered him and he got off to a bad start and we just went on without him," said Utah assistant Scott Layden.

Utah has been trying to trade Tripucka for almost a year but hasn't found any takers, largely because of his $950,000 per year salary. Also, Layden feels the game has changed to the point where the one-time small forward would now have to play guard to be effective.

"Looking back, I guess you'd have to say getting him was a mistake," Layden said. "But our team had made a decision to get rid of Dantley and that was the deal that we made."