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Dial 1-800-BARKLEY. All-Star forward Charles Barkley's phone
has been ringing off the hook the past two off-seasons. Two
summers ago teammate Danny Ainge called him to persuade him not
to go ahead with his plans to retire. This summer it was forward
Danny Manning (out until January with a torn ligament in his
left knee) whose calls helped persuade Sir Charles to return
this season.

The defense rests. Too much. The Suns were next to last in the
NBA in points allowed (106.8 per game average). John (Hot Rod)
Williams, the 6'11" forward-center acquired from Cleveland for
swingman Dan Majerle, will provide needed muscle.

Expensive insurance. The Suns signed backup point guard Elliot
Perry to a six-year, $12 million deal, which shows how much
faith they have in starter Kevin Johnson's durability. The
oft-injured KJ played in a career-low 47 games last season.

Outlook. If Barkley, Manning and KJ are healthy at playoff
time--a big if--this will be the year Phoenix gets past the



Separated at birth. There are two kinds of Laker fans: those
who think silver-haired coach Del Harris looks like Phil Donahue
and those who see him as Leslie Nielsen. You might say L.A. is
divided along facial lines.

Nick the quick. Point guard Nick Van Exel, 23, established
himself as one of the league's most exciting young players last
season. He's unpredictable, but he is a marvelous clutch player
and the engine that propels the Lakers.

Smooth rotation. The Lakers have flexibility at shooting guard
and small forward. Harris gets scoring from forward Cedric
Ceballos and guard Anthony Peeler. Eddie Jones, a better
defender than either, can play both positions. The rotation also
gives Laker executive vice president Jerry West the ability to
use at least one of these players in a trade for a rebounder.

Outlook. Center Vlade Divac is solid, but the Lakers are still
one big man away from becoming title material. But a trip to the
conference finals wouldn't be surprising.



Two things Seattle hasn't seen in a while. 1) A square mile
without a coffee bar, and 2) the second round of the playoffs.
The Sonics have won 63 and 57 games the past two seasons, but in
the postseason they've choked worse than a kid drinking his
first double espresso, losing in the first round.

Reasons this year will be different. Sorry, can't think of any.
Seattle has added guard Hersey Hawkins, the kind of outside
marksman the Sonics need. But this is largely the same
squabbling cast that has imploded the past two years.

Why you should watch the Sonics anyway. They're the best
highlight-film team in the league. The Sonics are immensely
talented, with three All-Stars: point guard Gary Payton and
forwards Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf; they're deep; and they
have a smothering defense.

Outlook. Either 1) the Sonics will go all the way; or 2) they
will lose in the first round, and coach George Karl will quit
and return to the Albany Patroons of the CBA. With the Sonics,
who knows?



By the numbers. The Kings won 39 games last year, 11 more than
the previous season, by improving their defense. They were
eighth in the league in points allowed (99.2 per game) after
finishing 25th (106.9) the season before.

Name that 'tude. Last season, thanks mostly to hard-nosed
rookie forwards Brian Grant (6'9", 254 pounds) and Michael Smith
(6'8", 230 pounds), the once soft Kings displayed a toughness
worthy of a team that features nicknames like General (Grant),
Animal (Smith), Rock (All-Star guard Mitch Richmond) and Big
Nasty (first-round draft choice Corliss Williamson). "We want
teams to think twice before they come down the lane against us,"
says Grant.

Outlook. All the factors that made Sacramento a pleasant
surprise last year are still in place, including Grant and
Smith's inside toughness, small forward Walt (the Wizard)
Williams's offensive emergence and Richmond's consistent play at
both ends of the floor. But if Sacramento is to get to the
playoffs, Bobby Hurley will have to prove he is an NBA point



Tiresome topic. Guards Latrell Sprewell and Tim Hardaway are
going through a rough patch in their relationship right now.
Seems Hardaway implied last season that Sprewell didn't hustle,
which offended Sprewell, who in fact didn't hustle last season.
Here's hoping those crazy kids can work things out.

Golen State. That's right, no D. The Warriors gave up 111.1
points per game last season, dead last in the league. (No wonder
they were 26-56.) New coach Rick Adelman must rectify that.

Exclamation points. Adelman has four players who have been
All-Stars--Hardaway, Sprewell, forward Chris Mullin and guard
B.J. Armstrong--plus the No. 1 pick of the draft, forward Joe
Smith, and last year's No. 4, forward Donyell Marshall.

Question marks. How soon will it be before Smith makes Warrior
fans forget Chris Webber? Have injuries diminished Hardaway and
Mullin? Did the Chicago Bulls know something when they discarded

Outlook. The Warriors will be awesome, then horrid. A .500
record sounds right.



Bad trend. The Blazers' win totals the past five seasons have
been 63, 57, 51, 47 and 44 last year.

Too bad he can't recruit. In his first season
in the NBA, ex-Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo found out about
the temperamental nature of NBA players. He got on point guard
Rod Strickland's bad side by disciplining him for missing a team
flight. "I don't like him," Strickland said of his coach. "And
you can print that." Then there was forward Clifford Robinson,
the Blazers' leading scorer, who lobbied not only for a contract
extension but also star status in the team's marketing efforts.

Two-headed pivot. Together, Chris Dudley and Arvydas Sabonis
could add up to one complete center. Dudley is a good rebounder
and defender whose offensive repertoire consists of the dunk and
the layup. Sabonis, the 30-year-old rookie who starred for the
Lithuanian national team, is an excellent shooter and passer who
is too immobile to be of much use defensively.

Outlook. Strickland and Robinson are the only Blazers who scare
anyone offensively. The win total may keep dropping.



Clipper who least deserves to be one. Forward Loy Vaught, who
keeps improving while his team (17-65 last season) never does.
In his five seasons Vaught's scoring average has increased every
year, to 17.5 points in '94-95. "He's probably the most
underrated player in the league," says coach Bill Fitch.

Why the Clips will win more than 17 games. Forward Lamond
Murray, a natural scorer, should be more consistent with a
season under his belt. Forwards Brian Williams and Rodney Rogers
and rookie guard Brent Barry, all acquired from Denver, should
contribute immediately. And center Stanley Roberts has recovered
from injuries to both Achilles tendons.

Why they won't win many more than 17 games. The closest thing
the Clippers have to an established guard is the erratic Pooh
Richardson. And they lack experience.

Outlook. Even if Vaught, Richardson, Murray, Rogers and
Williams all have their best seasons, the Clippers will still
probably lose 50 games. The best that can be said is that the
Clips won't have another 16-game losing streak this season.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Barkley's Suns will rise over Williams (8) and the Clippers. [Charles Barkley playing against John (Hot Rod) Williams]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Sabonis has lost his mobility, but Portland knows there's nothing wrong with his shot. [Arvydas Sabonis playing against Benoit Benjamin]