Last season, Cotton Fitzsimmons, then the Suns' executive vice
president and now also their coach, surveyed his team and said,
"I love every one of these guys, but I hope to trade all of them
before they retire."
So goes the philosophy in Phoenix. In hopes of winning a
championship, the Suns have dealt, without blinking, some of
their most popular players (Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle and Larry
Nance, to name three), receiving in return players who have kept
Phoenix near the top, such as Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson.
Yet an NBA title has eluded the Suns--and hopes of a championship
were again slipping away following Sunday's 110-105 loss to the
Spurs in Game 2 of a best-of-five first-round Western Conference
playoff. That defeat sent the Suns to the brink of elimination
as the series headed to Phoenix. In their two losses last week
to San Antonio, the Suns fell victim to the same woes that
plagued them during a lackluster 41-41 regular season: erratic
perimeter shooting, soft defense and injuries.
For forward Danny Manning, who's battling tendinitis in his left
knee, an early Phoenix exit might be a blessing, allowing him to
resume his rehabilitation. But for Fitzsimmons and Phoenix
president Jerry Colangelo the off-season could prove to be long
and frustrating. For the first time in several seasons they may
have difficulty wheeling and dealing to reload their lineup.
They don't want to trade Manning, 29, a cornerstone who will be
around, health permitting, for another six seasons. And the
veterans they might like to send elsewhere have expensive and/or
long-term contracts that could make them hard to get rid of. For
instance, the Suns would swap 32-year-old forward A.C. Green in
a heartbeat, but with his contract averaging $6.4 million over
the next three seasons, who would take him? Ditto for
center-forward Wayman Tisdale, who will turn 32 next month and
who is on the books for next season at $3.4 million.
Injury-prone guard Johnson, 30, has a 1996-97 salary of $7
million. John (Hot Rod) Williams, 33, a disappointment in the
middle since being acquired from the Cavaliers last fall in the
Majerle deal, is set to haul in almost $3 million next season.
Reserve guard Elliott Perry? He's only 27, but he is signed for
five more years at $2.14 million per season.
Thirty-four-year-old reserve center Joe Kleine? He has another
year at $1.23 million.
The X factor in Phoenix's rebuilding campaign is Barkley. Sir
Charles shocked many basketball insiders by accepting an
invitation to play on Dream Team III in this summer's Olympics.
Suns sources say that one of the reasons Barkley decided to
participate in the Games is that he's seriously considering
retiring and views Atlanta as a perfect setting for his swan
song. Barkley's threats to quit have become a rite of spring,
but the situation is different this year. For the first time in
Barkley's four seasons in Phoenix, the Suns no longer loom as
serious contenders. And the prideful Barkley isn't thrilled that
he's not an untouchable anymore. Phoenix would unhesitatingly
pull the trigger on a deal sending him elsewhere to obtain a
young player--or some salary-cap room.
The Suns might just let their expected decline run its course.
Colangelo concedes that Phoenix won't be a major player in this
summer's bidding wars for the most impressive free-agent group
in history. "My plan is to watch all these other teams beat the
tar out of each other for the top players, and hang around and
pick up the crumbs," he says. Look for Colangelo to make a small
move at improving his club, perhaps with a run at Bullets
free-agent center Jim McIlvaine. Then he'll sit back and wait
until 1998, when--under terms of the rookie salary cap, which
took effect this season--the NBA's current rookies become free
agents. However, if Barkley has played his final season with the
Suns, don't be surprised if Phoenix tries to bring back Majerle,
who becomes a free agent in July.
TWO FOR THE HALL
As two of the game's most prolific and electrifying offensive
players in the 1970s and '80s, they dueled each other for
scoring titles, and on Monday they will enter the Basketball
Hall of Fame together. But basketball is not the only link
between George (Iceman) Gervin and David Thompson. Each went
through a drug addiction that nearly destroyed his life.
Gervin, who played primarily for the Spurs, averaged 25.1 points
per game during his 14 seasons in the ABA and the NBA and is one
of only three players to lead the league in scoring at least
four times (Michael Jordan, with eight scoring titles, and Wilt
Chamberlain, with seven, are the others). Gervin says that he
started using cocaine while with San Antonio but that his
problem worsened at the end of his career, after he was released
by the Bulls following the 1985-86 season. "I couldn't deal with
not being in the league anymore," he says. "I didn't feel I was
worth very much. That's when the disease took hold of me and
wouldn't let go."
Thompson, who was a three-time All-America at North Carolina
State, averaged 21.5 points over nine seasons through 1983-84
for the Nuggets (ABA and NBA) and the Sonics. His cocaine use
began in mid-career and soon turned into an addiction, one
Thompson at first refused to acknowledge. "I got caught up in
something that was a fad at the time," Thompson says. "I kept
telling myself, Addiction will never happen to a guy like me.
Things had to fall totally apart before I finally realized it
could." Thompson bottomed out in 1987 when he served time in a
minimum-security detention center after assaulting his wife.
Both men entered substance-abuse programs and turned their lives
around. Gervin, who's a community relations representative with
the Spurs, founded San Antonio's nonprofit George Gervin Youth
Center. Having reentered the national spotlight--and, indeed,
attained cult status--through his "the Iceman cooketh"
commercials for Nike, Gervin is seeking to capitalize on the
popularity of that persona; he recently filmed a sitcom pilot
for ABC called Southern Fried Ice, in which he plays a
Thompson is the youth programs coordinator for Charlotte's
Junior Hornets booster program and works for a speakers' bureau
advising adults and young people on how to make intelligent life
Both he and Gervin have resisted wondering if their careers
would have been even more remarkable had they stayed straight.
"No sense in torturing yourself," says Gervin. "David and I made
mistakes. We've both paid dearly. People used to remember me for
my game. Now, whatever I do for the rest of my life, they'll
remember me for one thing: my addiction."
AROUND THE RIM
Don't hold your breath waiting for the announcement of a new
Hornets coach to replace the fired Allan Bristow. Sources say
owner George Shinn wants to wait until after the Sonics complete
their playoff run to see if Seattle coach George Karl, a former
Tar Heel, stays put.... Houston can pick up an option on guard
Sam Cassell for $1.2 million next season but has wisely decided
to renegotiate with him this summer and reward him with a
contract in the range of $2.5 million to $3 million a season.
The Rockets will also begin talks on extending the contract of
forward Robert Horry, whose deal ends in July 1997.... By losing
their first two playoff games in Utah, the Blazers ran their
record at the Delta Center to 1-11.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERBarkley, aware of the Suns' cloudy future, this time may actually quit--after an Olympic valedictory. [Charles Barkley]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN The careers of Thompson (above, driving past Julius Erving in the ABA) and Gervin (wheeling on Jamaal Wilkes) are linked forever. [David Thompson and Julius Erving]
COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT [See caption above--Jamaal Wilkes and George (Iceman) Gervin]