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INSIDE THE NBA
Scottie Pippen, Isaac Austin and Brent Barry are bonded by a simple daydream: to sign with the Suns when they become free agents this summer. Tom Gugliotta can opt out of his Timberwolves contract on July 1, and while Minnesota can offer him more money than any other team, the one that beckons iswho else?Phoenix.
In recent years the Suns have snagged Rex Chapman, Cliff Robinson and Hot Rod Williams even though they all received more lucrative offers elsewhere. They will be free agents this summer, and Phoenix will try to keep them for less again. Chapman has already said that he'll stay. "I don't think anybody says, I hate Phoenix, I'm not going there," says Suns coach Danny Ainge, who signed with the team as a free agent in 1992. "When I played with the Celtics, we'd be on one of those awful Western trips, but when we landed in Phoenix, we'd be saying, 'All right. Now we're talking.'"
With its glorious climate and abundant golf courses, Phoenix has become the NBA's fantasyland. "It's a safer, cleaner California," says agent Steve Kauffman. As a franchise the Suns offer plenty of enticements too: a team with a chance to win it all, state-of-the-art facilities, ardent fans and an energetic coach who gives his players leeway.
Most important, the front office has credibility. In October 1995 Phoenix re-signed forward Danny Manning to a six-year, $42 million contract while he was rehabbing from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He had suffered the injury eight months earlier, in the midst of his one-year, $1 million free-agent deal. Opposing teams seethed, sensing that Manning's new contract must have been promised when he signed the one-year deal, a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. Free-agents-to-be smiled, seeing an organization reward a star, rather than dump him, when he was hurt. "Players weigh that big," says Sonics forward Vin Baker.
Players also love point guards who pass first and shoot later, which is why Jason Kidd should become a selling point on July 1. Then there's Ainge's up-tempo style of play. "He puts 90 percent of the responsibility in your hands," guard Steve Nash says of his coach. "And he's not afraid to smile when we make mistakes."
Ainge has flourished despite a potentially devastating incident in January 1997 in which forward Robert Horry angrily threw a towel in his face after being taken out of a game. As replays of the blow-up aired over and over, the Phoenix front office worked to unload Horry (which it did, to the Lakers, four days later). "In retrospect, Danny handled it perfectly: He played it down," says team president Jerry Colangelo.
With his Suns 39-21 through Sunday, Ainge's biggest worry has been parceling out time in a crowded backcourt that includes Chapman, Kidd, Nash and veteran Kevin Johnson. While most expect KJ to retire this summer, Phoenix would consider bringing him backbut only at about half his $8 million salary.
That's one of many decisions facing the Suns, who should be $16 million to $17 million under the cap this summer. League and team sources say Phoenix has interest in Pippen, and while Colangelo & Co. like Austin, they don't feel he's worth his asking price of $8 million a season. If Nash, an Ainge favorite, could bring a top-flight big man in a package deal, Phoenix would likely pull the trigger. Forward Antonio McDyess is a keeper, but for $80 million or so over seven years, not $100 million. Williams and Robinson? Depends on what they want and how much money is left. "To try and figure it out at this point is nonsense," says Ainge. "There are too many variables."
One thing is clear. The Suns have a leg up on signing some of the league's best free agents, and with that edge comes the pressure to add the lone element missing from their glistening franchise: a championship.
Issue date: March 16, 1998
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