Can we stick a fork in the Portland Trail Blazers?
No. They're still capable of blowing out anyone on a given night, but they will not make it back to the Finals. The mental burden of having gotten there and failed twice will be too much to overcome. Buck Williams is 32 and isn't getting any younger, Kevin Duckworth isn't getting any better, and new addition Rod Strickland isn't getting any more reliable. (The Portland faithful had better turn toward the Columbia River and pray that Clyde Drexler's aching knees will not be a constant problem.) A coach can keep pushing his guys to play harder and tougher and even more consistently, but it's not easy for him to keep pushing them to play smarter. That is coach Rick Adelman's dilemma this season.
The one thing in the Blazers' favor is the theory of the suffering apprentice. The champion Pistons of 1988-89 and '89-90 had to lose to the Celtics and the Lakers, respectively, in earlier playoffs before they could figure out how to beat those teams themselves, and the Bulls of 1990-91 and '91-92 had to be humiliated by the Pistons in previous years before they could turn it around and beat them in the postseason. Alas, the Blazers' situation doesn't have the same feel.
Will Charles Barkley make the difference in Phoenix?
Yes. The Suns will win the West, and Barkley (page 66) will be the reason why. He has a true hunger to go down in NBA history as a winner, and now he has the supporting cast to do it.
It's simplistic to think that Barkley will be the only factor, however. Just as important is the fact that Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle now believe they can win it all. The chemistry between KJ and former coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was never the best, and the change to Paul Westphal will be important, too.
Will the Suns need two basketballs to keep both Barkley and Tom Chambers, another noted gunner, happy?
Sometimes. But Larry Bird and Kevin McHale sometimes needed two balls too. Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars sometimes needed two balls. Heck, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman sometimes needed two balls. As Westphal points out, Chambers will no longer draw the best frontcourt defender when he and Barkley are on the floor together, and that should make the dirty-blond bomber more effective. Truly good teams figure out a way to win, and winning teams are happy.
What have all the changes in New York wrought for the Knicks?
They're contenders. They will miss both Wilkins and point guard Mark Jackson—stop laughing! I hear you laughing!—but the changes in the Knick lineup should produce solid results; both team president Dave Checketts and coach Pat Riley deserve credit for playing Pat's hand and refusing to stand pat. But consider: Former All-Star Rolando Blackman turns 34 on Feb. 26 (a bad back kept him out of every preseason game). Forward Charles Smith has never shown anything except enormous potential, and that type of player can break your heart. Swingman Tony Campbell is a scorer, and that's it. And rookie Hubert Davis is sure to have some trouble getting off that radar jumper.