Hot prospects with Hot Rod
?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 Rockets.
Van Exel-ent expectations
?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.