Moreover, another injury-plagued season by point guard Johnson has hamstrung Phoenix. KJ has missed an average of 28 games a year over the past three seasons, and while the Suns were in L.A. being humiliated by the Clippers, he was home in Phoenix, missing his 10th consecutive game with a strained groin. Barkley, who has played hurt for much of the latter part of his career, struggles to conceal his frustration with Johnson, who is so vital to Phoenix's success.
Yet it's the Suns' coach, not the team's stars, who is absorbing the heat, who must listen to the whispers that it is no longer a question if he will be replaced—but when. "It's no fun," Westphal says. "My understanding is that Jerry Colangelo understands what the situation is. As long as that's so, I can live with it."
After the back-to-back debacles, Colangelo wasn't available to assess the damage, but his righthand man, senior executive vice president Cotton Fitzsimmons, did not foresee any immediate changes. "Until we can trot some people out there who have been playing, it's hard to do anything," said Fitzsimmons. "Hey, I want Paul Westphal to be here as long as possible."
Westphal has no intention of speculating about his future. "I don't like to talk about myself," he says. "To me, all that does is cause more turmoil than is already there."
Oldies but Goodies
The remarkable start of the Bulls (28-3 through Sunday) has included at least one particularly impressive statistic: a 10-0 record in the second of back-to-back games, the only such perfect mark in the NBA. Chicago has mastered this test of resilience despite its ranking as the oldest team in the league (average age: 29.86 years).
History suggests age is not necessarily a negative. Both the Celtics (in 1985-86) and the Pistons (in '89-90) won titles with the oldest rosters in the league. "Age isn't a factor if you have life in those legs," says Laker executive vice president of basketball operations Jerry West.
Guard Michael Jordan, 32, who was averaging 38.5 minutes a night through last Saturday; forward Scottie Pippen, 30 and 37.1 minutes; and forward Dennis Rodman, 34 and 32.5 minutes, log significant playing time, and while Bull coach Phil Jackson concedes it's a statistic worth monitoring, he has also determined his Big Three are happier and more productive the more they are on the court. "If they have to sit on the bench, it's almost like they are being denied a privilege," Jackson says. "They don't like that, not being able to perform at what they do well. It's like denying them a role onstage."
Line of the Week
Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Jan. 6 against the Nuggets: 40 M, 12-25 FG, 14-16 FT, 38 points, 10 rebounds. Having been sidelined with a partially torn tendon in his left foot since Dec. 9, Mourning made a remarkable return in an 88-86 Miami win—and even scored the game-winning hoop. How good was he feeling? He tossed up five three-pointers. Alas, he didn't connect on any of them.
Around the Rim