Are the Suns Setting?
It should have been a tranquil week for the Suns. With only a home game against the Timberwolves and a road trip to Los Angeles to play the Clippers, Phoenix was banking on a couple of wins to relieve some of the frustration and the finger-pointing that had bubbled to the surface in the wake of a disappointing 13-14 start.
Instead, last Thursday night the Suns lost to Minnesota for the first time in 26 games, 98-93, and then, one night later, shot 2 for 16 from beyond the three-point line and fell to L.A. 94-88. Within minutes after that score was logged, the rumblings that fourth-year coach Paul Westphal's days were numbered grew even more intense.
Westphal, who has been under pressure for the last month, says the reason for Phoenix's woes is obvious: injuries. "Three of our best players have never been right," he says. " Danny Manning, Kevin Johnson and Hot Rod Williams. And our other best player"—All-Star forward Charles Barkley—"is coming off knee surgery, and we're asking him to carry an awful lot of the load. For us, it's been the story of the hospital."
But Sun players, viewing Phoenix's fifth-place standing in the Pacific Division, also lamented the loss of the team chemistry that brought them within a free throw of the Western Conference finals last season. One veteran blames the front office, saying, "They tore up what we had. Either you rebuild, or go for the championship. You can't do both at the same time."
Indeed, the Suns made a number of changes during the off-season, including trading the popular shooting guard Dan Majerle to the Cavaliers for centerforward Williams, who through Sunday had been ineffective, scoring 7.6 points and grabbing 5.7 rebounds a game. He left after seven minutes against the Clippers, with one rebound and no points, and was sidelined by a recurring back ailment.
Phoenix also elected not to re-sign 36-year-old guard Danny Ainge, who retired and accepted a job as a television analyst with TNT. Sun players say they miss Ainge the most among their erstwhile teammates—in part for his perimeter shooting but mostly for his leadership. Ainge was one of the few Suns who didn't hesitate to deliver a swift kick to Barkley's ample posterior if Sir Charles started acting up.
Ainge was offered a lucrative assistant coach's contract by Phoenix president Jerry Colangelo with the understanding that he would be groomed to be the next coach. "The idea was for me to coach and, if the new guys couldn't get the job done, be available to play," says Ainge. "I said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' I didn't want to be Tree Rollins"—referring to the 40-year-old Magic assistant coach who played backup center in 51 regular-season games last season.
Ainge understands why, with a nucleus of Barkley, Johnson, Manning and Williams, the Suns believed they could be contenders. "If they were healthy all at once, they would be a very good team," says Ainge. "But they were deceiving themselves if they thought that would happen."
Manning, a forward who is thought to be the first player in NBA history to attempt to come back a second time from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, has not played this season and is working out in Los Angeles with a personal trainer. He has made it clear that he won't return to action until he can go full throttle, and that may not occur until after the mid-February All-Star break.