"Three years at $1.7 million per," said Ainge.
"I'll be honest," said Colangelo. "We'd like to sign you for two years and less money. But if I give you what you want, will you come?"
"Consider me a Sun," said Ainge, reaching for his set of customized Pings.
Step 3 was for Westphal to put it all together. After realizing during the preseason that Barkley, at 30, can no longer guard quicker small forwards—"Cedric Ceballos kicked my butt every single day in training camp," Barkley admits—Westphal installed him exclusively at power forward, where he regularly out-muscles bigger opponents. "It's revitalized my game," says Charles. The move would not have worked, however, if not for the emergence of the little-known Dumas, Phoenix's 1991 second-round draft pick, who came off the suspended list on Dec. 16, and moved into the starting lineup to stay on Jan. 5. "This is my journey to the end of the rainbow, my Oz," says Dumas of his ascension from drug casualty (he was booted off the team at Oklahoma State in '90 for substance abuse and failed a random test with the Suns during training camp last season) to potential All-Star. Dumas gives Phoenix a player who can slash to the basket when Barkley is double-teamed; Barkley can then pass off to Dumas, throw it outside to the Danny Bomb Squad or shoot it, the last option, of course, being Barkley's preference.
For all the talk about their high-octane offense, though, the Suns are rather a grind-it-out team without oft-injured point guard Kevin Johnson, who had missed, at week's end, 25 games this season; he's expected to return to the lineup this week after having been out for 2½ weeks with a bruised calf. Indeed the plodding pace of Phoenix's victory over the Jazz last Friday suggested at times a New York Knick intrasquad scrimmage. In the long run Johnson's absence may help the Suns, since it has forced them to become efficient at the half-court style that usually defines postseason play. Don't believe for a moment, however, that Phoenix is a better team without KJ; it will need him healthy to win a championship.
Despite the promise that greeted the Suns at the onset of the regular season, there were still questions. How would the Suns adjust to Westphal? How would Westphal rotate the Dannys, since Ainge is too old to play major minutes and Majerle, long one of the league's best sixth men, would now be starting? How would team leader Johnson accept Barkley's Ruthian presence? And how long would it take before Barkley grated on veterans like Ainge and Chambers, and, for that matter, on the entire state of Arizona?
Answering the first question was easy: After four years under Fitzsimmons, the Suns were ready for a change, and no one saw it more clearly than Fitzsimmons; his office desk now bears a placard VICE PRESIDENT OF NOTHING. Cotton's penchant for incessant conversation is what makes him an endearing personality, but it had begun to grate on his players, Johnson and Chambers in particular. "Cotton is better with young guys who need boosting up and confidence," says Johnson diplomatically. "As soon as we became more of a veteran team, Paul was the better man for the job."
As for the second question, Westphal, a Sun assistant under Fitzsimmons, had no trouble with the Danny Decision. "My philosophy with Majerle is that I never want to take him out of the game," says Westphal. And often he doesn't, as was the case on Friday when the gnarly Majerle played all 48 minutes, many of them at point guard. It was up to Ainge, then, to find his niche off the bench, and he has. Through Sunday he had hit 49.6% of his shots from the floor and 45.7% from three-point range while playing an average of 27.6 minutes a game. "There's a lot more juice in those legs than we ever dreamed," says Westphal.
If Johnson is overwhelmed by the Barkley burden, he's hiding it well. "I am not as good a basketball player as Charles Barkley," he said last week. "That's all there is to it. And somehow realizing that has made me feel comfortable, freed me up, so to speak, for just playing."
As for the veterans Barkley, Ainge and Chambers, they're melding well. Chambers has in the past had trouble getting along with teammates, but, at age 33, he now wants only a championship ring to validate his 12-year career. As much as anyone, he has sacrificed statistically to accommodate Barkley.