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Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley sat in the visitors' locker room of the Target Center in Minneapolis last week, inspecting the blue Minnesota Timberwolves practice shorts a clubhouse attendant had offered him for the next day's workout. That prompted one observer, mindful of the trade winds that have swirled around Barkley of late, to ask whether he could envision himself playing for the lowly T-wolves. He might as well have asked whether Barkley could see himself doing a swan dive off a skyscraper. "Now just hold on," Barkley said. "Don't go trading me to Minnesota. I know things are bad for us right now, but they ain't that bad. Trust me, they'll never get that bad."
The Suns hope, in fact, that the worst is finally over for their beleaguered team, whose hellish half-season so far has included a devastating rash of injuries, a controversial coaching change, friction between Barkley and Phoenix management, and some particularly embarrassing losses for a team that was expected to make another run at the NBA championship. The Suns, who at week's end were 17-23 and next to last in the Pacific Division, have lost at home to such woeful clubs as Minnesota, the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers. And if the season had ended after a 93-82 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Phoenix would have been out of the playoffs for the first time since the 1987-88 season.
The Suns' slow start cost coach Paul Westphal his job, even though he had won 62,56 and 59 games the past three seasons and at one point this season had only eight players healthy enough to dress. Barkley, point guard Kevin Johnson and center John (Hot Rod) Williams missed a total of 30 games because of injury before Westphal was replaced by team vice president Cotton Fitzsimmons on Jan. 16, and forward Danny Manning still hasn't played since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in February '95. "There were times I'd be sitting on the bench and I'd look around and see two other guys in uniforms and everybody else in suits," says reserve forward Wayman Tisdale.
But Barkley, who missed six games after having the nail removed from the infected big toe of his left foot, and Johnson, who was out for 20 with a strained left knee and groin, are both healthy again. Manning is expected back this weekend, and Williams, who suffered nerve damage to his right leg in a car accident last August, finally played against the Bulls on Sunday after missing a total of 13 games. The Suns believe their return to health, coupled with Fitzsimmons's running a tighter ship, will make them a formidable team again by the time the postseason arrives.
"That's if we're in the postseason, of course," says Fitzsimmons, who is back for his third stint as the Suns' coach. "We're in a position where we have to worry about getting to .500 first. We were crawling, now we're walking, but it's going to take some time before we're running again."
At week's end the Suns had won three of their last five, but there has to be some doubt about whether their veterans can still play at a contender's pace. Barkley, 33 on Feb. 20, has seen his chronically ailing back and sore knees fail him in the playoffs the past two seasons, and though he remains one of the top power forwards in the league, his explosiveness and stamina are not what they used to be. Johnson, who will be 30 in March, has missed 103 games over the past 3½ seasons. The Suns knew that Williams, 33, had a history of nagging injuries when they acquired him from the Cleveland Cavaliers for Dan Majerle, Antonio Lang and a first-round draft pick in October. And Manning, who will be 30 in May, has now suffered the dreaded ACL tear in both knees.
"You know those hospital shows, where the doctor comes out of surgery and says the operation went well but the patient's not out of the woods yet?" says Tisdale. "That's us. The rest of the season looks good, but we're not out of the woods yet."
It won't be possible to make a more definitive prognosis on the Suns until Manning returns to the lineup because Phoenix is counting heavily on his intelligence and all-around skills to make the team whole again. The Suns were encouraged with Manning's performance in a scrimmage last week. "He can help us in every phase—coring, rebounding, passing, interior defense," Johnson says. "It really is true of him: He makes other players better."
One way or another, Manning's comeback will be pivotal. Notwithstanding all the rumors of Barkley's being on the block, team president Jerry Colangelo so far has resisted the temptation to make a major trade. But if he determines that the season is lost even after Manning returns, Colangelo might be more inclined to unload Sir Charles for the chance to rebuild with younger players acquired in the deal. Even so, Colangelo has declared that it would take "a blockbuster offer" to move Barkley. The New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers are among the teams that have inquired about Barkley's availability. "I would say that the chances are very, very strong that Charles Barkley will finish his career in Phoenix," says Fitzsimmons, who in his role as vice president is consulted by Colangelo on personnel. "Take a look at our inside game. Without Charles, we don't have one. He's not going anywhere."
At times, though, the outspoken Barkley sounds as if he's trying to talk his way out of town. He has publicly disparaged most of the trades made by Phoenix since the one that brought him to the Suns from the Philadelphia 76ers in 1992. When Barkley criticized the Majerle trade, Colangelo responded pointedly. "I'm not concerned with what Charles thinks," he said. "He does not run this team."