New faces and defense to power Suns this year

The Associated Press

PHOENIX The Phoenix Suns will need to see how they fit together at least twice this season, once at the start and again in January, when Danny Manning returns to test his rebuilt left knee.

Manning means that much to the Suns, who have won 53 or more games for seven straight seasons with just one trip to the NBA Finals to show for it.

They finished with the league's third-best record last season at 59-23, but there was a dropoff after Manning tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Feb. 6. The Suns, 36-10 at the time, struggled to win 23 of their last 36 games.

Even without Manning's contribution 17.9 points, 6 rebounds and 3.3 assists the Suns should be a leading contender in the Western Conference.

Fourth-year coach Paul Westphal, never known for hyperbole, allows as much.

''Ultimately, I think we have the potential to have the best team I've had here,'' Westphal said. ''There are a lot of 'ifs' on our team, but I like our chances if those things come together.''

Charles Barkley is playing without pain in his back or legs for the first time since 1993, and A.C. Green guarantees consistency at power forward with a 731-game streak of regular season games, third-best in history.

Those two and point guard Kevin Johnson are the immediately recognizable faces of the team.

But five of the 12 names on the roster are new this season, and three are rookies. They give the Suns an opening-night average age of 271/2, the lowest in five years. Factor in rookies Mario Bennett and John Coker, who are on the injured list, and the Suns are substantially younger.

All three draft picks Michael Finley, Bennett and Chris Carr made the squad and saw extensive playing time while the Suns went 4-4 in the preseason.

Finley, a small forward from Wisconsin, plays the kind of defense needed on a team that traded Dan Majerle to Cleveland for John ''Hot Rod'' Williams. The Suns were second to Miami in scoring last season (110.6 average) but kept games close by allowing an average of 106.8.

Defense figured in the Williams trade more than the 6-foot-11 center's 12.9-point scoring average over nine seasons. The Suns also gave up Antonio Lang and a first-round draft pick to get a pillar in the middle.

Williams led the Cavaliers last season with 101 blocks, a 1.36 average, and left with franchise records for blocks (1,200) and offensive rebounds (1,620).

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