DO THE SUNS NEED KJ ANYMORE?

You're Kevin Johnson, once a spectacular performer. But now you must hear the whispers that the Phoenix Suns are a better basketball team without you.

At this point, you don't know how much longer it will take before your various physical ailments will allow you to return to the lineup.

One thing is certain. They are not major injuries. They will pass and you will be as strong and quick as ever. It isn't as though you were coming off knee surgery like a Bernard King.

Your own skills won't be your problem. You face a more subtle, perhaps even career-defining, transition. The Phoenix Suns team to which you will be returning has been transformed. It is virtually a new team.

For you, returning to play with Paul Westphal's Suns will be like reporting to a team to which you have just been traded.

When you joined the Suns after being traded from Cleveland several years ago, your slashing brand of play at point guard was the biggest single factor in the club's success. That Suns team posted 27 more victories than it had the year before.

That first season here in Phoenix was a revelation. Tom Chambers had a career year, averaging 25.7 points. You controlled the offense as it scored more than 100 points in 79 of 82 games. In fact, the Suns were the highest-scoring team in the entire National Basketball Association.

You became only the fifth player in NBA history to average more than 20 points and more than ten assists per game. Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas did it several times. Magic Johnson and Tiny Archibald did it, too. But you were only 23 and treading in a rarefied atmosphere. The fans fell in love with you, and to them you could do no wrong. They didn't mind that you often dribbled the ball too far under the basket before making a decision to pass off. They didn't even mind that you often didn't seem to know where to make the right pass or that you took erratic jump shots.

You were hot. The Suns were winning. The crowds began packing the old arena. The turnstiles were clicking.

Now times have changed. With Paul Westphal directing the team, the decision has been made to emphasize defense. Over the past couple of seasons, your stock has diminished. When point guards for the Olympic team were being discussed, your name was never mentioned. You are still considered a great individual player, but people now wonder whether you are the kind of point guard who can direct a team to victory in an important playoff series.

The pressure is on, because you will be coming back to a team that has demonstrated it may play better without you.

Negele Knight and Frank Johnson don't possess your still-extraordinary talent. They can't drive to the hoop with the explosive speed and power you have. You are still the best in the league at performing that single, spectacular play. But they give up the ball quicker. They understand the half-court game better. They are more willing to dish it off. They spread the scoring around.

This is now a team which has Charles Barkley, undoubtedly one of the best in the game. Seemingly invigorated by his trade to Phoenix from Philadelphia, Charles is on his way to having a career year. If Barkley, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and Tom Chambers remain free from injury, this club will soar. Understanding of his new situation, Chambers has been coming off the bench and, for the first time in his career, hustling on defense. Mark West is playing better under the basket and doing all the valuable drudge work no one notices. Rookie Oliver Miller has been a delight. Cedric Ceballos is a mystery who might still provide the sudden offense lacking since the trade of Eddie Johnson.

It is a long season, and you will be back with the team before you know it. But you must hear the questions about your reduced efficiency during the past two seasons.

Even you must know that a lot of fans would rather have seen you traded to Philadelphia than Jeff Hornacek. Many of them still look upon you as a point guard who scores big during the regular season and then is stopped cold by tough defense in the playoffs.

You have it within your power to change their minds almost overnight. But in order to do so, you must realize that you're returning to a new Suns team. It plays the game differently. You can help it, of course. You are good enough to help any team in this league.

You're Kevin Johnson, who must prove all over again that you are one of the Phoenix Suns' most valuable players.

 
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