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With Barkley, Rockets Have Twin Power

Pro basketball: Trade will give Houston more muscle alongside Olajuwon. Suns get four players in return.


The Houston Rockets, having spent most of the offseason pursuing Charles Barkley and the last season and a half searching for a dependable power forward, got both Sunday when they made a four-for-one trade with the Phoenix Suns that will be officially announced today.

In return, the Suns get Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Chucky Brown, Mark Bryant and the chance to end what had become a public feud with Barkley before it dragged into 1996-97. They also get some much-needed salary-cap flexibility for the future since all four newcomers will be free agents next summer.

The Rockets get the chance to call themselves legitimate championship contenders, loading up for another title run after being swept in the second round of the '96 playoffs by the Seattle SuperSonics. Whatever doubts that abrupt exit, just after playing so well in beating the Lakers, raised should be gone now.

Barkley is 33, turns 34 around mid-season and refuses to act his age, which means he'll fit perfectly in Houston. Years after saying he would be retired, he finished fifth in the league in rebounding in 1995-96 and eighth in scoring, putting him in the top 10 in the latter category for the ninth consecutive campaign.

There he will join Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to give the Rockets three future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, who, while not in their prime, are still posting big numbers.

Olajuwon is 33 going on 28. All he did last season was average 26.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.90 blocks while shooting 51.4%.

Drexler's durability has become a concern at age 34--he has played at least 75 games only once in the last four seasons, and in 1995-96 made just 52 appearances due to a torn muscle in his right knee and a deep bruise on his right shin. Then again, he hid it well if he was struggling the rest of the time, contributing 19.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists.

So, health willing, the Rockets have impact players at center, power forward and shooting guard, and the impending signing of free agent Kevin Willis, possibly as soon as today, provides a dependable backup for Olajuwon and Barkley. This is something of a novel concept for a team that has struggled to find one player to go alongside its superstar center, with Bryant, Brown, Horry, Pete Chilcutt and Carl Herrera all having taken a turn as the starting power forward since Otis Thorpe was traded on Valentine's Day 1995.

The deal also means the Rockets will have new starters at point guard (free-agent acquisition Brent Price), small forward (probably Mario Elie) and power forward. And, if so, the smallest pair of starting forwards in the league, maybe even the CBA: 6-4 1/2 Barkley and 6-5 Elie, a swingman.

Horry is the former starter at small forward at 6-10 and should now provide the Suns with a much-needed boost on defense. Cassell, the fearless sparkplug off the bench during the two championship seasons, becomes one of four point guards in Phoenix, along with Kevin Johnson, Elliot Perry and first-round pick Steve Nash, signaling the Suns may have more moves ahead.

Brown was the starting power forward with the Rockets--and the only Houston player to appear in all 82 games in the injury-ravaged season--but by default because Bryant was such a disappointment after arriving as a free agent.


Trade at a Glance


* Charles Barkley--Two Olympic golds but no NBA title. Averaged over 20 points and 11 rebounds in 10 of 12 seasons.


* Sam Cassell--Career-high 14.5 points and 4.6 assists last season, may eventually replace KJ.

* Robert Horry--Averaged 12 points and four rebounds last year. Strong, Lithe and a great leaper.

* Mark Bryant--An eight-year veteran most wanted for his defense and rebounding.

* Chucky Brown--Solid off the bench, averaged a career-high 8.6 points per game last year.

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