Charles Barkley is the latest to jump aboard the bandwagon of Yao Ming bashers, offering up this quote Thursday night on TNT's post-game show.

"Yao Ming makes Shawn Bradley look like Bill Russell."

Yao is indeed off to a slow start for the Houston Rockets, with more fouls (14) than field goals (eight) through his first six games.

The 7-foot-6 center is playing only 14 minutes per game as the backup to Kelvin Cato, still acclimating himself to the NBA after arriving from China less than a month ago.

Barkley prefaced his remarks by saying that Yao will be a good NBA center in three or four years, but he clearly has been left unimpressed by the player taken first overall in last June's NBA draft.

Barkley even promised to kiss Yao's backside, live on television, if he scores as many as 19 points in a game this season.

Similarly unimpressed, although not as boisterously, is Shaquille O'Neal.

"Yao Who?" O'Neal said last week.

Shaq and Yao were scheduled to have their first meeting of the season Sunday at Staples Center, but O'Neal is not expected to return until Tuesday following offseason foot surgery.

That means their first meeting will likely come Jan. 17, when the Los Angeles Lakers visit Houston. It could be a worthy matchup by then, as O'Neal will have worked off his early season rust and Yao will be more incorporated into the Rockets' game plans.

After a 4-2 start that has put them in second place in the Midwest Division entering the weekend, the Rockets are about to embark on a tough stretch of schedule with eight of the next 10 games on the road -- six against playoffs teams from last season.

The schedule gets easier in January when the Rockets play nine of 15 games at home. Expect Yao to be settled in by then, perhaps ready to make Barkley regret his words and pucker up.

Bountiful Free Agents

Karl Malone and John Stockton haven't said for sure whether they will retire after this season, but the Utah Jazz will be able to rebuild quickly if the two superstars' salaries come off the team's salary cap.

Next summer's free agent class is loaded with top-caliber players, yet there will be very few teams -- the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and possibly the Seattle SuperSonics and Utah -- with enough salary cap space to offer maximum salary deals.

Denver will have enough room to offer two maxium contracts, while San Antonio can add a max player and another high-salaried free agent in addition to re-signing Tim Duncan.

Among the top unrestricted free agents next summer are Michael Olowokandi, Jermaine O'Neal, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Jerry Stackhouse. The next tier includes Brad Miller, Elden Campbell, Vlade Divac, P.J. Brown, Keon Clark and Cliff Robinson.

The top restricted free agents, whose teams have the right to match any offer, include Elton Brand, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and Richard Hamilton.

Sprewell's Return

Nearly two months after he ticked off New York Knicks management by showing up for training camp with a broken hand, leading to a banishment, more than $400,000 in fines and lost salary and a one-game suspension, Latrell Sprewell was expected to make his return Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Coach Don Chaney said he would wait until game time to decide if Sprewell would start ahead of Shandon Anderson.

Sprewell was not cleared to return to full contact practices until Thursday.

"I did everything I could do, especially in the last two weeks or so, to try to get myself ready for Saturday," he said. "So when Saturday comes, I'm not going to be dwelling on the past six weeks."

As the Knicks were getting off to a 1-7 start without Sprewell, team president Scott Layden was finding there was little interest in him on the trade market.

With Sprewell due to make $13.5 million next season and $14.6 million the year after, acquiring him is too risky and expensive a proposition for most other teams.

Sprewell's checkered past includes fights with two teammates and a choking attack on coach P.J. Carlesimo in Golden State, a blown-off training camp in 1999, a missed shootaround last season and his failure to report his injury to the Knicks when in happened over the summer.

Sprewell believes his latest episode was not such a big deal.

"It's definitely not worse than the whole P.J. incident," he said.

Houston center Yao Ming has a proposition from TNT analyst Charles Barkley. If Yao scores 19 points in a game, Barkley will kiss his backside.