This team is clearly in a rebuilding mode. To reman relevant on the NBA scene, we need to make Phoenix once again an attractive destination. How have we done this in the past? What does the past tell us about the future?
I know that most of you have been junkies at BSOTS, enduring lousy play one game, a spirited performance the next. I have been watching from afar, rarely posting and sadly shaking my head when an enthusiastic poster exults at a double double by Gortat, or a three pointer by Dudley. This season has brought us a stirring Laker victory, a very satisfying win at Boston, a surprising domination of Utah, a horrible set of games against Sacramento, and two puzzling games against the Sixers. I started thinking with the latest trade that our cupboard is pretty bare. With my historical perspective of following the team since Connie Hawkins came on board, I started to think of how the team has recovered in the past from a bleak outlook.
Bleak Outlook #1
Suns go 16-66 as expansion team. The city was so excited at having a team, there wasn’t a lot of griping from the fans. But it was pretty bad basketball. Unless you enjoyed the silky moves of Jim Fox and Gary Gregor, the lone bright spot was the fearless drives of the Flying Dutchman, Dick Van Arsdale. Stumpy Goodrich was a nice player, but he was a point guard who never met a shot he didn’t like. The outlook for the Suns ? I think they could only expect another 15-20 win season.
So Jerry C gets to work and acquires four nice cogs for a smooth running machine. Connie Hawkins, a player who I believe would have been Dr J’s equal given a normal career instead of an unfair blacklisting, provided the centerpiece. Colangelo uses the consolation prize in the Alcindor (Abdul-Jabbar) lottery to select Neal Walk, a tough center who Lew/Kareem said was his toughest matchup. Jerry was not done, shipping Gregor to Atlanta for Paul Silas, the toughest rebounder under 6-7 I have ever seen this side of Charles Barkley. He then got rid of the ball hog Goodrich, shipping him to LA for Walk’s backup, Mel Counts. Jerry capped it off by acquiring Clem Haskins from the Bulls. This was a team built for a nice run. This is the Suns team I fell in love with. Three things prevented the team from reaching its potential. The advanced age of Hawkins coupled with Colangelo’s love affair with Charlie Scott, and the sudden departure of Jerry’s first great coaching hire (Cotton Fitzsimmons) led to some lean times.
Bleak Outlook #2
We still had a fading Dick Van, but new coach John McLeod looked pretty bad after the 1974-75 season. The team had just completed a 52 loss season, and the team was saddled with a gunner as its main player (Scott). Hawk was gone, the injuries and hard seasons with horrible medical staffs in the ABA taking their toll. Silas, Haskins, and Walk were gone along with him. The only chip we had was Charlie Scott. In a stunning role reversal, JC actually got the better of Auerbach in a trade. It was the only time he would do so. Paul Westphal came on board for Scott, as well as a nice draft haul of Alvan Adams and Ricky Sobers. Rugged rebounder Curtis Perry was the main product of trading Neal Walk. The player received for Hawkins was Keith Erickson, who was a helpful bench player. One of Jerry’s mistakes was the acquisition of John Shumate, but he redeemed himself by dumping him for Gar Heard halfway through the season. After a stirring championship series in June of 1976, The success of this bunch was derailed for a season by injuries and overconfidence, but JC grabbed Walter Davis in the draft, and the Suns had a true contender for the next five seasons. He tried to keep it going by getting guys like Mo Lucas, Dennis Johnson, and later Larry Nance, but the McLeod Express ran out of gas, Davis turned to drugs, and the Suns hit bottom in 1987.
Bleak Outlook #3
Like the turnaround Jerry engineered in 1975, the Suns in 1987 had only one tradeable asset, Larry Nance. Jerry got to work, and in the best trade the Suns ever had, he netted Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Andrew Lang, and Tim Perry. The importance of Lang and Perry were not felt as much on the court, but were part of a future trade along with Jeff Hornacek that would eventually bring Charles Barkley to Phoenix, which prolonged this particular resurgence. The coup de gras was the free agent signing of Tom Chambers. JC was not done, however, and further cemented his reputation as a team builder in his theft of Eddie Johnson from the Kings. This team provided arguably the highest entertainment value of any Suns team over a sustained period except possibly the 7SOL teams. However, after Barkley forced his way out, the Suns once again found themselves without much future promise.
Bleak Outlook #4
Again, Jerry followed his tried and true method. He took a look at what he had, which was Michael Finley, and not much else. Finley had the promise of a future star, but played the easiest position to fill (SG/SF). Colangelo knew Dallas had been having problems with Jason Kidd, so he swooped in and grabbed the future star. Little did he know that Kidd would be the catalyst to birth 7SOL in yet another rebirth from the ashes, but more on that later. JC drafted Steve Nash and turned him into a pogo stick with defense named Shawn Marion. Jerry picked up Cliff Robinson and the Suns set sail on another stretch of 50 win seasons of entertaining basketball. However, the early playoff exits became tiresome, as did Kidd’s family problems and Uncle Cliffy’s smoking habits. Add to that the effects of the 1999 offseason, which torpedoed Jerry’s master plan to build around Kidd with McDyess, and maybe Pippen.
Bleak Outlook #5
Colangelo, in a departure from the past, decided to lay some groundwork for future success, not waiting to hit bottom, but actually causing it. He traded the teams one asset to New Jersey in a blockbuster of point guards. This netted Marbury, who was later sent to New York to open up cap space. Colangelo quietly took a chance on a troubled young high school dunking machine named Amare Stoudemire. Jerry further saw something in a 6-8 shooting guard in Boston named Joe Johnson, whom he accepted gladly for Rodney rogers and change. He gave JJ his big chance. The big blow came in the 2004 offseason, when JC thanked Mark Cuban for developing Steve Nash, and stole the future MVP out from under the nose of Mr. Big Mouth. With all of the talk about stars joining forces these days, I am not sure there has ever been 4 players with this much talent on one team. The team has ridden this wave to the point we find ourselves now.
It is interesting to note that this wave of success has lasted for 6 years despite events conspiring to undo Jerry’s magic almost when it began. Future Hall of Famer Colangelo, advancing in age, and tired of the constant criticism, decided to jump at the whopping $401 million offered by banker Robert Sarver. As one of his first acts, the new owner decided to offer future star Joe Johnson a conservative, wait-and-see contract which soured the young man on the team. JJ left, but not until 7SOL became a legend in NBA circles. Jaws dropped around the league as seasoned observers watched a new approach that caught the league by surprise.
But I digress. Now this is the first time we have come to this point in the post-Jerry era. When STAT walked, our hope of success walked. Steve Nash is the only player left from Jerry’s last team. The only thing the sometime success of this year’s team proves, is the Hall of Fame credentials of Steve Nash. His numbers passing to a bunch of scrubs is as good as his numbers passing to the best starting five we have ever had. We have no idea how the new regime will rebuild. One thing is for sure. The Colangelo method of identifying your main asset and turning him into a franchise saving turnaround does not apply here. Our biggest asset is a 38 year old Nash. Now I will not make the same mistake Dallas did, and sell this guy short, but there isn’t a GM in the league who will give us equal value for Stevie Wonder. The only team that makes sense is the Knicks, and they have a bare cupboard after acquiring the candy bar guy. Brooks is not the answer. The only thing that does is give us his contract as well as Carter’s and Hill’s to use to sign a free agent. Once again, just like 1999, a labor stoppage will probably limit the Suns ability to improve this summer. We are at a crossroads as a franchise. Will Blanks/Babby pull a rabbit out of a hat as Jerry did over and over? Or do the Suns post-Jerry do as well as the Dbacks have post-Jerry?
Bleak Outlook #6