Greatest Phoenix Suns Ever: Head Coach Edition

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Welcome to edition I of a series featuring the best Phoenix Suns players per position, and best head coaches. We here at BSotS will give you our choices, and ask you to give yours.

Over the last few weeks, we've had great conversation around former Suns head coach John MacLeod and current coach Alvin Gentry, two men who have coached conference finalist Suns teams, and MacLeod a conference champion.

The Suns franchise has a proud history of winning despite the lack of an NBA championship, with a .559 all-time regular season winning %, 29 playoff appearances and only 14 losing seasons out of 43. What places the Suns as the premier sports franchise in Phoenix is that they are the original major sports team to call Phoenix home. Now the 6th most populous city in the US, when the Suns came to Phoenix in 1968, the city was seen as more of a remote desert outpost, home only to cowboys sweating in the sweltering heat. The Suns helped put the city on the map, and were a source of pride for sports fans deprived of pro football and baseball.

OK, enough of the preamble. I've selected five Suns head coaches for us to discuss. Who was/is the best? Do you go old school with MacLeod or Cotton? Or do you still pine for the "7 Seconds or Less" Mike D'Antoni Suns? As always, feel free to share your memories in the comments. Jump it for more Suns coaching goodness.

My choices, presented in chronological order. I expect you'll agree that the likes of Danny Ainge, Terry Porter and Scott Skiles aren't in contention.

John MacLeod

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    Suns coach from: 1973-1987

    Regular season record with Suns: 579-543, .516%

    9 playoff appearances, 1 NBA Finals appearance, 2 conference finals appearances.   

The longest tenured coach in Suns history, MacLeod helped define the team during the bulk of the 70s and 80s, and his teams built the Suns' reputation as winners full of entertaining players. His Suns featured spectacular players Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Alvan Adams and Larry Nance, and won 50 games in 4 seasons between 1978-1983. And this was after his 75-76 team made the NBA Finals against the Celtics in one of the most memorable Finals in history.

Why isn't MacLeod in the Suns Ring of Honor? None of us can figure that out.

 

Cotton Fitzsimmons

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  • Suns coach from: 1970-1972, 1988-1992, 1995-1997
  • Regular season record with Suns: 341-208, .621%
  • 4 playoff appearances, 2 conference finals appearances.

Cotton's second stint as Suns coach, starting in 1988, was one of the most successful stretches in franchise history, with 4 consecutive 50 win seasons behind Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, Jeff Hornacek and Cedric Ceballos. Making this even more impressive is that the 1987 Suns won only 28 games and were rocked by a drug scandal that brought the team to one of its lowest points.

After rebuilding the team to be a contender, Cotton stepped aside to allow Paul Westphal to take over and lead the next generation of Suns, with Charles Barkley and Danny Ainge now in the fold. After a coaching comeback of mixed success in '95, Cotton went on to provide color commentary next to Al McCoy , where his folksy demeanor was a perfect fit.

Personally, I have a soft spot for Cotton and those late-80s Suns teams. They never really disappointed me because I never expected them to win a championship. But they won a lot of games, scored a lot of points, and kept me entertained. That's Suns basketball to me.

 

Paul Westphal

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  • Suns coach from: 1992-1996
  • Regular season record with Suns: 191-88, .684%
  • 4 playoff appearances, 1 NBA Finals appearance, 1 conference finals appearance.

Westphal was in the right place at the right time, that's for sure. He assumed an exceptionally talented Suns team featuring newly added superstar Charles Barkley, in addition to Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Cedric Ceballos, Danny Ainge and Tom Chambers.

While it seems like a dream head coaching job to have all of those guys, it also took a lot of ego management. That's a lot of type A personalities right there, and Westphal kept them all on the same page. He led what was probably the best Suns team ever, the 62-win 92-93 squad that made the NBA Finals. Only Michael Jordan's dynastic Bulls team was able to bring them down. He had a lot to work with, but winning 68% of his games and losing only to the eventual league champion in 3 of his 4 complete seasons? Yes, please, and I want more of that. Only, could you have beaten the eventual champion and made us one in just one of those chances you had?

Mike D'Antoni

    Suns coach from: 2003-2008108956378_display_image_medium

    Regular season record with Suns: 253-136, .650%

    4 playoff appearances, 2 conference finals appearances.

For most of the younger Suns fans here, D'Antoni was the gold standard. He took over a stumbling Suns team in mid-2003 and went only 21-40 in that partial season. The Suns added Steve Nash to the core of Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson and, POOF!, the team won 62 games and made the conference finals the next year.

Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash were the perfect marriage of coaching style and player ability. And, what a spectacular Suns team that was. The D'Antoni teams were a brilliant contrast to the boring, isolation-play teams of the era and brought a new excitement to NBA basketball, but could never get over the hump and win a championship. You can blame D'Antoni's lack of focus on defense and developing his bench, or Suns' owner Robert Sarver's frugal ways demanding that draft picks be sold off, but the D'Antoni era never fully delivered on its promise. It sure was a hell of a lot of fun to watch though, wasn't it?

Alvin Gentry

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  • Suns coach from: 2008-present
  • Regular season record with Suns: 112-83, .577%
  • 1 playoff appearance, 1 conference finals appearance.

Frankly, I'm not sure Gentry belongs on this list. He's only coached the Suns for two full seasons, and the team only made the playoffs one of those seasons. But that was quite a fun run last year when he led a team most had left for dead to the conference finals, sweeping longtime nemesis San Antonio along the way. Gentry wasn't just along for the ride there. His steady hand was what the team needed, with an almost-traded Amare Stoudemire, young players like Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez, and veterans in need of opportunity like Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson. Gentry got the most from them all.

A theme I noticed when writing this is restoration. The coaches on this list were mostly builders or rebuilders, bringing the team back from dire straits. Gentry did that once, in 2009-2010, when it looked like the Suns' window to contend had closed. The question now is: can he do it again?

Which of these Suns' head coaches do you think was the greatest ever?

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