Phoenix Suns parallels with cinderella 1988-89 Suns hard to ignore

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

While it's still with a grain of salt, the world is finding out that what coach Hornacek. GM McDonough and Pres Babby predicted preseason might actually have been right: no tank in this team. And the parallels to the great 1988-89 Suns are too clear to ignore.

The Phoenix Suns are the best story of the year, the biggest overachievers in the NBA, and are making fans, analysts and front office folks across the league scratch their heads with confusion.

After beating the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers by a combined 42 points in the last three days, upping their season record to 17-10, more and more outlets are being forced to take notice.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!

Only Chad Ford, life-long Suns hater who must have been bullied by a Suns front office guy in an alley once, still chooses to stick to months-old rhetoric saying that the Suns are still shopping for a tanking opportunity and that #1 pick next year (LOL, stay Chad, Chad!).

Still, the Suns don't have any established star players so the national love is often couched in "for now" undertones. There's no re-write of the national TV schedules to broadcast this fun team across the globe.

To get national recognition, these Suns are going to have to follow the post-Carmelo Denver Nuggets path and the Memphis Grizzlies path of recent years: national exposure starts in the playoffs.

You can go all the way back to the stone age, or in NBA terms, the 1988-89 season in which the Phoenix Suns, reeling from a drug scandal and roster purge, surprised the NBA and the city of Phoenix with one of the best basketball teams in the history of the league.

The Suns had just finished a 1987-88 season in which they struggled to a 28-54 record while shipping out half their roster at the trade deadline, including All-Star Larry Nance, for a promising point guard and underutilized center stuck behind All-Stars at their respective positions in Cleveland.

No one expected the Suns to do well in 1988-89, including the city of Phoenix. Yet they went a whopping 55-27 that year behind a two-headed point guard system (Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek) with an sweet shooting power forward (Tom Chambers), a rebounding center (Mark West) and a host of supporting players including a sharp-shooting sixth man (Eddie Johnson).

How their season started was quite similar to this current Suns team:

  • In 1988, the Suns started 9-8; In 2013, the Suns started 9-8
  • In 1988, the Suns went on a 4-game winning streak to get to 15-10 and won 9 of 10 to get to 20-11; this year, the Suns started 10-9 before winning 7 of 8 to get to their current record of 17-10 and still counting...

While I wrote how the city is taking it's time to warm up to this year's Suns, the city did the same to that incredible team. Even while winning 55 games with the league's 2nd best offense and 5th best defense, fans still left the arena 20% empty on most nights. Overall, that season the Suns finished 20th of 25 teams in attendance.

It wasn't until the 1989-90 season - with a roster almost exactly the same as the year before - that fans filled the arena to capacity again.

So, don't fret Suns fans. Support always lags behind performance.

Speaking of performance, as the Suns languish at 25th of 30 teams in attendance to date, they were outperforming expectation like nobody's business.

As of Christmas, my preseason prediction was somewhere around 10 wins. Even last month after the 9-8 start, I predicted no more than 5 wins in December's tough schedule.

So I must take some heat for failing to properly predict the Suns' rise to prominence with a 17-10 record and no looking back.

When coach Hornacek famously predicted a scoring offense touching or exceeding 103 points per game, the nation chuckled. Last year, only five NBA teams scored 102.9 points or more per game. The Suns were coming off a season in which they scored on 95.2 and didn't add a single big-time scorer to their lineup.

"What did we average last year?" he asked our own Jim Coughenour. "Over 102.9, we would hope we can get there. If we can get there I think that's a good start for us in our first year. So, hopefully, I would say yes."

Talk about meeting expectations. Right now, the Suns are at 103.8 points per game, 7th overall in the NBA. Their pace is still slow (12 in the league), but their points per possession is 5th overall.

And they-re even playing defense - 16th in scoring defense, 17th in points-per-possession allowed - while scoring at levels not seen since a Canadian was running point with Amare Stoudemire the roll man.

A season after getting killed at the three-point line (29th in their own 3p% vs. 30th in 3p% allowed), they are killing the opposition with it (6th in their own 3p% vs. 2nd in 3p% allowed). And they're taking advantage of that: taking the league's 5th most 3s while allowing the 2nd fewest.

A season after having their top scorer get only 14.7 points per game, that same top scorer is now pouring in 19.0 per game with a lot more threats around him in the offense.

And a season after disappointing the masses, the Morris twins are playing like lottery picks.

"I'm a shooter. No doubt about it," Marcus Morris said in the preseason. "I had a good year in Houston when I shot almost 40% on three pointers. Whatever you need me to do, I'll do."

Marcus is now shooting 45.1% on 3.4 threes a game, good for second on the team to P.J. Tucker's 46.3%. Overall, the Suns have 7 players hitting better than 33% on threes (the league average) - all 7 are in the regular 9-man rotation. Only Miles Plumlee and Archie Goodwin aren't taking and making threes.

Markieff Morris has stepped up as well, in ways we never thought he would. A season after hanging around the three-point line for nearly 1/3 of all his attempts, he's living much closer to the basket this year. Now, only about 10% of his shots are three-pointers, and his true shooting percentage is up as a result.

As Jim noted, ALL the Suns are having career years. Yes, these Suns are exceeding expectations.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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