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Throwback Thursday: Backcourt 2000

In the second installment of Bright Side of the Sun's Throwback Thursday, we revisit one of the most interesting experiments in Phoenix Suns history - Backcourt 2000.

When Rollin first approached me about writing a few articles for Throwback Thursday, the first one I wanted to write was about Backcourt 2000.  Then PJ Tucker got arrested and there was a bit of a push for me to change course and write a history of Suns players and their run ins with the law.

My desire to write about that subject lasted about 45 minutes into researching it.

If you're looking for a quick way to depress yourself go ahead and Google that swell subject.  Maybe next time someone gets arrested I'll write about the trials and tribulations of Archie Goodwin, Michael Beasley, Jason Richardson, Jason Kidd, and the 1980s drug scandal but one of the great parts about being a volunteer is you can write about whatever you want.

So instead of drugs I want to write about an experiment that filled the Valley with hope after a 4 year period dotted with roster transition and 1st round exits.

Join me in remembering Backcourt 2000.

The Lead-Up

As you likely remember, the Charles Barkley era was a very successful one for the Phoenix Suns.  During the Suns magical silver anniversary season of 1992-93, Barkley helped lead the franchise to 62 wins and only their second berth in the NBA Finals.  While Phoenix was felled by gifted bald man in those Finals there was reason for optimism heading into future seasons.

The Suns remained a title contender in 1993-94 and 1994-95 - winning 56 and 59 games respectively - but blew series leads to the eventual champion Rockets each year (for more information enjoy this gratuitous self-plug).

Having been torched by Hakeem Olajuwon in each series, Jerry Colangelo inadvertently hastened the end of that 3 year title contention window by trading All-Star Dan Majerle to the Cleveland Cavaliers for John ‘Hot Rod' Williams.  Considering Hot Rod was already 33 years old and slipping in production - this was a really bad trade by any measure.  I'm sure you haven't seen the last of this on Throwback Thursday.

Even with Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Danny Manning, and other vestiges of title contention still on board, the Suns slipped to 41-41, got Paul Westphal fired 33 games into the season, and were wiped out by the Spurs in 4 games in the 1st round of the 1996 playoffs.

Roster turnover really hit overdrive when the Suns closed the book on the Barkley era in the 1996 offseason by dealing the star to Houston in a deal that brought a bunch of dudes I hate (Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Mark Bryant, and Chucky Brown).   At the start of the season, the 1996-97 roster was a strange hodge-podge of players which includes veterans like Kevin Johnson, AC Green, Hot Rod Williams, Rex Chapman and Danny Manning along with young guys like Michael Finley, Wesley Person, and a floppy hair Canadian rookie who would someday trade himself to the Lakers.

That potpourri of talent and lack of chemistry got the Suns off to an 0-13 start which saw Cotton Fitzsimmons resign and Danny Ainge takeover.  Since fortune favors the bold, the Suns made a huge trade with Dallas in December of 1996 that sent Finley, Cassell, and Green to the Mavericks in exchange for 23 year-old All-Star point guard Jason Kidd.

In Kidd's first game with the Suns he managed to fracture his collarbone and miss 6 weeks of action.  But when Kidd returned to the lineup in February the Suns reeled off a 22-10 stretch to close the season and got themselves into the playoffs - where they would suffer a first round exit at the hands of the Sonics.

The 1997-98 Suns re-tooled around Kidd, adding veteran talent like Cliff Robinson and Geroge McCloud, but also trading for dynamic young forward Antonio McDyess.  That roster was talented enough to win 56 games but injuries to Chapman and Manning helped the Spurs defeat them in 4 games during Tim Duncan's 1st playoff series.

McDyess returned to Denver in the following offseason under some strange circumstances (definite future Throwback Thursday material) and the Suns filled that void with Tom Gugliotta and Luc Longley.  The Suns were a smidge over .500 in the 1998-99 lockout season but were swept by the Blazers in the 1st round.

Something needed to change.

The Target

Down in Orlando there was an equal need for change for the Magic and their star guard Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway.  The Magic had acquired Hardaway (and assorted draft picks) in a draft day trade with the Golden State Warriors that sent Chris Webber to the Bay Area.

Hardaway had an almost immediate impact in Orlando, teaming up with Shaquille O'Neal, the Magic were in the Finals in Penny's 2nd season.  In 3 seasons with both Shaq and Penny, the Magic won 50, 57, and 60 games and were one of the Eastern Conference's top teams.  In both his 2nd and 3rd season, Hardaway was All-NBA 1st team while O'Neal was 2nd and 3rd team (surely a product of the center position of the mid 90s but fascinating nonetheless).  From a raw stat perspective, in just his 2nd season, Hardaway averaged 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and shot 51.2% from the field and 34.9% from three.

Basically Penny was a complete stud.  He was a 6'7 guard with outstanding athletic ability and could also distribute the ball and run an offense.  Here's an opportunity to link some vintage Penny highlights:

After Shaq left the Magic for Los Angeles in the summer of 1996, Penny took over as the bellwether of the Orlando team.  The remainder of Penny's 3 seasons in Orlando were dotted with injuries and the perception that he helped force out Orlando coach Brian Hill in 1997.

Despite playing just 59 games in the 1996-97 season (knee issue #1), Hardaway was still good enough to earn All-NBA 3rd Team honors.  Knee issue #2 struck early in the 1997-98 season when Penny suffered an ACL injury that according to Dr. James Andrews was unable to be appropriately diagnosed due to the MRI technology of the time.

That lack of appropriate diagnosis likely contributed to Hardaway returning much earlier than he should have from his initial injury (he missed just 8 weeks) but he would survive just 6 additional games before shutting down for the season.

The man who helped give us Lil' Penny returned to play all 50 games in the lockout shortened 1998-99 season and helped lead the Magic to the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference where they were knocked out by the 76ers.

Statistically, Hardaway had already begun to dip as a player but that did not stop him from becoming a hot commodity during the 1999 offseason after he opted out of the final 3 years of his contract with Orlando.

In a fascinating tidbit - the Lakers were hot in pursuit of Hardaway, even being listed as the favorite in this July 1999 article.

But Hardaway has made it clear to the Lakers that his No. 1 option is the Lakers, and a reunion with O'Neal.

As you may already have realized - that did not happen.

The Trade

What did actually happen was this -  on August 5, 1999 the Orlando Magic traded Penny Hardaway to the Phoenix Suns for Pat Garrity, Danny Manning, a 2001 1st round pick (Jason Collins was selected), and a 2002 1st round pick (Amar'e Stoudemire was selected).

Fun Fact:  That 2002 1st round pick was returned to the Suns in a 3 team deal when the Magic dealt that pick and Bo Outlaw to the Suns, the Suns traded Vinny Del Negro and cash to the Clippers, and the Suns traded Jud Buechler to the Magic.  That trade basically constituted highway robbery for the Suns.  Apparently Orlando's motivation to make the deal was clearing cap space since Outlaw had 4 years left on his contract while Buechler had only 2.  The Clippers just played facilitator to get some cash since they waived their future head coach Del Negro immediately.

In the wake of the trade, the Suns signed the 28 year-old Hardaway to a 7 year, $86.5 million dollar contract (it was technically a sign & trade in case you're into that) - which was the max under the CBA in place at the time.

The Hype

Well the internal hype was off the charts.  Here are a few choice quotes following the acquisition:

Suns head coach Danny Ainge called Penny:

"the most skilled all-around player in the game. All of a sudden I really believe this puts us as one of the elite teams in the NBA."

Jerry Colangelo -who once acquired superstar Charles Barkley - added that the acquisition:

"ranks right up there with any acquisition we've ever made. He's a marquee guy."

The fan hype was also pretty significant.  The duo of Kidd and Hardaway was expected to be one of the NBA's best backcourts - and since we were so close to the year 2000 the ever creative "Backcourt 2000" nickname was bestowed upon them.

It's impossible to blame people for getting excited about this.  Kidd was a 26 year-old do (almost) everything point guard who had just been named All-NBA 1st team, while Hardaway was still theoretically in his prime and already a two-time All-NBA 1st team selection.  Those kind of credentials - at those ages - do not frequently wind up on the same team together.

But based on several season previews I pulled the media didn't exactly have the same type of aspirations for the Suns that Ainge was suggesting:

From the New York Times 1999-2000 season preview:

The Suns haven't won a playoff series since 1995, and the notion that they can play small-ball forever is ludicrous, especially since most of the game's premier big men now reside in the Western Conference. Still, picking up Penny Hardaway and Rodney Rogers makes Phoenix better. And after a scintillating preseason, the U.N.L.V. rookie Shawn Marion may be the steal of the draft. If Luc Longley can give Coach Danny Ainge a halfway-decent season, the second round is within reach.

None of ESPN's 8 experts picked the Suns to win even the Pacific Division while Sports Illustrated picked the Suns 7th in the Western Conference.  Although you should take the SI prediction witha grain of salt since their conclusion was this:

Whether the Suns can ascend to the Western Conference summit will depend heavily on Longley's ability to give them at least a fighting chance against the NBA's power centers.

If you're depending on Luc Longley to do anything other than be Australia - you're gonna have a bad time.

The Results

Injuries were the unfortunate name of the game for Backcourt 2000.

In year 1 - Hardaway struggled with a plantar fasciitis injury while Jason Kidd broke his left ankle in March.  The pair managed to play in just 45 games together and Danny Ainge abruptly resigned in December but the Suns still managed to go 53-29 and nabbed the 5th seed in the Western Conference.

If you're looking for the ultimate "what-if" on Backcourt 2000 look no further than the fact that in those 45 regular season games where Kidd/Hardaway played together, the Suns posted a 33-12 record - which is a scalding hot .733 win percentage (so Bledsoe/Dragic-like).

Kidd's broken ankle kept him out of the first 3 games of the Suns 1st round playoff series with the Spurs but he returned in Game 4 to help the Suns push past the Spurs* and into the 2nd round.

* -  Tim Duncan didn't play in the series so it shouldn't really count.

Unfortunately for the Suns the Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant 67-win Lakers buzzsaw awaited in Round 2.  Even if Kidd had been fully healthy it's pretty unlikely the Suns were going to do anything more than they did - which was to go relatively quietly in 5 games.

But there were lots of bright sides heading into the 2nd season of Backcourt 2000.  Hardaway had saved his best basketball of the season for the 2000 playoffs (over 20 points, 5 assists, and just under 5 rebounds on 48% shooting), Kidd was going to return fully healthy, Shawn Marion was a revelation in his rookie season, and Sixth Man of the Year Rodney Rogers was back.

That optimism lasted right up until Penny Hardaway underwent offseason microfracture surgery.  Much like Amar'e Stoudemire would do during the 2005-06 season, Hardaway attempted a brief return at the midpoint of the year but after 4 games he was unable to continue and was shut down for the season.

Backcourt 2000 was dead.

The Aftermath

The Backcourt 2000 era officially ended on July 18, 2001 when Jason Kidd was traded (along with Chris Dudley) to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury, Johnny Newman, and Soumaila Samake.  Among the factors weighing heavily into the Suns dealing Kidd was the star point guard's arrest for domestic abuse in January 2001 in relation to an argument with his then-wife Joumana about their 2 year-old son eating French fries.

Hardaway spent 2 and a half additional seasons in Phoenix - even reaching a high of 80 games played in the 2001-2002 campaign.  But he was never close to the same player that he was in Orlando.

The former All-Star was dealt to New York on January 5, 2004 as a shell of his former self when the Suns traded Marbury and filler to the Knicks for a package of players that basically existed to clear cap space and bring the Suns draft picks (2004 and 2010 1st round picks which were both dealt to Utah a month later in a deal that brought the Suns Keon Clark - who never played for them).

That Marbury/Hardaway trade served to clear the cap space necessary for the Suns to sign Quentin Richardson Steve Nash.  Nash combined with incumbents Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion , and Joe Johnson to begin the Seven Seconds or Less era.

The Legacy

It was an honorable and memorable experiment.  One the Suns basically had to take a gamble on.  As we come up on the 15 year anniversary of Hardaway's acquisition pretty much any Suns fan would be lying if they said they weren't excited by this deal at the time.

Perhaps if Penny Hardaway's body could have held up things could have turned out differently.  All in all, the Kidd/Hardaway backcourt got all of 55 games together - 55 games in which they went 37-18.

What if.  Long live Backcourt 2000.

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