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#TBT - 1988: Tom Chambers joins the Phoenix Suns and scores ALL the points

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Tom Chambers
Chambers lays it in against the Lakers.

There was a time when Phoenix Suns fans couldn’t imagine their worst seasons were yet to come. At the start of the 1987 season, the Suns had missed the playoffs the previous two years and hadn’t managed a record over .500 in the previous four. Compounding issues in the clubhouse, a massive drug scandal had implicated several members of the team.

The Phoenix Suns conducted a wholesale changeover of the roster, including trading for Kevin Johnson, Mark West (my boy!) and Ty Corbin. They also used a first round draft pick on Dan Majerle. And last, but certainly not least, they signed the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history away from the Seattle Supersonics: the incomparable Tom Chambers.

From an article by Matt Petersen at Suns.com, here’s how Chambers and Colangelo described the fit:

“The year before we had played against the Suns [after] they had gotten Kevin Johnson, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin,” Chambers said. “Loved what they were doing as a team. Loved Kevin Johnson as a point guard, Jeff Hornacek [also]. I just felt like, since they had [traded forward] Larry [Nance], they needed that guy to come back and fill that spot.”

His train of thought ran parallel to that of the Suns.

“If you look at our roster, we have a young nucleus,” Colangelo said just days before signing Chambers. “In the [1988] draft[2], we added defense, rebounding, athletic ability, quickness and a lot more scoring than people might realize. If we can add a bona fide veteran player who can play and get some numbers, that would be perfect.”

And get numbers he would.

But first, let’s get this out of the way. Tom Chambers is probably best remembered for this dunk on Mark Jackson. And he probably should be. Keep Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, Amare Stoudemire and the rest of your famous dunkers. This might be the best in-game dunk in NBA history. It’s so good, it deserves a statue... Oh! They made one! Check out the video.

However, a dunk — however spectacular — rarely wins games by itself. But you know what does? Scoring points. And Tom Chambers was very good at scoring points.

Despite sporting the 5th worst record in franchise history at 28-54 (third worst at the time... sigh) the 1987-88 Phoenix Suns had a promising young backcourt featuring Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek. What they lacked was a proven go-to scorer. Enter Thomas Doane Chambers.

Prior to joining Phoenix in 1988, Chambers had played 7 season in the NBA: 2 with the San Diego Clippers and 5 with the Seattle Supersonics. Standing 6 feet, 10 inches, he was an agile big man with a shooter’s touch who was a rising star. In his first 7 seasons, he managed one All-Star Game appearance in 1987 and even took home the game’s MVP award after pouring in 34 points. Not bad for a game that featured Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving among others. Even then, Chambers was just getting started.

The 1988-89 season will go down as one of the greatest in Phoenix Suns history. The Suns made a historic turnaround, winning 55 games and ending their 3 season playoff drought. Chambers was a key member of the squad, setting a franchise record for points scored with 2085. He also averaged 26.0 points per game in the playoffs as the Suns advanced to the Conference Finals, eventually losing to the Portland Trailblazers.

In his second season in Phoenix, Chambers would blow that point total out of the water. With a full season under their belt and a healthy dose of roster consistency, these Suns knew their roles. Kevin Johnson was the distributor, Jeff Hornacek was a deadeye distance shooter, Dan Majerle was a hard-nose defender, Mark West was an imposing inside presence and Tom Chambers... his job was to put the biscuit in the bucket.

Chambers was a volume scorer, but not an inefficient one. In his record-setting 89-90 campaign, he actually attempted fewer field goals than the season prior while shooting 50% from the field. More impressively, this was mostly done inside the arc as Chambers was only passable 3 point shooter, averaging only 30.4% for his career. In the span of a month he would post the two highest scoring single game performances in Phoenix history: a 56 point outburst on February 18 in Oakland against the Warriors and a 60 point demolition of his old team, the Sonics, at home on March 24.

Again from another article on Suns.com:

"My teammates were trying like crazy to get me the ball," Chambers said. "That's the neat thing. Some teams have guys who just want to get their 20 points. But this team gets excited for their teammates."

The excitement was evident on KJ's face as Chambers closed in on the 60-point mark. In his post-game comments, KJ summed up the feelings of all who witnessed a true virtuoso performance.

"Oh, man, how many games are you going to be at where a guy is going to go and have a night like that and just be on his team? To me, that's kind of history in itself."

In two season with the Phoenix Suns, Tom Chambers had posted the two highest scoring totals in Phoenix history, following his 2085 point year with a 2201 more points, averaging 25.7 and 27.2 points per game respectively. Those point total records still stand. And yet, Chambers isn’t even in the top 10 scorers in Phoenix history. So what happened? Two other forwards happened: Xavier McDaniel and Charles Barkley.

At the end of the 1990 season, Chambers had crossed the then-dreaded age threshold into his 30s and was becoming an old man by NBA standards. The Suns, seeing an opportunity to add youth to their frontcourt, seized upon it. 15 games into the 90-91 season, they traded Eddie Johnson for veteran forward and former TC teammate Xavier McDaniel. With McDaniel in the fold, there were fewer touches for Chambers and his scoring, as well as the Suns’s chemistry suffered. McDaniel would be traded away to the New York Knicks at the season’s end for essentially nothing.

But the Suns were not done trying to improve. A year later in July of 1992, the team traded for the Philadelphia 76ers’ superstar Charles Barkley and Chambers’ days as a starter for the Suns were over.

It wasn’t quite the end of the line in Phoenix for TC. For the 1992-93 season and trip to the NBA Finals, Chambers provided a steady veteran presence on the bench, averaging 12.2 points per game in 23 minutes and shooting a career best 39.3% from downtown in a role similar to the one Mirza Teletovic filled at the start of last season. The team released Chambers at the end of the year.

For the following two seasons, Chambers effectively came off the bench for the Utah Jazz before moving on to the Charlotte Hornets. In Charlotte he only appeared in 12 games. Chambers once again signed with the Suns at the beginning of the 1997-98, only to find himself traded, somewhat ironically to the Philadelphia 76ers in November of 1997. He would retire a few weeks later.

It’s no shame being the third best best power forward in Phoenix history when the two guys ahead of you are hall of famer Charles Barkley and potential hall of famer Amare Stoudemire. As a matter of fact, Chambers himself is the only hall eligible player in NBA history to score at least 20,000 career points and not make the Basketball Hall of Fame. So there’s an argument for his place in Springfield.

Regardless of his ultimate place in NBA history (his two record setting seasons for the Suns don’t even crack the top 100 scoring seasons in NBA history!), his place in Phoenix history is secure. With the two highest scoring seasons in franchise history under his belt and 3 more seasons as a key contributor, TC was inducted into the Phoenix Ring of Honor in 1999 and continues to be a member of the organization to this day.