All teams are born with a clean slate. They come into the league with no-to-low expectations. Adversity is expected as even the most well-built franchises take years or decades to reach the pinnacle of their existence: a championship. The Phoenix Suns are about to enter their fifth decade without ever having climbed that peak. I doubt most current Suns fans have experienced all 50 years of disappointment, but some of us are pretty damn close.
There are different paths to the top, but they all require having the best player in the league playing his best basketball on the team (the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons might be the only notable exception). And since their inception, the Suns have never had that. We fans have had to watch as other franchises, by luck or skill, made off with shinier objects than Phoenix’s front office could acquire.
For a minute there, in the early years of their existence, it looked as if the Suns might overachieve. In just their seventh season, Phoenix made it into the playoffs with a 42-40 record. New acquisitions Alvin Adams, Paul Westphal and Gar Heard joined the “Original Sun” Dick Van Arsdale to make a surprising run through the Western Conference playoffs. The Suns played the Boston Celtics to a 2-2 tie. Then the Suns lost “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, a 128-126 triple overtime affair that saw five players log over 50 minutes of game time (Gar Heard played 61!). Phoenix returned home to lose Game 6 and that was truly the birth of the Suns being never quite good enough.
I was born in 1974, so my memory of that series or that triple OT game doesn’t actually exist. But, it was held up and mythologized by the franchise in such a manner that you would have thought Phoenix might have actually won something there. “Look, here, behold: we have a participation ribbon for the greatest game ever played.” And we, the fans, bought it. The team was young and a Finals trip was nothing to sneeze at. But as they say in the Twittersphere: that take has not aged well.
The Phoenix Suns franchise has certainly enjoyed success since then. They went on to make the playoffs in 26 of their next 33 seasons. And every time they did, they were not good enough. Head coach John MacLeod guide the Suns in the late 70s and early 80s. Under him, it was usually the Los Angeles Lakers that the Suns couldn’t get past, but the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Kansas City Kings also took turns eliminating Phoenix from the playoffs. Alvin Adams, Paul Westphal, Walter Davis and Larry Nance were the Phoenix Suns stars whose shine wasn’t bright enough to bring home a ring.
This is where this Suns fan’s consciousness really kicks in. These are players I remember cheering for. I remember thinking that other teams like the Celtics, Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers had made some kind of Faustian bargain to acquire legends like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Julius “Dr. J” Erving. It wouldn’t occur to me that management and luck played a role in these affairs for a few more years.
After a massive drug scandal and house cleaning, it was time for a new generation of stars to stoke the fires of hope in Phoenix. Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Tom Chambers and Dan Majerle were the engines that made the Cotton Express run from 1988-1992. In order to acquire Kevin Johnson and Mark West, the Suns sent out Larry Nance. I was heartbroken. Nance was my favorite Sun (edging out Walter Davis by dint of not having caused a team-wide cocaine maelstrom). I learned a lesson though: sometimes a team can do something that maybe makes them look worse and they end up a whole lot better. It was to no avail however: waiting to end their seasons were the Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trailblazers, the John Stockon-Karl Malone Utah Jazz or the Magic-Kareem Lakers. This team was not good enough and probably just wouldn’t be, unless the basketball gods smiled and sent them Michael Jordan.
As has been the Phoenix Suns’ luck, they got the next best thing: Charles Barkley. And you know what the next best thing got them? Another participation ribbon for the NBA Finals. The Suns had returned to their peak of being not good enough. Like their first trip to the Finals, this one too has been enshrined as an achievement unto itself. The team’s legacy is that of being an also-ran.
And not good enough has been the result of every front office move since then, regardless of how entertaining: Backcourt 2000, Starbury, Cliff Robinson, Danny Manning, Seven Seconds or Less and Seven Seconds or Shaq. There’s some bad luck in there for sure: injuries to Danny Manning, Joe Johnson, and Amare Stoudemire loom very, very large in the Phoenix Suns’ championshipless travails. And there’s some bad front office moves too: it’s entirely possible that trading away Kurt Thomas — a journeyman center who played for 10 teams in 17 seasons — along with 2 first round draft picks did more to hurt the Suns’ championship cause than anything Lance Blanks or Lon Babby did. And those guys were responsible for Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, and passing up Kawhi Leonard for Markieff Morris.
Which brings this Suns fan to today. The team is really not a lot of fun to watch. For every Eric Bledsoe or Devin Booker offensive tour-de-force, there are several defensive trainwrecks. The youth movement of Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender (RIP his ankles) , T.J. Warren (RIP his minor head injury) and even Alex Len is bogged down by the older and more talented, yet ineffective presences of P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler. I still watch every game I can, but I have no issues with those who don’t. In today’s parlance: that is just good self-care. The product is bad and the front office should feel bad.
And remember the part about teams making Faustian bargains to get star players? Thanks to the magic of tanking, that’s how it works these days. Suck it up, suck on the court, and hope the ping pong balls and your general manager conspire to send you the next LeBron James instead of the next Anthony Bennett. That’s where the Suns’ fandom and front office find themselves these days: stomaching losses for a shot at Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball or whatever savior the draft might send this team to put it over the top.
But hope still springs eternal. Devin Booker might already be an in-house transcendent talent. T.J. Warren shows signs of being a force at both ends of the floor. Marquese Chriss has shown a lot of tools that could be devastating if he puts them all together. Dragan Bender is a tantalizing question mark. But even if each player hits his best case scenario, is it good enough?
We won’t know till we get there. In three seasons when all of these players are hitting their prime, it will have been yet another 27 years since the Suns were not good enough on the NBA’s biggest stage. Maybe the Suns get another chance. And maybe, just maybe, they will be good enough this time.