The Suns franchise enjoyed a period of sustained success from the mid-70 through the mid-80s, making the playoffs 8 consecutive seasons and winning 50+ games 4 times. Age and poor roster management spelled the end of this run, and the end of long-time coach John MacLeod’s Suns career.
By the 1987-88 season, the team was a mess, finishing 28-54 and disgraced by a drug scandal which implicated, among others, franchise career leading scorer Walter Davis. Things looked bleak late in the year, but then the Suns parlayed their most marketable asset, PF Larry Nance, into a bonanza of players and picks which turned fortunes around the following season.
Nance was a very good player who had star quality from winning the NBA’s first ever slam dunk contest in 1984. The long, lanky leaper made only one All-Star game in his Suns career, but the 28 year old was in his prime and coming off a 1986-87 season in which he averaged 22.5 and 8.7 rebounds per game.
The Suns gave Nance, bit player Mike Sanders and a 1988 first round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin, a 1988 first round pick and two second rounders. The swap of first rounders moved the Suns from #22 up to #14, where they selected Dan Majerle.
In one trade, the Suns acquired two future Ring of Honor players in KJ and Majerle, another long-term starter in the underrated West, plus solid role player Corbin.
While the Suns scored big, the trade was defensible from the Cavs viewpoint as well. They were in “win now” mode, and the most valuable assets they surrendered were backups to entrenched starters (KJ behind Mark Price, West behind Hot Rod Williams) and unlikely to get much chance to shine in Cleveland. The Cavs won 57 games the following season, only to lose to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, a sad fate many teams suffered in that era.
For the Suns, the trade was like a shot of vitamin B-12 revitalizing a moribund franchise. After playing out the last two months in 1988, they went into the summer with picks #7 and #14, where they selected Tim Perry and Majerle, then signed free agent Tom Chambers away from Seattle and hired new head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. (Correction: Fairly significant oversight on my part as Cotton wasn’t hired as new head coach in 1988. He was Director of Player Personnel who appointed himself as head coach after orchestrating this brilliant Nance trade. Much more credit is due to Cotton than what I gave him here.)
And just like that, shazam! The Suns jumped from 28 to 55 wins, made the Western Conference Finals, and started arguably the most successful stretch in franchise history. They would make the playoffs for 13 consecutive years, including one Western Conference crown and 10 50+ win seasons.
It was a rare feat, and the Suns roster in 1988 had a couple of pieces already in place in Jeff Hornacek and Eddie Johnson, but a shrewd move displaying foresight allowed the Suns to take a huge leap forward into sustained success.
Barring a miracle, the current Suns will start their 8th season of missing the playoffs and fading further from relevancy this fall. It’s not realistic to expect them to pull a rabbit out of a hat as the franchise did in 1988, but surely a rebuild doesn’t have to take an entire decade. At least, it doesn’t when team management knows what they’re doing.