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Greatest overachievers in Suns history: 1975-76, 1989-90, and one more

SB Nation is counting out the best NBA teams in history to never win a championship, and today we look at two teams in the ‘Overachievers’ region, and one more that should be there.

Phoenix Suns v Washington Bullets

The 52-year-old Suns franchise has one of the coolest team Hall of Fames in the NBA. By way of its storied, extensive history, the Suns have many players worth celebrating, and many more who deserve a spot in the Ring of Honor at Talking Stick Resort Arena but have thus far not gotten in.

What’s particularly fascinating about Suns history is that the team did not have one, years-long dynasty built around one group of great talents. Instead, several blips throughout the franchise’s history have become folkloric, popping up at the perfect time to usher in a new generation of Suns fans. The Ring of Honor documents this perfectly, and the “Titleless” series at SB Nation this week provides us a nice opportunity to revisit them as well.

Tuesday means the unveiling of the “Overachievers” side of the bracket, with two Suns teams qualifying.

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World

First up: The 1975-76 squad, led by a rookie Alvan Adams (Ring of Honor), coached by John MacLeod (Ring of Honor), and cemented in history by Gar Heard’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” as called by a young Al McCoy (Ring of Honor).

Relive the final moments of the second overtime, if you haven’t in a while:

A couple notes from this clip:

  • Many remember John Havlicek playing through an injury and making the shot that put the Celtics up, but it’s fascinating to see how different late-game strategy was without the three-point line. These days, the Suns would just foul Hondo and try for a three when they got the ball.
  • There was a LITERAL BRAWL between Hondo’s shot and Heard’s.
  • Anyone who says there wasn’t instant replay in big moments back in the day need only watch this clip from 1976. It’s always been there! And it should!

A couple notes from this season:

  • The Suns finished the season barely over .500 at 42-40
  • They beat a 59-23 Warriors team in the conference finals that had Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes
  • Don’t take for granted the fact that Adams put up 19-9 in 33.2 minutes per game and made (his only) an All-Star game AS A ROOKIE!

The best pre-Barkley season

As we’ve already established here, the history of the Suns is connected by many of the same familiar faces. So by the time 1989-90 rolled around, Adams and MacLeod were gone, but onetime Suns head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons (Ring of Honor) was back, and new stars like Tom Chambers (Ring of Honor), Kevin Johnson (Ring of Honor) and Dan Majerle (Ring of Honor) stepped up in their spot.

The highlights of the season:

  • Maybe Kevin Johnson’s best season. He averaged 23 and 11 on 50 percent shooting from the field, and most importantly played 74 games and was consistent in the playoffs.
  • A completely forgotten monster year by Chambers. I genuinely forgot Chambers was ever this good. By the time 1992-93 rolled around, Chambers was pretty streaky, and went cold in Game 6 of the Finals at precisely the wrong time. But in 1989-90, Chambers was at his peak, scoring 27 a game on 50 percent shooting, leading the NBA’s third-best offense.
  • The best season current Fox Sports broadcaster Eddie Johnson had in Phoenix. The Sixth Man scored 16 a game and finally extended his range, launching three threes a game.

Where it went wrong:

  • As Mike Prada notes in his “Titleless” breakdown, Kevin Johnson had just proclaimed the Suns the “Team of the ‘90s” but they never lived up to the proclamation.
  • They ran into a freight-train Portland team that basically got 20 points every night out of three players — Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and future Suns saboteur Terry Porter.
  • Eddie Johnson was not his usual self in the Conference Finals, shooting 38 percent.

The missing link

While Prada’s research, as usual, is incredible and gives a cool window into different sections of many teams’ histories, he misses one Suns overachiever that can’t be ignored.

The 2009-10 team is one of the biggest fan favorites in Suns history, though Prada’s decision not to include them is understandable. In the introduction, Prada explicitly states that only one team per era is allowed into the bracket.

However, as I laid out yesterday, the Steve Nash (Ring of Honor) era flipped when the Suns traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal. And if that didn’t change the identity of the team enough, moving on from Mike D’Antoni the same season did the trick.

I would separate 2004-2008 as the “Seven Seconds or Less” era, then cut out 2008-2012 as the post-D’Antoni Suns. While we associate the style of play with Nash, the Suns took on many different forms during the eight years of Nash’s second stint in the Valley.

The 2009-10 squad finished the regular season as the third seed in the Western Conference, but steamrolled the Spurs (shoutout Goran Dragic) en route to a surprise berth in the conference finals. Then, they pushed the eventual champion Lakers to six games, and Los Angeles needed a miracle shot and an out-of-nowhere 25-point outburst from Ron Artest to win Games 5 and 6.

The connective tissue of all the Suns’ overachievers throughout history is great coaching. Whether it was MacLeod, Fitzsimmons or D’Antoni (through Paul Westphal in there, too), the Suns consistently found a way to outperform expectations.

Though they’ve only made the NBA Finals twice, the Suns have made the conference finals seven more times on top of that. These surprise seasons are sprinkled through franchise history, as if carefully patterned out so that Suns fans never go too long without a team to celebrate.

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