Gather around the campfire, Suns fans. Roast your marshmallows, construct your tasty s’mores, and prepare to shiver in terror as I tell a tale of an alternate Suns reality.
Too often we look at the Suns’ transaction history and propose what would have happened if we drafted Luka or didn’t trade Joe Johnson. We have delusions of grandeur and glory, of victoriously hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy high into the air, all if we hadn’t gotten in our own way.
But the story I tell doesn’t involve a missed draft pick or an unseen trade opportunity.
I am taking you to reality in which the NBA’s first ever unrestricted free-agent, one Thomas Doane Chambers, is not allowed to choose Phoenix as his destination. What if the NBA hadn’t agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in April of 1988? What if the negotiations between the NBA and the players union continued to stall until the start of the ’88-’89 season?
The space time continuum will never be the same. For my fellow cult Community fans, I present to you: The Suns Darkest Timeline. Let’s prepare to roll the die...
Once upon a time...
...there was no such thing as “player empowerment”. If Anthony Davis was unhappy and ungrateful in New Orleans, he would lace up his damn sneakers and hit the hardwood. Every day spent defying the franchise that signed your paychecks you would hurt your market value. It was the franchises, most notably the owners, that held all of the cards and thus all of the power. Players played. If you wanted a new jersey, you had to be traded on the franchises terms.
The NBA in the mid-80’s was growing in popularity due to the infectious personalities and storylines produced by stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. Fans were flocking to arenas to see their heroes, merchandising was on the rise, and money was being made in all facets of the game. The league wasn’t over-inflated with expansion quite yet, thus the talent pool wasn’t diluted across 30 franchises. In 1988 there were 23 teams.
Although the NBA was quickly becoming its own printing press for cash, the owners and players still had issues. The CBA was in the process of renegotiation. The two sides battled over the salary cap, reducing the number of rounds in the college draft, and the elimination of the “right of first refusal”. Once an agreement was reached in 1988, the building blocks for the Player Empowerment Era were set in motion.
The right of first refusal stated that if a player had fulfilled his contract, and wanted to go elsewhere, he could receive a contract offer from an opposing team. The players current team, however, could match that contract and keep the player. Essentially, the NBA operated using an archaic version of modern-day restricted free-agency. Once that CBA was signed in 1988, however, it was open game on a series of NBA stars. The conditions of the CBA dictated that a player had to have played through two contracts and at least seven NBA seasons. After that, they could pick and choose their destination.
The Phoenix Suns had their eyes set on Tom Chambers, a 6-foot-10 All-Star power forward from the Seattle SuperSonics. Suns GM Jerry Colangelo set up a meeting on July 5, 1988, telling Chambers, “Here’s the deal and you have 15 minutes to make a decision or I’m out.” Chambers put ink to paper, and thus became the first ever unrestricted free-agent to sign with a team in NBA history.
The Struggling Suns of the 80’s
The Suns have experienced trials and tribulations prior to the 2010’s. Although the team started the 80’s strong with 8 consecutive playoff appearances (from ’77-’78 to ’84-’85), they began to fall from grace in the mid-80’s. By the time the ’87-’88 Suns began their season, they were a franchise is a disarray.
The following is factual. It is not part of my alternate Suns reality. That, we’ll get into later, once the die has been rolled. This was actually who the Suns were...
The team had missed the playoffs the previous two seasons and were in dire need of a rebuild. Legendary coach John MacLeod had been fired halfway through the previous season after starting 22-34. The Original Sun, Dick Van Arsdale, took the reins for the remainder of the ’86-’87 campaign. The team finished with a record of 36-46.
Then scandal hit the Valley of the Sun. On April 17, 1987, with one day left in the regular season, indictments came down on players James Edwards, Jay Humphries, and Grant Gondrezick, as well as former Suns’ player Mike Bratz and Gar Heard, of “Shot ‘Heard’ Round the World” fame. The indictments were in relation to a cocaine-trafficking investigation. Suns’ great Walter Davis was also suspended for his involvement and his legacy was forever skewed. The Suns reputation as an organization was severely damaged.
Yeah, you thought the Suns had problems with Eric Bledsoe? These were some next-level issues the Phoenix Suns were dealing with. Jerry Colangelo stated, “We got crucified. We were tried, convicted and hung in 72 hours.”
One bright glimmer of optimism was that the Suns, who had the 7th worst record in the league in ’86-’87, jumped in the NBA Lottery. The team had the #2 pick in the 1987 NBA Draft! They surely wouldn’t miss on this opportunity!
The Spurs had #1 overall and took C David Robinson from Navy, knowing that he would have to fulfill his commitment to the United States Navy prior to playing. Therefore the team chose to go with UNLV forward/center Armon Gilliam. Gilliam had led the #1 ranked Runnin’ Rebels to a 37-2 record, losing to the Indiana Hoosiers in the 1987 Final Four. They passed on Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Horace Grant, and Mark Jackson.
Hope was high that with the addition of Gilliam, the squad could turn it around.
Tragedy then struck again when Nick Vanos, third year center, died in a plane crash on August 16, 1987. The team, battered by scandal and emotionally bruised by death, put a small black patch on the right breast of their Wild West uniforms, suited up, and began play on Friday, November 6, 1987.
The team would do their best to reset the culture in Phoenix, waiving the blow boy Gondrezick prior to the beginning of the season, and eventually parting ways with Humphries and Edwards as well. They hired long time assistant coach John Wetzel to the head coaching position and set forth on the season. The scandal was in the rearview, but so were the winning ways of the Phoenix Suns.
On February 25, 1988, the Suns defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 109-103, moving their record to 17-35 on the season. Prior to that game, the Suns would pull off one of the most successful trades in Suns history, and all the players would have to do is switch locker rooms.
Rookie G Kevin Johnson, backup C Mark West, and F Tyrone Corbin for F Larry Nance and F Mike Sanders. Throw some picks in their there (Suns received a 1988 1st, 1988 2nd, and 1989 2nd, the Cavs received a 1988 2nd and 1989 2nd). Building blocks were in place to take the franchise from the depths of the NBA cellar.
The ’87-’88 season would turn out to be disappointing. The Suns would end the year going 11-19 after the KJ trade (including a 9-game losing streak after the transaction, their second such streak of at least that many games that season). Their record of 27-54 was the worst since their inaugural season nearly 20 years prior.
They would end the year with the #7 and #14 pick (from Cleveland) in the 1988 NBA Draft. Those chose C/F Tim Perry out of Temple with their first pick and G/F Dan Majerle out of Central Michigan with their second.
There was a sense of promise, but another star was needed to change the tide.
What if the CBA Wasn’t Signed in 1988?
And now the horror story begins. I have rolled the die and it has landed on one. Crap. The Darkest Timeline.
Grab a hold of something, it’s going to get messy.
When the CBA was signed, the league changed. The way organizations built their franchises was altered forever. Even though the NBA feared that players would flock to the big city markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, any organization that presented itself as a functional operation stood a chance. Phoenix (believe it or not) was once a free-agent destination.
But what if they players and owners couldn’t reach an agreement in 1988? What if free-agency continued to follow the restricted free-agency model for one more year? How would that affect the struggling Phoenix Suns?
Chambers Stays in the Emerald City
The ’87-’88 Seattle SuperSonics were a three-headed beast that only won 44 games. Tom Chambers averaged 20.4 points-per-game with the team, which was third behind Dale Ellis (25.8) and Xavier McDaniel (21.4). The team had made a surprising run the previous season to the Western Conference Finals, despite going 39-43. There was promise in Seattle, and Chambers was a part of that hope.
Chambers had joined the SuperSonics in 1983, after the San Diego Clippers traded him in a five player deal. He was showcasing his scoring ability and beginning to hit his prime in 1988. Yes, the team had made a trade for up and coming C/F Michael Cage on draft day, but if they believe Chambers will stay, they never make this move. The SuperSonics surely would match any offer sheet that an opposing team would have provided in the 1988 offseason or offer him a new long-term contract all together.
T.C. had 9.2 win shares in the ’88-’89 season with Phoenix. If you take those wins from Phoenix and add them to Seattle’s final record that season, their win total jumps from 47 to 56, which places them just behind Magic Johnson and the Lakers (yeah, it’s a stretch, but it’s the Darkest Timeline). They don’t enter the 1989 playoffs as the #8 seed, destined to be swept by the Lakers. They enter as the #2 seed in the Western Conference.
Their first round match up pits them against Chris Mullin and the Golden State Warriors. Who knows how far they go into the playoffs, especially considering they had previous experience making a deep run.
In this timeline, Chambers leads the SuperSonics to the Western Conference Finals, only to fall to the Lakers. I’m not going to mess with history too much; watching the Lakers get swept in the 1989 NBA Finals to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons is a memory I do not want to deny myself.
Tom Chambers doesn’t sign with the Suns in the summer of 1988. Both he and Seattle agree that if a championship is in their destiny, TC will deliver them.
Phoenix Continues to Struggle
The Suns don’t add a guy in his prime who would make the next three All-Star teams and lead the team in scoring in ’88-’89 and ’89-’90 (setting a Suns’ franchise record of 27.2 points-per-game). He doesn’t settle into a veteran scorer in ’90-’91 and ’91-’92 and a role player in ’92-’93.
Chambers doesn’t come in and make an instant impact, helping the team win 27 more games than the season prior. The team doesn’t go to back-to-back Western Conference Finals, rather, they find themselves trying to rebuild in a fashion Suns would grow to hate three decades later: via the NBA Draft.
The 1989 NBA Draft class wasn’t exceptionally strong. The highest career scorer drafted that season was Glen Rice with 18.3 points-per-game. Only three players (Glen Rice, Shawn Kemp, and Tim Hardaway) ever made an All-NBA team. Vlade Divac and Dino Rada are the only two to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but mostly due to their international influence.
The 1990 NBA Draft class wasn’t much better. Derrick Coleman leads all career scorers from that year with 16.5 points-per-game. Only he and Gary Payton appeared on an All-NBA team. Only Payton made the Hall. Yikes.
Phoenix takes their swings in the draft, but they miss. Again, and again, and again. Just like the Ryan McDonough era.
Mark Jackson is Never Put on a Poster
We are robbed of one of the truly great moments in Suns history.
Tom Chambers isn’t there on January 27, 1989 to bury his knee into Mark Jackson’s collarbone, mullet flying in the wind, thus elevating him into the stratosphere of Arizona Veterans Memorial Stadium and into Suns’ lore for eternity.
No, he’s in Seattle, helping the SuperSonics beat the Atlanta Hawks. He sets a couple screens, hits a couple jump shots, and does nothing transcendent.
Kevin Johnson’s Back Hurts
The explosive Kevin Johnson continues to grow and flourish into a star, but the Suns fail to find the Robin to Johnson’s Batman. KJ has no scoring presence next to him that alleviates his scoring load. Rookie after rookie are brought in, and KJ makes them better, But they are young and inexperienced, not ready or used to the face paced style of play Johnson thrives in.
KJ, who begins to physically deteriorate in 1992 in our reality, does so much earlier in the Darkest Timeline. He can’t handle having to be the #1 scoring option every night. Jeff Hornacek is by his side, trying to provide assistance, but the lack of a reliable front court has NBA defenses swarming the Suns with full court presses and violent hand checks.
Halfway through the 1991 season, KJ succumbs to the constant pressure of trying to carry the team on his back. And his back goes out.
Sir Charles Never Comes
This one I actually believe to be true, Darkest Timeline or not. You don’t sign Chambers, you don’t get Barkley.
The team doesn’t win at least 53 games for the next 7 seasons. The Suns don’t start a stretch of 13 consecutive playoff appearances, making it to the 1989 and 1990 Western Conference Finals and the 1993 NBA Finals.
Chambers never came.
Neither does Charles.
The team is not in position in the off season of 1992 to add a member of the Dream Team. They are struggling with their identity and still gambling in the draft in an effort to improve the team. Phoenix never feels the rush of excitement that Charles brings to the growing city.
No Sunbursts and AWA
The team doesn’t enlist the assistance of Tom O’Grady to redesign the Suns logo. That is one of the biggest travesties of all. Being robbed of Barkely and his “I’m not a role model” attitude is one thing, but take my 90’s Suns gear?! This truly is the Darkest Timeline.
Why is their no redesign? Because the Phoenix fan base is upset with the team. There is no interest in seeing the team play in a new arena. With losing season after losing season, the fans would not have allowed the City of Phoenix to contribute $35 million to the stadiums construction.
The Suns continue to share the Madhouse on McDowell with the Arizona State Fair.
Tom Leander Gets Lonely
Answer me this: who does Leander do the pre-game, halftime show, and post-game with?!
Uh no...what have we done?! Ahhhhhhhh!!!
It’s okay, it’s okay! Breathe! You’re back. You’re back in our reality. TC became a Sun, Leander is doing just fine.
Thankfully, the CBA was signed in 1988 and Chambers became not only a part of the Suns organization, but a member of the Phoenix community. It is important to understand the long-term impact of Tom Chambers and what he did to elevate this franchise with his ground-breaking decision.
I’m sure Jerry Colangelo would have found a way to keep the Suns a respectable organization if he missed his shot obtaining TC. His reputation alone would sway the process of free agency would be conducted in the Valley of the Sun. His ability to connect with people, his genuine, no-nonsense attitude towards running an organization, and respectability were characteristics that created a culture people wanted to be a part of.
Colangelo, through his expert eye and persuasive manner, kept the big names coming to Phoenix. He took risks. A lot of them. But they hit more than they failed.
Chambers comes to Phoenix and we are spared the Darkest Timeline. There was no descent amognst the Phoenix fan base, their were no losing seasons more than three seasons long.
Oh crap. Perhaps now we are living int he Darkest Timeline...