It’s Video Game Week here at SB Nation and, as the new season has tipped off for the Phoenix Suns, I’m looking backwards in their franchise history to answer one simple question. I’ll get to that inquiry in a moment (or you could read the title of this piece and probably figure out what I’m going to ask).
When talking about video games and the Phoenix Suns, the last 10 years haven’t been too kind. Granted, NBA 2K22 has Phoenix rated as an overall 82 — tied for the 3rd best team in the game — but as technology and gaming systems were getting better, the Suns were not.
When the PS4 came out on November 15, 2013, the first game I purchased was NBA 2K14. Sadly, Phoenix was the 26th best team in the game and led by, as Bleacher Report designated, the most overrated player in the Pacific Division, an 82-overall Eric Bledsoe. Thankfully we had the Barkley-less Classic Teams, am I right?
As an avid gamer — although not as avid as I used to be (damn adulthood) — the 2K series will always have a special place in my heart. If you recall, the original version of NBA 2K that had one of my favorite players of all-time, Allen Iverson, on the cover was released in December of 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast. I was 17 years-old and loved my Dreamcast, and that game was indeed a dream.
I remember playing NBA 2K4 with Stephon Marbury and rookie Amare Stoudemire...I dominated the paint with STAT. It was literally the last thing I did before hopping into a taxi — kids, this is how we traveled pre-Uber — and heading off to basic training. My last grasp of normalized civilization was hitting the sticks and running the pick-and-roll with Starbury and STAT.
Going back even further, NBA Jam was revolutionary. The original game was released by Midway — the same peeps who developed Mortal Kombat — in the arcades of 1993 (Kiddos, I’m not going to spend time explaining what an arcade is and how effing badass arcades they were to visit). The 2-on-2 format with out-of-this-world animation and gravity defying moves was action packed and mesmerizing. Couple that with all of the Easter eggs — hell, you could play as Bill Clinton — and it was the pinnacle of gaming.
When NBA Jam: Tournament Edition was released, I thought games couldn’t get any better. I remember sitting next to my best friend in sixth grade woodshop class at Creighton Middle School and all we would do was look at a magazine with all of the codes to the game. I should have been making a paperweight. Instead I was endlessly writing down codes (this was just as the Internet was coming online. Before then, you had to do the work if you wanted them codes!).
What made Tournament Edition pinnacle, outside of the amped up graphics and cooler Easter eggs — did I mention you could field a team of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff — was the updated rosters that included a third player. Although Charles Barkley wasn’t in the game, that gave you the option of choosing between Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, and Danny Manning.
Damn, I loved that game. How do you think the Suns JAM Session Podcast got its name? Yes, JAM is an acronym for John And Matthew, but it was meant to be!
What is unfortunate for NBA Jam is the rosters are frozen in time. While I could play with the Seven Seconds or Less team while the run was occurring on NBA 2K, NBA Jam faded out just as quickly as it came on the scene. Sure, a version for the Wii came out in 2010 and the NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was released for all major consoles in 2011, but it wasn’t a Madden-like game that was re-released year after year.
Which brings me back to the question I was going to ask at the beginning of this personal walk down memory lane. Assuming that you could put together a two-man squad from any year in Phoenix Suns history, which duo would be the best? It’d be fun to cross eras, sure, but every team would have Steve Nash on it, so that’s no fun.
So I put together a little list, a ‘Top 5’ if you will.
#5: 1983-84 Larry Nance and Maurice Lucas
I have a special place in my heart for the 1983-84 Phoenix Suns. It probably has something to do with the 5,000 words I wrote about them during the pandemic, delving into a .500 team that made it to the Western Conference Finals. And personally it is a crime not to include Larry Nance, one of the best dunkers in NBA history, on a list that included jamming the ball down.
Maurice “Mo” Lucas was a physical presence in the paint and mirrored the personality of a video game character. Granted, he’d be better suited for NFL Blitz, but Lucas would be fun to play with off the ball if you were playing with this team. He’d defend the rim and push the opposition around.
The Nance-Lucas duo nearly made the NBA Finals and would surely help you win some NBA Jam tourneys.
#4: 1977-78 Paul Westphal and Walter Davis
Too bad video games weren’t around in 1978, eh? Okay, so Atari was around, but the closest thing you were getting the NBA Jam was jamming the joystick while you aggressively played pong.
Walter Davis was a rookie from UNC in 1977-78 and posted his highest career scoring average of 24.2 points that season. That was good, but only good enough for second best on the team. Paul Westphal had 25.2 that season. The duo was deadly as they combined for a 50.2 FG%.
Sure, they didn’t chuck up many three-balls...probably because the three-point line didn’t come into existence until two seasons later. I’m quite sure if you played with these two you’d hear plenty of Tim Kitzrow exclaiming, “He’s on fire!”. The jam part of it? Maybe not so much.
#3: 2020-21 Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton
Sure, it’s Suns recency bias, but I believe that an Ayton/Booker duo would be straight fire on this game. The duo that has played together since 2018 possess two key components to be successful on NBA Jam: a stellar guard and a great big man.
The 2020 versions of these players were the best we’ve seen cohesively. Sure, statically it wasn’t either of their best individual performances, but as a unit they won 52 of 72 games and marched to the NBA Finals. Unless 2021-22 turns out to be ever better, with both players continuing to mature (which I believe they will), I’m adding this version of the duo to the top 5.
I know what you’re thinking, and I can’t stop you from saying it, so I’ll say it for you. ‘“But Ayton doesn’t really jam the ball.” “This isn’t NBA Layup”. Valid. Valid, indeed. It’s my list and I’d like to see them on there!
#2: 2003-04 Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire
It’s hard not to choose this duo number one, and it’s hard not to include Shawn Marion (my favorite Sun of all time). Whether it is Stoudemire or Marion, having Nash on this video game is a cheat code. He can make the jumpers, he can light up the three-point line, and he can run the break. NBA Jam is a game that lives running the break.
I went with STAT over the Matrix because of the memorable alley-oops that occurred throughout the shared history of Nash and Amare. The duo ran the pick-and-roll to perfection, which you could do at nauseum to your opponents on this game.
Playing with Nash and Amare would almost guarantee you a win and surely frustrate your opponent into throwing their controller. Noe that’s something I’m sure none of us have ever done...
#1: 1993-94 Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley
We were so close to this coming to fruition. In fact, in early versions of the SNES and Genesis version, Chuck was there. But Acclaim lost the rights to his name as Barkley thought it would be better to have his own game (Barkley Shut Up and Jam).
The best NBA Jam duo would easily be Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley for obvious reasons. KJ would be “heating up” in no time, as he did whenever I played as the Suns. Barkley would fly off of the screen only to come thunderously down at the rim for a dunk. The way the two compliment each other is an ideal representation of what is possible in this video game format.
Elite passing (not that it’s a major skill to possess on NBA Jam). Elite rebound (always appreciated). Elite scoring. Good luck stopping this pair.
You may be asking, “why 1993-94 instead of 1992-93?”. Two reasons:
- KJ was hurt a ton in 1992-93. Had the Suns rostered a healthy KJ, imagine how much better that team would’ve been.
- 1993-94 was the first year of the black sunburst uniforms.
There you have it. Did I get the list right? Who did I leave off? Did Jason Kidd deserve a spot? How about Gerald Green or Derrick Jones, Jr.? Let me know below!