The Phoenix Suns recent Finals run has us feeling a bit sentimental. With free agency petering out and no Suns basketball (aside from Summer League) to sate our appetites for the next couple months, it is a time for fandom reflection.
The newest iteration of the Suns- a lovable group with a college vibe and serious chops- is up there with only a few others in team history: the Barkley-led squad of ’92-’93 and your 7SOL group of the 2000’s. Desperate to relive past glory, many of us have gone to YouTube to get our fix. With just a few clicks of the mouse, we are in a time machine watching you go toe-to-toe with Timmy, Dirk, KG, and the litany of mid-aughts premier bigs in the Western Conference.
At 6’7, you almost always gave up a few inches when banging on the boards. However, your combination of position, instincts, desire, strength, and bunnies routinely left larger opponents shellshocked. Your competition knew that facing you (just like Rodman, Barkley, and Cage before you) meant a long night on the glass regardless of what the tape measure said.
On a team with ridiculous scoring talent, your savviness and ability allowed Mike D’Antoni to deploy you as a multi-positional scheme wrecker on defense. You were both quick enough to mirror on the perimeter and strong enough to challenge foes in the post. You were a true rim protector, glass-cleaner, and destroyer of passing lanes in a way the hardwood had never seen (and has not seen since). You made life for opposing offenses a living hell, where every pass, shot, and dribble required a second thought. Today’s NBA franchises are searching in vain for a player of that mold- you are a true one-of-one star.
This letter being an exercise in nostalgia, it would be a shame to focus solely on your defense, rebounding, and hustle without also paying tribute to your devastating offensive skillset. Whether by busting tail in transition, cutting on over-eager help defenders, or attacking the offensive boards, rims across the Association bent for almost two decades whenever you attacked. Fear of your countless detonations allowed you to punish sagging defenders with spot-up mid-range and three-point opportunities. Those shots led to a generation of Phoenicians emulating the quirky jumper with the Curry-like efficiency (well, at least it leaned more towards Steph than Eddy!).
Your game had a knack for creating signature moments, including posterizations that were everyday occurrences in the aughts. No one else could get that high, that quickly (special sorry to Dirk and Chris Kaman, and an extra special sorry to St. Patrick-legend Al Harrington). Your emphatic rejections and transition finishes got thousands of fans out of their seats. There were even a few buzzer-beaters to boot (points to the ducking three for inflicting pain on the Spurs, and points to the hopping 23-foot skyhook for general hilarity). You took over games with your ability to impact both ends of the floor.
Who could forget the masterpiece against the Celtics, the only game in NBA history where a player registered 44 points, 15 boards, 4 steals, 3 blocks, and 4 threes? What about Games Five, Six, and Seven of the ‘06 Western Conference Semis, which featured two unique playoff box scores (Game 6: 34 points, 9 rebounds, 6 steals, 4 threes; Game 7: 30 points, 9 rebounds, 5 threes, 2 blocks, > 60% shooting)?
Below are a few more performances that help quantify your singular impact on the court:
- 4/6/03 v. LAL: 18 Points, 15 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 7 Steals, 1 Block, 1 Three (only matched by Doug Christie)
- 4/12/05 v. NOH: 18 Points, 17 Rebounds, 6 Blocks, 3 Steals, 3 Threes (only matched by Karl-Anthony Towns and Raef LaFrentz)
- 5/20/05 v. DAL, Western Conference Semis Game 6: 38 Points, 16 Rebounds, 4 Threes, 2 Steals (only matched by LeBron and Luka in the Playoffs)
- 1/22/06 v. SEA: 37 Points, 10 Rebounds, 5 Blocks, 4 Assists, 3 Threes, 1 Steal (only matched by Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis)
- 11/28/07 v. HOU: 18 Points, 9 Rebounds, 5 Steals, 4 Blocks, 3 Threes (only matched by James Harden)
- 1/7/08 v. DEN: 27 Points, 14 Rebounds, 6 Blocks, 5 Threes (unmatched)
*ALL players that reached the same in-game benchmarks listed in parentheses.
Those lines are insane, yet your cumulative accomplishments be even more impressive. Tenures with the Suns, Heat, Raptors, Mavs, and Cavs saw you amass 1,163 appearances over 16 seasons. You stand as the only player in NBA history to post career averages of 15.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.1 BPG on .484/.331/.810 shooting splits. In your 8+ years in the desert, you posted 18.4 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.9 SPG, and 1.4 BPG on .481/.342/.824 splits, a decade of domination that included your ’02-’03 and ’05-’06 campaigns. In ’02-’03 you finished in the top 15 in the NBA in points and three-point field goals, top 10 in rebounds, and 2nd in steals. ’05-’06 saw you finish in the top 15 for points and blocks, as well as third in both rebounds and steals.
All of this provides ample support for your prestigious rankings among various NBA and Suns leaderboards. Of the 4,856 players to put on an NBA regular-season jersey, you rank:
- 19th in Steals
- 29th in Defensive Rebounds
- 39th in Total Rebounds and Offensive Rebounds
- 42nd in Win Shares
- 57th in Blocks
- 82nd in BPM (min. 400 Games Played)
- 84th in Points
- 119th in PER (min. 400 Games Played)
- 189th in FT% (min. 1200 FTA)
- 194th in 3PT-FG
A brief look at the Suns’ record books appears as if you hacked them. You are a bona fide franchise legend, with your name near the top of every meaningful statistical category:
- 1st in VORP, Win Shares, and Defensive Rebounds
- 2nd in BPM (min. 100 Games Played), Minutes, Total Rebounds, Offensive Rebounds, and Steals
- 3rd in Field Goals and Blocks
- 4th in Points
- 5th in PER (min. 100 Games Played) and Three-Point Field Goals
- 6th in Games
The term “Unicorn” is used ad nauseam in today’s NBA. KD, Giannis, AD, The Joker, Embiid, KAT, and Porzingis have all been bestowed the nickname. Myles Turner, JJJ, Mo Bamba, Dragan Bender, Thon Maker, and others have also been brandished the moniker, to vastly differing degrees of success.
The games of Magic, Bird, Hakeem, and Garnett provide insight into the origin of basketball’s obsession with the word. The phrase invokes a rare combination of size, athleticism, skill, and defensive chops- a tantalizing commodity because of the immense value and versatility it can provide a team. The question arises, then, how many true unicorns are there? How many players can put together consistent displays of tri-level scoring, rebounding, playmaking, and inside-outside defense in a way that justifies the sobriquet? As it turns out, you are one of the few legitimate unicorns the game has ever seen.
Earlier, we highlighted a selection of your single-game performances; what happens when we extend our search for uniqueness to your whole career? Who else has managed the long-haul accomplishments that you have? Let us look:
- Only player in NBA history with 1500+ steals, 1000+ blocks, and 200+ 3’s (You had 1,759-1,233-791).
- Only player in NBA history with a season of 125 3’s, 450 rebounds, and 180 steals (’02-’03: 141-773-185). That season was also one of seven in NBA history a player recorded at least 141 threes and 773 rebounds.
- One of only five forwards to post a season of 21.8 PPG, 11.8 RPG, and 1.7 BPG, and one of only seven forwards to post a season of 95 3’s and 160 steals. You remain the only player in NBA history, regardless of position, to record all five stats in the same year (’05-’06).
- Only player other than Hakeem to:
- Average 20 PPG-10 RPG-2 SPG-1 BPG over a five-year span (’01-’02 to ’05-‘06).
- Finish a season in the top three in steals AND rebounds (’05-‘06).
- Finish a season in the top three in steals AND top 12 in blocks (also ’05-’06… that campaign was ridiculous).
- Only Hakeem and KG have matched your career marks in steals and blocks.
- NBA ranks in five-year span between ’02-’03 to ’06-’07: 1st in steals, 1st in minutes, 4th in rebounds, 5th in win shares, 7th in VORP, 12th in points, 15th in blocks, and 39th in three-point field goals.
- One of six players in NBA history with career playoff totals of 1500+ points, 930+ rebounds, 125+ steals, 125+ blocks, and 70+ 3’s while shooting > 45% from the field. The other five? MJ, Bird, Dirk, KD, and LeBron.
We want to acknowledge that statistics without context can tell an incomplete or misleading story. An array of factors can influence how raw data should be used in storytelling, and the eye test and peer testimony go a long way in cementing players’ legacies. The way a player was featured in an offense, the pace they played at, and the skill and athleticism of the era they played in are critical to understanding how numbers should be interpreted.
Many popular analytics (ex: PER, BPM, and VORP) struggle to quantify true defensive value, and like blocks and steals were not kept until the mid-’70s. How do we reconcile the difference in total career points between an efficient scorer that sacrificed volume for winning teams versus an unapologetic chucker that roamed between middling franchises and basement dwellers? How do we differentiate the impact between elite defenders lacking superior counting stats (hello, Raja Bell) versus stat stuffers the eye test does not support as quality defenders? Statistics are just a part of the puzzle, and without the correct support can fail to capture a player’s legitimate impact. However, they can paint a picture of the company you keep. When a player reaches the rarified benchmarks that you have, greatness is undeniable. It is telling that when looking at your career numbers, your performance either stands alone or is matched only by the legends of the game.
You are an NBA champion, four-time All-Star, and two-time All-NBA performer. You received MVP votes in back-to-back years (’04-’05 and ’05-’06) and Defensive Player of the Year votes in seven separate seasons (’00-’01, ’02-’03, ’04-’05 through ’06-’07, ’09-’10, and ’11-’12). You are beloved in at least two different cities, with an untouchable legacy in both places. As much as it hurt to see you leave and later win a ring with the lousy Mavs, if it had to be someone, we are glad it was you. 30 NBA teams are trying to find the next Shawn Marion; we think Marco Polo has a better chance of finding El Dorado.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Stathead. PER began being tracked in 1951-52. Offensive Rebounds, Defensive Rebounds, Steals, Blocks, BPM, and VORP began in 1973-74. The three-point shot began in 1978-79.