After a decade of misery, it’s certain that the Phoenix Suns will return to the playoffs in the 2020-2021 season. That’s a long wait, but certainly worth it. And that’s just returning to playoff basketball.
On a grander scheme of things, the Suns have been in the NBA for more than 50 years and still waiting for that elusive championship ring. On the other hand, across the state of Arizona, the Arizona Diamondbacks has already won the World Series and became the fastest expansion team to win the championship in just four years since joining Major League Baseball.
So is the Phoenix Suns a victim of unfortunate circumstances? So far, I’d say yes. From the unlucky toss coin match up with fellow expansion franchise the Milwaukee Bucks 1969 to lose out on Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the top pick to Amare Stoudemire’s injury during the playoffs in 2006 and lose to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.
How I chose to be a Phoenix Suns fan
Growing up, Michael Jordan was the name synonymous with basketball. From highlight reels to bedroom posters to sneakers, it was all Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. So when the Bulls faced the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals, I paid more attention as the buzz reverberated around the school campus. Eventually, a John Paxson triple sealed the Bulls series victory and a three-peat NBA championship.
While classmates marvelled at how the Bulls became a new dynasty to reckon with after years of Celtics and Laker’s domination, I looked the other way and examined the losing team closely. The Phoenix Suns weren’t too bad; newly-acquired power forward Charles Barkley won the Most Valuable Player in that season, and the team’s lineup showed promise and poised to repeat their deep playoff run in the coming years. This opinion was also based on the relative success the team has achieved in the late 80s and early 90s.
Unconsciously, I became a Phoenix Suns fan without any hardcore fanfare. Little would I know that I’ve just adopted the psychologically tortured franchise, marred with “what ifs” and series of bad luck? But as with any choice I made in life, I try to stick with them with impassioned loyalty (see Nando’s and Toad the Wet Sprocket to name a few).
Random information about the Phoenix Suns
- Of the 30 NBA teams, the Phoenix Suns have the 7th highest winning percentage all-time but won zero championships.
- The team has a 40% success rate in the Western Conference Finals, winning two (in 1976 and 1993) en route to the NBA Finals.
- The Phoenix Suns have the most playoff appearances at 28 without any championship.
From that fateful second Finals appearance in 1993, the Suns had relative success in the playoffs — including bowing out to the eventual two-time NBA champions Houston Rockets in the 1994 and 1995 Western Conference Semifinals.
The 2000s saw the emergence of hope as the much-hyped duo of Jason Kidd and Anfernee Hardaway forming a formidable backcourt for the Suns. But injury has plagued both players and was unable to live up to the expectations of the team and its fans.
On Valentines Day 2008, I was privileged to watch a live NBA match between the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks at US Airways Arena, just days after the team shipped Shawn Marion to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O’Neal, who called himself Big Cactus back then. Suns won 109-97 behind 26 points apiece from Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa and 24 points from Steve Nash. Shaq did not play the team but I saw him on the Suns’ bench in street clothes.
In my tenure as a fan, I’d sum up the reasons behind the Suns’ inability to get over the hump and win the elusive title.
Injury to players
In the 1999-2000 season, Penny Hardaway suffered plantar fasciitis and missed 22 games, Jason Kidd missed 15 crucial games due to knee issues and lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
It was believed that if not for an injury to Joe Johnson that required surgery to repair a left orbital bone fracture after a dunk attempt against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2005 Western Conference Semifinals, the team may have made their third NBA Finals appearance. They eventually lost in 5 games to Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
During Mike D’Antoni’s 7 Seconds or Less Era that saw a high-octane Suns team outrun the competition, the Suns lost in the Western Conference Finals in 2006 handicapped as key contributor Amare Stoudemire missed the majority of the season with microfracture knee surgery.
Poor management choices
The past decade was the most painful to be a Phoenix Suns fan. Not that making great picks in the draft is a sure-fire way to playoffs, let alone an NBA championship. But a decent draft pick would be a major factor on a rebuilding team. Even when the team secured lottery picks for several seasons, poor draft choices doomed the rebuilding process. Whether scouts failed to find a “diamond in the rough” or executives dismissed their choices and drafted players out of hype and sheer talent rather than addressing team need, it was mostly series of busts for Phoenix Suns during draft days.
Executives also made poor decisions in placing people on top to evaluate talent or picking head coaches. When Alvin Gentry left as a coach, the management made a bone-headed move to place inexperienced Lindsay Hunter as a coach over Gentry’s deputies Dan Majerle and Elston Turner. Replacing Lance Blanks with Ryan McDonough as general manager did little to uplift the morale of the organization as the Suns continued its ineptitude in personnel management. Coaching carousel followed as Jeff Hornacek, Jay Triano, Igor Kokoskov and Earl Watson yielded forgettable team performances.
Poor draft picks
Many of the first-round pick the Suns in the 2010s did not blossom to the players they were envisioned to be: Tyler Ennis, Alex Len, Kendall Marshall, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson. If they showed promise and developed into serviceable role players in the rotation, the Suns would have emerged out of the doldrums faster. Instead, it would take a new leadership under James Jones and his shrewd player decisions to bring out the Suns as cellar-dwellers.
Small market situation
In 2004, during the relatively successful years of the Phoenix Suns, the team made a deep push to sign Kobe Bryant in free agency. In 2014, a similar push to sign LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh were likewise unsuccessful. In the dark decade that defined the 2010s for the Suns, the team had difficulty in attracting marquee talent due to its small market that pales in comparison to, say, New York or Los Angeles, and the apparent unwillingness for owner Robert Sarver to invest in All-Star calibre players. The franchise has become the league’s laughing stock during those dark days.
Sarver is considered one of the worst in the NBA. Ex-GM McDonough has become a Twitter troll. PR nightmare spiral continues to leak of mishandled transactions (the Suns thought they were trading for Dillon Brooks and the Memphis Grizzlies thought they are sending the Suns MarShon Brooks) and heard nasty comments from former Suns players like Markief Morris and Matt Barnes.
Suns should rehire Ryan McDonough so they can fire him a second time.
— Chris Coffel (@Chris_Coffel) August 23, 2020
The 2020 Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns used to leverage potential by parading a line up among the youngest starters in league history. But lack of experience and guidance from high basketball IQ veterans failed the team to advance to a desirable position.
Thankfully, the 2019-2020 season showed the sun is shining brightly in the Valley. The team and coach Monty Williams proved something in the Playoff Bubble by winning all eight of their remaining games. And despite losing out a playoff spot, it was a sign of great things to come.
Moving on to 2020-2021, Chris Paul is in, so is Jae Crowder to provide playoff experience and mentoring the young Suns Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Cam Johnson. Role players Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig fit in very well. After all the losing seasons, Devin Booker can finally see success emerging from the pain of losing.