Heaven knows how many takeouts I did on sunrises and sunsets in the Phoenix Suns’ heyday from Steve Nash’s return in 2004 to their last hurrah in 2010, when they revolutionized NBA offense.
Their heyday really ended in 2008, when coach Mike D’Antoni left, to be succeeded – for 41 games, anyway – by Terry Porter, fired over the All-Star break in an exciting development for the whole league since the Suns were the host team.
Improbably, the personable Alvin Gentry got them back to the 2010 West Finals where they were 2-2 with the title-bound Lakers before falling in six.
Not that they were dead Suns walking, but by the start of this season, the franchise had lost the entire 2004-05 rotation (Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Quentin Richardson, Leandro Barbosa), top management (owner Jerry Colangelo, GM Bryan Colangeo and D’Antoni, who took over as GM), and many more who came and went (Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Vince Carter, Boris Diaw, Matt Barnes, Raja Bell, Mickael Pietrus, Earl Clark).
Did barbarian hordes destroy the aqueducts, cutting off their water, as in ancient Rome?
Was this one of the ailing franchises David Stern hinted might be contracted in labor talks?
The answer in three words: Owner Robert Sarver.
A San Diego banker, he bought the franchise just as it entered its heyday in 2004 for $400 million, a gargantuan figure at the time.
It seemed a great deal all around, cashing out the cagey paterfamilias, Jerry Colangelo, who was to keep running the team with Sarver saying he intended only to cheer them on.
Not that Sarver wasn’t memorable in that role, waving his foam No. 1 finger at courtside, flapping his arms like chicken wings at San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich for resting Tim Duncan.
At another game, Sarver had three Colorado Rockies players in town for spring training ejected for heckling him, telling them, pitcher Shawn Chacon said, “You can get on all the players you want, but this is my house.”
Unfortunately, more was needed from the get-go, like an extension for Johnson with the two sides $5 million apart on a six-year, $45-$50 million deal.
Sarver held firm. Johnson got $70 million in Atlanta the next summer, which Sarver declined to match.
Bryan Colangelo, the GM, went in for an extension, was turned down and resigned.
That effectively removed Bryan’s father, Jerry, from any role in the family-style organization he built with its close bonds to former players like Connie Hawkins. He left to revive USA Basketball.
The franchise might have been torn apart right there but for D’Antoni, a Colangelo hire beloved by all, who took over the basketball operation.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t get past the Spurs in the 2005 and 2006 West Finals, and, farcically, in the second round in 2007, losing the pivotal Game 5 of the 2-2 series in Phoenix with Stoudemire and Diaw suspended for leaving the bench after Robert Horry bodychecked Nash into the scorer’s table.
Injustice that it was, it was disappointing enough to prompt Sarver to bring in Steve Kerr, a University of Arizona icon who had helped set up his purchase of the club.
A former Spur, Kerr hoped to get D’Antoni to play some Gregg Popovich-style defense, but found him touchy about anything he offered.
That was the season the Lakers got Pau Gasol and everyone in the West went nuts.
In Phoenix, that took the form of Miami offering the Suns O’Neal, Kerr asking D’Antoni about it, and, to the surprise of all, D’Antoni enthusiastically endorsing it.
There went the neighborhood for their unstructured, floor-spreading, unguardable offense that so many teams – including the Spurs – had copied.
D’Antoni left after the 2007-08 season.
Porter left midway through the 2008-09 season.
Shaq was traded to Cleveland in 2009.
Stoudemire led them to the 2010 West Finals and a 2-2 tie with the title-bound Lakers before falling in six games. Then went to New York, which was willing to guarantee one more season that Sarver would.
Kerr left that summer, to be replaced by Lon Babby, a player agent.
Babby hired former Spur Lance Blanks as GM.
As if denying what he had done, Sarver rebuilt half-heartedly, clinging to Nash, who stayed until his contract ran out last summer with no more illusion of the team contending.
With the team going nowhere – some surprise, huh? – and Michael Beasley and Markieff Morris their only rotation players under 25, Blanks just fired, or liberated Gentry.
Unfortunately, Blanks passed up a pair of Gentry’s assistants – local icon Dan Majerle and the respected Elston Turner – to name his new personnel director, Lindsey Hunter, as interim coach.
“I think they had their minds made up already before the interviews,” Majerle told the Arizona Republic amid the local outcry.
As for the defense…
Sarver, who hired Babby, who hired Blanks, said his GM is “terrible” at PR. “But if you actually sat with him for an hour, he’s pretty smart,” he added.
If Blanks can’t actually sit down for an hour with players, organization people and Suns fans in general, it was fun while it lasted.
On to the rankings.