NBA at 75: The Phoenix Suns and an introduction to what basketball could be

NBA at 75, Phoenix Suns

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We’re celebrating the NBA at 75 by remembering the teams, players, moments and moves that helped make us who we are as basketball fans.

The NBA is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, even if their conscious decision to recognize this as the 75th season of the league overlooks some of its early history. We’ve already seen the announcement of the league’s official 75th Anniversary Team but this has been planned as a year-long celebration and you can certainly expect more commemoration and merrymaking around tentpole events like the upcoming All-Star Weekend, the playoffs and NBA Finals.

The league’s approach, thus, far has, unsurprisingly, focused on the brightest moments from its history — legendary players and coaches, dominant teams, remarkable statistical accomplishments. Cramming 75 years of history into nine months of celebration necessitates leaving out enormous swarths of what made the NBA what it is today.

But here at The Step Back, we have the luxury of lavishing attention on everything that slots between the championships and MVPs and Hall-of-Famers. Over the next few months, as the league ramps up its celebration of the cultural touchstones they’ve identified as most significant, we’re going to focus on the ones that mattered most to us. The players, teams, moves, quotes and moments that helped shape who we are as NBA fans.

For me, celebrating the NBA at 75 means remembering a team like the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns

In a conventional sense, they were a wholly unremarkable team — finishing the season at 40-42 and losing in five games to the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the playoffs.

But they were also a team just three years removed from an NBA Finals appearance and one who traded away one of the biggest stars in franchise history (Charles Barkley), just two months before the season began.

They were a team that, over the course of the season, featured three legendary point guards — Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd (for 33 games after a mid-season trade) and a rookie Steve Nash.

They were a team that because of injuries and several major in-season trades used 23 different players, including several who would lead incredibly interesting careers away from Phoenix — Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Michael Finley and A.C. Green, already 33 years old and in his 12th NBA season but with 296 career games still to be played.

They were also a team that finished the season with one of the most profoundly weird rotations I had ever seen, one that is still lodged deep in my brain, more than two decades later.

On Dec. 26, the Suns traded Cassell and Michael Finley to Dallas for Kidd but he re-aggravated a neck injury in his Phoenix debut and didn’t return to the lineup until Feb. 14. In the meantime, on Jan. 10, the Suns traded Horry, along with Joe Kleine, to the Lakers for Cedric Ceballos and Rumeal Robinson. Two days after Kidd returned to the floor, he entered the starting lineup. At that point, the Suns were 19-33 and in 10th place in the Western Conference. And then things started to get weird.

From there until the end of the season, the Suns mostly played a three-guard lineup with Kidd and Johnson in the backcourt and 6-foot-4 Rex Chapman at small forward. Wesley Person, one of the league’s original 3-point savants, was the fourth guard and they runned and gunned their way to a 21-9 finish. They went from averaging 15.1 3-pointers per game (21st in the league) to 21.4, which would have ranked fourth in the league across the entire season. The three-guard lineups with Kidd, Johnson and Chapman outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions and they went from 14.8 to 16.2 fastbreak points per game.

But even those numbers don’t really do justice to what it was like to watch this team. Their record undersells just how much of a talent deficit they appeared to be facing each night. These were the days when the Western Conference was dominated by Karl Malone and John Stockton with the Jazz, Hakeem Olajuwon (and now Barkley) with the Rockets, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton with the SuperSonics, Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace with the Trail Blazers, and Shaq in his first season with the Lakers. Waiting in the Eastern Conference were Michael Jordan, or Alonzo Mourning’s Heat and Patrick Ewing’s Knicks ready to smash your face in.

The Suns were overmatched in nearly every game they played but they won with speed and creativity and desperation. They played the way they did because they had no other choice. Injuries and future-looking trades left them with a roster for the present that only made sense if they abandoned convention.

It’s also hard to explain to a younger generation what it was like to try and keep up with the league at that point. This was before League Pass. A time when, if you lived outside an NBA market as I did, the only options were two national television evening games per week and some sort of NBA on NBC double-header on the weekend. That meant there were precious few opportunities to see certain teams — the expansion Toronto Raptors didn’t have a single game on national television and 10 others had two games or less. If you liked the Lakers, Bulls or Knicks, you were in luck, they had a combined 65 national television games that season.

With the help of an industrious friend, I was able to track down the national television schedule for this season to double-check my memory. This Suns team, which has held such a large place in my imagination for more than two decades, they played exactly three national television games during this stretch. There were some incredible games in that trio — a five-point loss to the Jazz that had three different Suns score 20 or more — but I don’t recall any specific moments.

The Suns did make the playoffs that season, pushing the defending Western Conference Champion SuperSonics to five games in a best of five-game series. The high point of the series, for a young, Suns-curious fan, was Rex Chapman’s epic buzzer-beater to force overtime in an eventual Game 4 loss (kind of a metaphor for the whole Suns’ season). The Suns used a four-guard, Johnson-Kidd-Chapman-Person lineup for 71 of a possible 245 minutes in that series and maybe that is where my memory was codified. But, still, it’s weird to look back and remember, so viscerally, a team that I maybe watched eight times.

For me, this team showed me a different kind of NBA than the post-heavy, power matchups the league programmed their league around. It was an introduction not just to the joy of skill and speed as foundational elements, but to the idea that there was something a lot more interesting to be found in the game than the slow multi-month march to figure out which team was ‘best.’

When I think about the kind of basketball fan I am today — mostly team agnostic, compelled more by creativity, evolution, personality and uniqueness than by dominance, hungry to see something I’ve never seen before, even if it’s ugly or unfamiliar — and with an entire career built from my relationship with the sport, I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if I hadn’t watched those eight Suns’ games.

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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