A Brief History of Franchise Centers

The Suns finally have a bona-fide franchise center.� Will he lead the team to its first ring? (NBAE Photos)

Sure, maybe not a bona-fide franchise center at the peak of his powers, but the Suns have never, ever, had a pivotman the caliber of Shaquille O’Neal. And we’re talking forty years here. They’ve had good centers (Neal Walk, Mark West), and great players playing out of position (Alvan Adams, Amare Stoudemire), but never a guy who commands the attention, whose very presence alters a game, like Shaq.

Every year on draft day, whenever a franchise center was coming out of college or high school, the Suns were like kids at some other child’s birthday party. It’s only so much fun to watch them open their gaudy new presents, knowing you’re maybe going home with a party hat or, if you’re lucky, a noisemaker.

Here, let’s hop in my trusty Suns Way-Back Machine and trace the course of Phoenix’s tangled history with franchise centers. As you’ll see, it’s been a trail of “just misses” and of being too good to merit picking high enough to grab a superduperstar.

1968: In their inaugural year, the Suns are given a middle-round draft slot by the league, keeping them from taking famous oak stump Wes Unseld, who’d go on to win the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player award.

1969: Everyone knows this one. Lew Alcindor, coming out of UCLA and headed for the most famous name-change in basketball history (sorry, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), is the target for both the Suns and expansion brothers Milwaukee. Milwaukee wins the coin flip, and the Suns take Neal Walk and then win the rights to Connie Hawkins. Both of whom, while not adding up to one Abdul-Jabbar, nevertheless help make the Suns good enough to miss out on…

1970: …Bob Lanier. And Dave Cowens. Sigh.

1974: Having passed the peak years of Neal Walk’s career, the Suns would have loved to land a franchise center in this draft. However, they weren’t quite stinky enough, and could only watch division rivals Portland snap up Bill Walton. It’s Portland’s second number one overall pick in three years, by the way. Good for them. Couldn’t happen to a lovelier city. No, really, we’re happy for you.

1975: The Suns fill their center void with future Rookie of the Year, future All-Star, and future Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams. A sensation his first year because of his versatility, quickness and the matchup problems he provided opposing centers, foes soon turned the tables, and Alvan would come to have just as much trouble with them as they did with him. Essentially playing out of position his entire career, today Alvan would likely be a small forward…or a big guard (he was that good a ballhandler, shooter and passer).

1976: With Alvan manning the post, the Suns don’t feel the need to trade up to go after some kid from a school called Centenary named Robert Parish, preferring to stay two spots behind and pick up Ronnie Lee. The Suns may not have gotten a franchise center, but they unquestionably got the better Afro.

1980: Hype surrounds the professional debut of Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll, the consensus top pick and purported next great middle man. The Suns aren’t players in this draft, having no first-round pick, but they’d have the great joy of seeing Mr. Carroll in a purple and orange uniform some years later, after he spectacularly flamed out in a blaze of wasted potential. He didn’t rediscover that potential in Phoenix, either, and Suns fans saw up close how he earned his nickname, “Joe Barely Cares.”

1983: Ralph Sampson! Everybody wanted this guy. Seven-feet-, four-inches tall, with a guard’s ballhandling abilities and limitless athleticism. Alas, the Suns didn’t have a first rounder this year either, but it’s just as well – their center position was in the good hands of James (Buddha) Edwards, who never took a shot when he wasn’t fading away from the basket, never averaged more than 8.5 rebounds per game in a season, and was most famous for being the last player to convincingly wear a Fu Manchu mustache.

1984: Houston gets a little of that Portland luck, getting the first pick all over again, and getting themselves a second franchise center in two years, Akeem (I’d Like To Buy An H, Pat) Olajuwon. Keep track of these Houston franchise centers. There’s more to come.

1985: Patrick Ewing just happens to be available in the first year of the NBA draft lottery! So where do the Suns find themselves? Picking just outside the lottery at number ten.

1986: Brad Daugherty? Who needs him?! The Suns, picking sixth, draft a bona fide, big-time, franchise-potential center named…William Bedford. Here’s my William Bedford story: One afternoon shortly after the draft, I’m shooting baskets at the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center. In walks Suns Assistant Coach Al Bianchi with Suns star forward Larry Nance and young master Bedford. Bianchi watches them play one-on-one to assess the magnitude of the Suns’ newest megatalent. After Nance has flattened Bedford’s soft scalp with a series of dunks, poor Mr. Bianchi punches himself in the eye seventeen straight times (figuratively speaking, of course). Bedford winds up in Detroit where, naturally, he wins a championship ring as a benchwarmer.

1987: The Suns have their highest pick since they year of Almost-Lew…and it’s still not quite high enough to snag David Robinson. But it’s not all bad…Picking second, the Suns still managed to wind up with Armon Gilliam! Why aren’t you smiling?

1992: We have to wait a while for the next batch of franchise centers, and two of them turn up this year – Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning. But the Suns are smack in the middle of a great run, anchored by the legendary Chambers-KJ-Majerle nucleus, and hey, they’ve just picked up Charles Barkley besides. So there’s no way the Suns are bad enough to qualify for either of the above super prospects. Nevertheless, the Suns manage to land a center loaded with potential near the end of the first round: Oliver Miller. Unfortunately, the Big O was also loaded with about sixty extra pounds. There’s no telling how far Oliver might have gone in his career had he stayed in shape – but that’s because he ate the road in front of him.

1997: San Antonio snags the top pick and the right to select Tim Duncan, which is only fair because, hey, it’s only been ten years since they selected their last franchise big man. The Suns sit out the first round entirely, possibly in protest of the injustice of it all.

1998: Michael Olowokandi. Okay, sometimes it’s all right not to have the first pick overall.

2001: Kwame Brown. See 1998.

2002: Remember when I said to watch this space for another Houston sighting? Well, here comes Yao Ming. That makes three franchise centers in fewer than 20 years! Anyone want to join me in a good primal scream?

2004: Dwight Howard. Sigh. Can’t you picture him playing alongside Amare Stoudemire, reducing opponents’ arenas to rubble every night? Why do we have to be so freaking good all the time that we miss out on players like this?! (I’m not really angry about it – I’m thrilled we’ve had a team of such consistent high quality to root for, but still…Rrrgh!)

2007: Well, welcome back, Portland. We were worried you’d led Houston and San Antonio keep having all the fun. Here, have a Greg Oden.

So there you have it. After all these years, the Suns finally have one of the guys mentioned above in uniform, in a position where he really might be able to get the franchise over the hump. Here in Los Angeles, there’s been lots of gleeful hysteria over how the Shaq trade “just isn’t working out, and boy, is Phoenix in trouble!” Which, seeing as how we’re five games into the Shaq era, is a little like reviewing War and Peace after the first nine words. You don’t add a Shaquille O’Neal to an established club in mid-season and have everything flow perfectly right away. And as I’ve said before, this trade was made with April and May in mind, not February. Besides, as anyone who’s seen the Suns since the trade can tell you, while Shaq may not be Shaq circa 1994, he’s a far cry from being William Bedford. Thank goodness.

After all this analysis, I still don’t know if Shaq will help carry the Suns to their first championship and break the franchise’s “center jinx,” but my hopes are as high as they were the day of the trade. I only know one thing for certain: If another franchise, superstar center emerges from the draft…Houston, San Antonio or Portland will likely be there to greet him. Which is only fair.

Suns' New Look No Match for Perfect Pistons

The good news is they broke out the boos at US Airways Center Sunday. The bad news is that when the home fans break out the boos this is not a signal it’s party time.

The one bright spot of this game was Amare’s 31 points. (NBAE Photos)

Less than 48 hours after the Suns had the good fortune to catch the Celtics at their worst, they had the misfortune to catch the Pistons at their best. And the Pistons at their best are arguably the strongest team in the league and indisputably the best team in the East.

They are certainly the most experienced team in the league, with their key players having been together light years longer than anybody else’s. And the kind of togetherness and sure-footedness stood out in sharp contrast to the hesitancy and uncertainty of a Suns team that is less than a week into the brand new look brought about by the Shaq deal.

During this transition period the Suns, whose mantra in the Coach Mike era has been “A shot every seven seconds,” suddenly are hesitating to shoot. And as the team and Shaq work through getting used to each other, the temporary mantra is “A pass every seven seconds” — and that without whole lot of confidence.

As if this psychological hiccup in what has been the league’s best offense the last several years wasn’t problem enough, the Suns also were suffering from an emotional hangover Sunday. And no, it wasn’t the boos. What it was was an understandable letdown after coming off a weeklong emotional high from the beginning of the Shaq Era.

The addition of The Big Cactus changed the personality of the Suns overnight, and the changes were almost all for the better. But the immediate impact on the offense has been that the Suns are suddenly are having to go through the process of rediscovering who they are (or even exactly who they want to be).

But this rout was by no means all about the adjustments the Suns are having to make on the fly. The fact is the Pistons were virtually flawless in just about every aspect of the game.

They sliced and diced the Suns’ defense down low, were devastating on the perimeter (partly because the slicing and dicing inside created wide open looks), were dominating on the boards, and suffocating defensively. They even outran the Suns.

If you’re looking for a couple of key stats for the team’s offensive woes during this period of adjustment, try these two: The Suns had 19 assists and took only 77 shots (21 of which they more or less heaved up in garbage time (i.e. — the entire fourth period). Their season averages are 27 and 84.

On the plus side, Amare Stoudemire, who has significantly expanded his offensive range in recent weeks, had 31 points. And if you need a couple of bromides to ease the pain, this was only one game, and there is plenty of time to the Suns and Amare to not only get through the dating phase in their new relationship, but also get engaged, and even married.

The bottom line: Let us give thanks the playoffs don’t start tomorrow.

A Memorable Outdoor Game in Puerto Rico

Neal Walk describes his experience playing in Puerto Rico. (NBAE Photos)

If my memory serves me, my first thought – as well as those of some of my teammates – was that we were a little bit surprised and full of wonder as to why in the world would we go to Puerto Rico to play the Bucks… on a floor placed between first and third base and over the top of the flattened pitcher’s mound. Usually, in exhibition games you might play a game near the other team’s city, such as playing the Bucks in Green Bay – drawing more fans from the region, exposing your product… But in Puerto Rico? What affiliations were there and whose brainchild was this? At least the weather was better than you’d find in Green Bay at that time of year. Of course, there was the flight to consider which stopped in Miami and made for a long ride to the island. San Juan was and probably still is a lively place, so that wasn’t rough on us. The real fun began with the game. Of course, the whole set up looked weird – a basketball floor across a baseball field. It was much odder than playing in the Super Dome with bleachers pulled up on one side and acres of empty space.

The night was humid and breezy to almost windy, which made for swaying backboards – much like the swaying palms in the distance. The basket seemed to be hanging in the sky. After not having played outdoor ball for at least 7-8 years, it was quite an adjustment to make. But no one really adjusted. I remember taking a shot from the leftwing right in front of Head Coach Bill van Breda Kolff. I heard him say “looking good” but with the swaying rim and breeze, to boot, that ball drifted and was “stay press…” no iron.

Then with the time of year in the tropics, it was quite humid and the sweat dripped and the floor had a mist of dew of its own, so it was slippery. And being an island, there were many seafowl around, and they would land on one end of the floor and then as we ran to that end, they would fly off and then return. I do not think that anyone who participated enjoyed the game very much at all. But many seemed to enjoy the night life of San Juan.

For much more fun, we traveled on a plane that the Wright brothers must have put together. We were going to the other side of the island to a town named Ponce. Now this was much better, we thought. They had a floor and a roof in an actual building… except there were no real sides to the place and the weather that evening was like that of a Category 3 hurricane. So without sides, the place was virtually exposed, and the rain and wind came in on an angle and made for another miserable game. To top it all off, on the plane ride back to San Juan, we encountered some heavy turbulence and with Lamar Green hollering, he wanted off every time the plane was buffeted or dropped in altitude. All I could think of was “Whose @*#*$*) idea was this?” And that he or she should be on this plane. On the upside, we won both games against the Bucks, but it was exhibitions and no one cared and it didn’t count. It is my fervent wish that when our squad plays in Indian Wells, there are no climate anomalies. Indeed a trip to remember.

Despite Loss, Suns Have a Lot to Look Forward To

Shaquille O’Neal made his first points memorable on Wednesday night.

(NBAE Photos)

But don’t take my word for it.

Here’s Steve Nash’s take after the game: “You really hate to lose an important game, but once you take a step back you have to believe the possibilities for us are very exciting.”

And here’s Shaq going even further along the same general lines: “When we really get to know each other we’re going to be the most dangerous team ever created.”

I’m not ready to go quite that far, but I will say that Shaq’s performance in his first game as a Sun exceeded all reasonable expectations. Not only were his numbers (15 points, 9 boards, 2 blocks and one highlight-worthy assist) outstanding for a guy who’s been on the shelf for several weeks and only been with his new team five days, but the shape he was in was so good it surprised even himself.

In fact, The Big Cactus (aka Aristotle, aka Diesel), made some key plays at both ends of the court in the fourth period to help keep the Suns in the game.

A pessimist could note gloomily that even though Shaq did everything he was brought here to do – numbers-wise at least – the Suns STILL lost. But the other side of that coin is that if Shaq could do this much serious damage while he and his new team are still trying to get used to each other and he is still getting his game legs under him the possibilities are indeed “very exciting.”

And talk about buzz!

This was late-round playoff buzz. In fact, the excitement almost approached World Series buzz. The press room was sold out, photographers were out en masse, and the word on the street was that choice tickets to see Shaq’ debut were retailing for $500 to $1,000.00.

When he came out to midcourt during pregame drills to lean down and plant a kiss on former teammate Derek Fisher’s head a flock of fotogs surrounded them. And when he and Kobe hugged at along the sideline, a phalanx of photos converged on the embrace (a phalanx is two flocks).

And Shaq got an ovation almost every time he even inhaled or exhaled, drawing especially loud cheers for a couple of blocks. He even delighted fans when he accidentally ran over one of the officials.

As far as the rest of the night is concerned what we had here was two very good basketball teams that are going to be even better down the road a piece— the Lakers because they figure to have a healthy Andrew Bynum and the Suns because they figure to fully incorporate Shaq into their game plan.

In fact, by the time the playoffs roll around I wouldn’t be surprised if these were the two best teams in the league. And should they meet in any round it would be a series for the ages.

The bottom line: Has to be reserved for Kobe’s 16-25 field goals, 8-10 free throws, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 41 points, and at least 5 highlight reel moves.

By the Numbers: Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers

I’ve decided to let everyone else talk about what they think is going to happen with the team over the next few weeks and months and instead, I’m going to take a look back at what the Suns did numbers-wise pre-Shaq. Then as we get more into the post-Shaq era, we’ll have a good base to build off of.

The Suns played 53 games before Shaq stepped onto the court and won 37 of them – a 70% winning percentage. Assuming they kept that percentage up for the rest of the season, they would have won 57 games. The team also lost 16 games before the Big Cactus put on the uniform. By the end of the season (if percentages stayed the same), they would have lost 25 games. So what was the difference between the wins and the losses?

I averaged the numbers in the wins and losses to see what trends I could find and most of the numbers are very obvious (the Suns score more in wins than in losses), some are fairly obvious (they shoot a higher percentage in wins than in losses) and some not so obvious (they average nearly the same number of offensive rebounds – 7.8 vs 7.1 – in wins and losses).

But there are some stats that I would not have predicted before I ran the numbers:

When the Suns win, their opponents average 42.3 rebounds per game. When they lose opponents average 41.8 rebounds. So there’s not too much difference in the actual number of rebounds the Suns’ opponents get per game. What matters instead is the plus/minus of rebounds the Suns get in wins and losses. In wins, the Suns only average 3.7 rebounds less than their opponents. In losses, Phoenix is averages 9.6 less. That is a huge difference and is one that hopefully Shaq will be able to help the Suns overcome. Another stat regarding rebounds is the percentage of total rebounds the Suns get. They average 44% of the total rebounds in the game when they win while they only average 38% of the total rebounds when they lose.

A few additional statistics that I found interesting are:

  • Phoenix averages more steals in losses (8.1) than in wins (7.0) and the number of turnovers
  • The Suns average the same number of turnovers (12.4) in wins and losses
  • They average the same number of fouls in wins and losses (17.8)

While the Suns weren’t able to pull out the win tonight, they did improve in the rebounding category. As the Suns get more comfortable with Shaq in the lineup, the wins will hopefully start coming as well.

What are your thoughts on the stats above? Is there something I’m missing? Something you’d like me to research further? If so, e-mail me at blog@suns.com.

Suns, NBA Assist New Orleans Reconstruction Efforts During All-Star Weekend

 

Former and current NBA stars (Bill Russell and Steve Nash pictured) came together in New Orleans to help in continuing hurricane recovery efforts.
(NBAE Photos)

It was 1981, I was weeks away from high school graduation and 150 of my closest friends Amtraked it to the Big Easy for our yearly band tour. Given that most of us had recently reached the then-drinking age of 18 and the fact that we fancied ourselves as the artsy group of our class, it was quite literally the time of our lives.

We drank Hurricanes, walked Bourbon Street, hung out by the river’s edge and even managed to perform a couple of concerts, most notably in historic Jackson Square.

When the footage of Katrina’s devastating aftermath began to air two years ago, I joined all who had ever been to New Orleans in a personal feeling of loss. Only those who had the opportunity to enjoy the French Quarter and its eccentricities pre-Katrina could truly know what was lost when that massive storm blew ashore and changed the region forever.

So when I heard that the NBA’s All-Star Weekend was heading to Louisiana I jumped at the chance to return to the source of such great adolescent memories. I knew it would not be the same. Natural disaster and human error had combined to make New Orleans a bleak skeleton of what it once was – a proud and unique destination, combining European style and class with Southern hospitality and good old American entrepreneur spirit.

Upon our arrival on Thursday, the airport shuttle to our hotel made a couple of stops to drop others off in the French Quarter and the memories from our trip over a quarter-century ago (yikes) came back clearer than ever. [Read more...]

Shots Didn't Fall But All-Star Weekend Still Memorable

I just finished one of the best experiences since I retired from the NBA eight years ago. I was able to compete in an All-Star event for the first time. I must admit that it was bitter-sweet and not because we did not win the contest and I did not deliver my fatal jumpshot on time.

 

Cappie Pondextor, Amare Stoudemire and Eddie Johnson prepare for their Haier Shooting Stars competition during All-Star Saturday Night. (NBAE Photos)

It was because I felt that there were at least four times in my career that I should have made it and did not.

So I approached this opportunity with my eyes wide open and it was a moving experience for me. The city of New Orleans put on a great weekend. It was nice arriving in town as a participant because I was spoiled with transportation and conveniences that made my ability to enjoy the weekend a lot easier.

My wife Joy and I arrived on Thursday night and when we got off the plane there were a few limousine drivers waiting, but none for me. She cracked on me and said you are old and forgotten go find a cab, but to my delight when I reached baggage claim there was a driver with a sign held high for yours truly. I told Joy I guess you will be the only one catching a cab. [Read more...]

All-Star Weekend Blog

Suns.com’s Stefan Swiat brings you continuous updates of everything that’s going on at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.

 

 


As my friend said, I guess Batman can dunk on Superman.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008
So while the West was narrowly defeated by the East, 134-128, the representatives from the Suns put on a pretty good show. Amaré could have been MVP of the game if the West had pulled it out, being one of three players to lead the West with 18 points. He shot 8-of-11 from the floor and also added five rebounds. Steve was his usual steady self, shooting 4-of-8 from the field to total eight points and six assists. His six dimes tied Denver’s Allen Iverson for a team high.

The All-Star Game is a fantastic show and you could tell the players turned it on down the stretch. They definitely wanted to win. Sure, they all want to look good during the game, but the pride factor will inevitably kick in when you have that many competitors on one court.

STAT certainly agreed. [Read more...]

Suns Positioned Well For End Run

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Many of the Suns bench players were required to contribute to Thursday’s win against Dallas.

(NBAE Photos)

span>The victory over the Mavericks left them only 8 percentage points behind New Orleans for the top spot, a game and a half ahead of the Lakers, two games ahead of both Dallas and San Antonio, and three games ahead of PMah. And this despite the face the Big Punctuation (either exclamation point or question mark, depending on which of the wildly divergent national views you have of the Shaquille O’Neal deal) has yet to make his first appearance.

Under ordinary circumstances the victory over the Mavs would have had much greater significance. But with the depleted Mavs minus ANY point guard, never mind Jason Kidd, who is still a Net, and Devin Harris, who is still a Mavs but is hurt, not to mention Josh Howard and his 20 points and 7 rebounds, it was marked down to just a nice win.

That the Mavs had only eight assists underscored how badly they need a point guard. And that the Mavs had 20 offensive rebounds was yet more proof how much the Suns need a Shaq.

“We’ll both be better the next time we meet,” said Coach Mike. “They’ve got some guys missing and we’re still not where we’re going to be when Shaq is ready, but I was pleased with our energy tonight.

Speaking of point guards, the Mavs were again tortured by the one they let get away, as Steve Nash had 13 assists and 24 points. But the Suns also got 26 points each from Amare and Leandro Barbosa, and some outstanding defensive work from Grant Hill, Boris Diaw, and Raja Bell.

Diaw and Hill were surprising effective rotating against Dirk Nowitzki and Bell did an outstanding job of slowing down Jason Terry in the second half.

“I think this is the best job we’ve ever done on Dirk,’ said Coach Mike. “I’m not saying we stopped him, just that we did a good job.”

And while Nowitzki finished with 36 points and 12 rebounds, he needed 31 shots to get his points, and was pressured into several bad passes.

The bottom line: It should be a fun four days off for Coach Mike.

Shaq 2.0

He’s still the same dominant player on the both defense and offense, tipping the ball in his team’s favor with every tick of the game clock. But after watching four quarters, it became clear that Shawn is unequipped for victory without his Band of Brothers in Phoenix. Until Miami can find more talent, it’s Marion and Wade against the world.

On the other side of the country, Shaq inherits Marion’s old reality: sellout games, all-star teammates, and a city of Suns fanatics. I know this because everywhere I go, people are talking at the big trade. When my plane first touched down at Sky Harbor shortly after the trade news broke, I overheard 3 cell phone conversations about the Suns before I even got to the baggage claim.

You expect sports fans to run their mouths at the bars and at the water cooler, but a move this big invites everyone into the conversation. The baristas at my favorite coffee shop are excited to have something new to talk about with the espresso sippers. The UPS people have something in common with the FedEx people. And the Realtors are speculating where the big man will buy a house. (For the record, most Realtors agree he’ll buy a house on my street. I broke the news to my neighbor Bill, and we agreed to campaign for Shaq to be HOA president.)

I knew that Shaq Fever had taken over the city yesterday when I was at the library reading the New York Times. The trademark tranquility of the reading room was disrupted by a rowdy discussion about what Shaq will bring to the Suns. Listen, I like the Suns as much as anyone else, but you don’t yell about it in the library. I lowered the paper to see who was disturbing the peace. Who was it? Two librarians.

In the Arizona Republic this morning, Bob Young wrote that the Suns going into the All-Star break are “like kids on Christmas who have a present under the Christmas tree that they can’t open…a 7-foot-1, 321 present.” This is a loaded analogy because we all know what it’s like to get a Christmas present that’s not as cool as we thought it would be. Only time will tell. This was a trade to make help the Suns bring home an NBA Championship. I just hope I can be patient through February, March, and April.

It’s just good to have a shot of energy on the team and around town. Now, the real question is this: What are we going to call Shaq? Marion was the Matrix. Diaw is 3D. Barbosa is the Brazilian Blur. Stoudamire is STAT (or Hellboy if you ask Barkley.) And Steve Nash is, um, Steve Nash.

What will be the nickname for the new-and-improved Shaquille O’Neal? Someone mentioned Shaqtus (like cactus) but I thought that was too Sun City West. A friend of min came up with Bio-Diesel, which is slightly clever, but says nothing about the epic story of Shaq in Phoenix. I prefer Shaq2.0 but I don’t know if it will stick. Any ideas?