With the dawn of an exciting new decade filled with possibilities, I thought it only natural to do what scores of journalists, bloggers, stat-heads and nerds have done before me: Look back.
For the Suns, the ‘OOs were a tenth of a century on the brink, ten years of coming oh-so-close, only for players and fans alike to wind up slapping their foreheads and moaning, “Ooooooooohhhh!” It started with the team running and gunning, and it ended the same way, but in the middle, there were ups and downs galore.
2000-2001: “Backcourt 2000” (remember that?) remained stalled in the backyard as Penny Hardaway joined superstar backcourtmate Jason Kidd for only four games. Off-court “incidents” reduced the effectiveness of both Kidd and Clifford Robinson, but the Suns took their bright spots where they could find them: Shawn Marion showed immense promise in his second season, and in mid-season, the Suns thought they’d found their center for the next decade when Big Jake Tsakalidis (remember him?) briefly lived up to the hype of being a first-round draft pick. Nevertheless, the gutsy Suns, bolstered by one-time nemesis Mario Elie and a free agent named Tony Delk, powered their way into the playoffs with serious momentum, only to get the door slammed in their faces by the Kings (“Ooooooohhhhh!”).
2001-2002: The Suns ran through 20 players over the course of the season, what with trades, injuries and, presumably, identity theft. The changes started early, with the Suns shipping Kidd, in what was largely regarded as a PR move, to New Jersey for noted good citizen Stephon Marbury (Kidd would go on to rub salt in the wound by leading his new team to the Finals). “Backcourt 2002” didn’t prove as exciting a nickname for Penny Hardaway, who returned from injuries as a man doing a poor imitation of Penny Hardaway. Coach Scott Skiles split town, leaving “Fourth Quarter Frank” Johnson to try to hold together a chemically imbalanced club. As the playoffs vanished over the horizon, and the Suns’ 14-year postseason streak with it (“Ooooooohhhhh!”), the club found two things to smile about: Dan Majerle got to retire as a Sun, and a mid-season trade brought in Joe Johnson, the second piece (after Marion) of a mid-decade renaissance.
2002-2003: Given the dismal prior season, no one expected the Suns to do anything in 2002-2003. Prognosticators suggested they might even finish 34th out of 29 teams. But weird things happened. Chief among them: Stephon Marbury became, briefly, against all odds, a mature team leader. Injuries still crippled the Suns (“Ooooooohhhhh!”), but they managed to defy the odds and reach the playoffs, nearly derailing the Spurs before succumbing. Most importantly, familiar names (Tsakalidis, Gugliotta and Hardaway) were giving way to new ones, like JJ, the Matrix, and a rookie who liked to call himself “STAT.” Amare Stoudemire won the Suns’ third Rookie of the Year award. Something good was brewing in the Valley. All that was needed was an on-court general to organize all that young talent and, while “Starbury” had made a great leap forward, you had to question how long a guy who gives himself a nickname that includes the word “Star” could really be relied on to be a team guy.
2003-2004: Who knew Suns could set with such a resounding crash? After overachieving so spectacularly the previous year, the Suns found themselves buried in the Western Conference. “Starbury” showed precisely how long he could be relied on to be a team guy…The Suns traded him in mid-season, along with Penny Hardaway (“Ooooooohhhhh!”). They got back three warm bodies and one truly precious commodity – financial flexibility. And they added two more key pieces to what would become the most exciting club of the decade – Coach Mike D’Antoni and yet another promising youngster, Leandro Barbosa. Now all the Suns seemed to be missing was a leader on the floor. But where, oh where, would they find one?
2004-2005: The last time we’d seen Steve Nash in a Suns uniform, he was squashed down on the depth chart beneath Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson. Traded to Dallas, he’d turned into a reliable All-Star, but now, lured back to the Valley by a big contract, there were serious questions if the Suns had made the right move. Wasn’t Steve a little past his prime? Wasn’t his back a concern? Looking back, can you believe we asked those questions? All Nash went on to do was steer the league’s most exciting offense (orchestrated by D’Antoni, as perfect a blend of coach and player as you will ever see) and claim the first of two consecutive NBA MVP awards. With Nash feeding them the ball in perfect spots, all the Suns’ young talent blossomed simultaneously. The Suns roared out to a 31-4 start, secured the best record in the league, and earned D’Antoni the Coach of the Year award. The playoffs brought a classic series with the club that foolishly let Nash get away, Dallas. The Suns squeaked it out, but at the cost of losing Joe Johnson (“Ooooohhhhhhhh!”) to a broken face, as well as much of their stamina. The Purple Gang proved no match for the Spurs in the Conference Finals, but the sense was there that the Suns were just a single bad break (sorry, Joe) away from establishing a dynasty.
2005-2006: Joe Johnson took his broken face and dashed for the cash to Atlanta (“Ooooooohhhhh!”). Amare underwent microfracture surgery; his return during the season was doubtful at best (“Ooooooohhhhh!”). People wondered if the Suns could win even 20 games. So, all they did was add Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Kurt Thomas and Tim Thomas, dredge up another MVP for Nash, win 50 games, plow through the Lakers and the Clippers (!) in the playoffs, and find themselves playing Dallas in the Conference Finals. The Suns’ additions over the course of the season might have appeared to be interchangeable role players, but when Ra-ra went down with an ankle sprain (“Ooooooohhhhh!”), it was just too much to overcome, even though he guttily came back to play through it. Now there was some sweat on Suns’ fans’ foreheads: How long could Nash keep up this level of play? Could Amare come back from a surgery that had ruined the careers of many stars before him? How long could the core hold its chemistry together before the team’s long-distance sniping on the court became short-distance sniping in the locker room? How long would the championship window stay open?
2006-2007: Robert-freaking-Horry. “Ooooooohhhhh!”
2007-2008: And suddenly it all seemed to start to fall apart. Fans and pundits started criticizing D’Antoni, saying his system wasn’t fit to win a championship. Shawn Marion started (continued, really) grousing about being underappreciated. Off went the Matrix to Miami in exchange for 350 pounds of lane-clogging personality. Somehow, the Suns got themselves rolling in time for the playoffs, and seemed ready to give the Spurs a challenge…until Tim Duncan, on a lark, really, decided to see if he could bank in a three-pointer, just for laughs. “Ooooooohhhhh!”
2008-2009: Goodbye Coach D’Antoni, hello Terry Porter (remember him?). Goodbye fun-and-gun, for the most part, and hello, commitment to post play and defense. Goodbye, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, hello Jason Richardson. Goodbye, Coach Porter, hello Coach Alvin Gentry. Welcome back, fun-and-gun. Whoops, too late (“Ooooooohhhhh!”). Goodbye, playoffs.
2009: The Suns kicked off the end of the decade with a blazing start, Shaq no longer gumming up their arteries. Chemistry soared to heights not seen since the middle of the decade. Steve Nash showed there’s plenty of gas left in the tank. The team looked forward to 2010 with excitement and a sense of something building, rather than something coming to a close. And everyone wondered, was the championship window still open?
Ooooooohhhhh, we hope so.