('88 Record: 28-54)
The Pacific Division is a mess. The guys in charge finally got Sacramento out of the Midwest Division to where it geographically should be, but now there are four young, unpredictable, and probably bad teams for the Lakers and Blazers to pick on.
The Phoenix Suns are one of those young and probably bad teams. The Suns are also one of the most unpredictable teams around for next year. They have revamped their entire lineup over the past two years as Jeff Hornacek is the only remaining player from the '86-87 team. Their commitment to young players is obvious as they have gone out to get some of the most highly touted young stars in the nation. They traded away or just released their older stars and acquired unproven but top-name 22 and 23 year olds. It's a bold move, probably the boldest move in the franchise's history, but it will eventually gain them the respect they lost in the drug scandals.
Those drug scandals were played up too much by the basketball writers last year. It seemed that many writers were putting the Suns in last place based solely on the turmoil caused by the drugs. The team's few positive factors seemed to be wrongfully overshadowed. Some of those positive factors: the offense wasn't very bad, Larry Nance was great, and the Suns would be facing the Clippers six times in the season. There were plenty of negative factors as well on the team, like the lack of a solid center and any sort of defense, but the first thing mentioned in nearly every Phoenix comment was how the organization was being 'shaken up' by the drugs, not how shaky the defense was. If writers would concentrate on the basketball and not on the politics that surround the basketball players off the court, they might see more of what is happening in the game.
But that would also be stupid.
Sports is more than demanding physical activity out of players on a team. The mental attitude and concentration of athletes are as large a part of any game as the physical skills required to play. Ideally, the personal lives and drug habits of any player that may affect the mental part of the game are not evident in what happens in a sporting contest, but there is no ideal. There is an obituary column to every newspaper. Every dark cloud with a silver lining is still a dark cloud. Bad news travels faster than good news and we've got to look at its ugly face.
What happens away from sports directly affects what happens in sports. Anyone who has ever held a job knows that because, after all, sports create jobs. If a players' home life is suddenly soured by some event, he won't be able to completely block that out of his mind when he's playing, unless he's a rare individual who has no mind. That one player is going to be dealing with the game and his personal life all the time and he won't perform well on or off the court. That's not abnormal psychology. That's Normal Psychology 101.
What the writers did with the Suns last year, though, is that they overstated the effect of the outside-basketball issues. The Suns got rid of most of the players who were affected by the drug issue, holding on to only Walter Davis for any extended length of time. The players whose games would be affected by thinking about the drug influence were generally not on the court for the Suns. The Suns' players were concentrating on the game, not on how former Suns' players had fouled up the team's reputation. Nance, Hornacek, Eddie Johnson, Armon Gilliam, Jay Humphries, and the later acqusitions had no guilty conscience to distract them from the game. The players who started out the season for the Suns were generally an innocent bunch whose only adjustment in '87-88 was to their new teammates. The core of the team that had gone 36-46 in '86-87 was still there and could probably have gotten fairly close to that record again in '88 if it weren't for all the player moves throughout the season. Even though the drug issue affected several individual players, it hardly affected the team situation in Phoenix.
It's now 1988, though. The Suns don't have to worry about drugs any more than any other NBA team. The Suns can be a normal team again. They now don't have an experienced core of good players, though. Many positions are unsettled on the club and leadership is coming from outside the organization. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons is new. Projected top scorer Tom Chambers is just in from Seattle. Projected starting point guard Kevin Johnson will be in his second season in the league and has only played 28 games for the Suns. The situation in Phoenix is somewhat like a bunch of gymnasts going to a foreign country to train under the best coaches. The adjustments to the language, the style, and the pace are going to hinder early development of the team. But once everyone is comfortable with everyone else, things should go very well.
The Clippers were arrogantly and prematurely calling their '88 college draft 'The Best Ever', but the Suns did very well for themselves also. The Clippers got two Olympians (Danny Manning and Charles Smith) and the Suns got one (Dan Majerle) plus a late cut from the team (Steve Kerr). The Clippers got some versatile players and the Suns got guard-forward Majerle as well as a couple of good forwards and a point guard. The Clippers got players from winning college programs, including one from a national championship team. The Suns got one from a national championship team (Dean Garrett) and several more from top ten teams. Five out of Phoenix's six draft picks could make the team next year (not Rodney Johns). As bad as the Clippers were last year, they probably won't have even four of their five draft picks make the team. The Suns' rookies could easily outshine the Clippers rookies next year. If I had any guts, I'd bet they would.
The addition of point guard Kevin Johnson (K-J) late last season was a boon to the Suns' offense. In his 28 games with them, he played like a top-flight NBA point guard, with a floor % of .587 and creating over 17 ppg. K-J is also a good rebounder for his position, which should help to create a quick tempo that seems suited to most of the Suns' players. I might have seriously underrated K-J in the player ratings, putting him below several point guards that haven't really impressed me. In two years, K-J will probably be touted highly by people that matter, but it seems possible that he may end up trying to do too much, as Alvin Robertson and Sleepy Floyd have done.
The offense led by K-J next year may not be very effective because of the lack of playing experience the current Suns have together. The better point guards seemingly can greatly make up for this because they control the ball so much that his teammates only have to learn his style. It's unlikely that K-J is good enough to do this and Coach Fitzsimmons' offensive philosophy may not allow for it either.
The concern in Phoenix, though, has to be for the defense, which ranked 21st last year with some fairly good young talent. The problems were with stopping opponents shooting, allowing 49.8% shooting from the field. Part of that resulted from poor shot blocking, but it was mainly just a defense that played too loosely. To this point, I have heard little concerning what the team intends to do to shore up the defense. If the Suns are ignoring the problem or not actively trying to solve it, there is very little chance that they will be any better than they were last season.
Of the four young and unpredictable teams in the Pacific, the Suns and Kings appear to the worst because they don't seem to recognize their problems very well. The Warriors were poor defensively, especially in the middle, so they went out and got Manute Bol to block shots and Don Nelson to teach defense. The Clippers were especially bad offensively, so they drafted three of the best offensive college players in America. The Suns needed help all over, but especially defensively, went out and got new personnel, but no one who could be a defensive force. The Kings also need help everywhere, but didn't make many changes at all, acquiring only Ricky Berry to shoot straight from outside.
The Suns won't rise next season.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver