The Phoenix Suns have won a lot of games during Robert Sarver bought the franchise in 2004. From Bryan Colangelo to Steve Kerr to the Lance Blanks/Lon Babby period and now with Ryan McDonough, the Suns have played aesthetically pleasing basketball while winning a lot of regular season games. But the Suns have also been encumbered by an ongoing crisis of identity that leaves the franchise pulling in multiple directions.
Midway through the 2007-08 season, the Phoenix Suns were the No. 1 seed and on their way to another successful 50+win season. They then decided to trade Shawn Marion, still in his prime, for a late career Shaquille O’Neal. What would prompt a team known for its run-and-gun, fast-breaking offense to trade for the plodding Shaq? While the trade was certainly shocking at the time, the desire to become a more defensive-oriented team was brewing within the organization for the previous three seasons as a result of the Suns’ shortcomings deep in the playoffs.
While the Suns, under Mike D’Antoni, certainly revolutionized the way basketball was played in the mid-2000s – strongly emphasizing the three-point shot and using players at multiple different positions – the general consensus was that the Suns, while having an incredible offense, would never be able to beat a team like the Spurs with a lockdown defense in a seven-game series. The Suns were perceived as a one-trick pony. A great “regular season” team.
After losing to the Spurs and Mavs in the 2005 and 2006 Western Conference Finals, respectively, the Suns believed they had finally turned a corner in the 2006-07 season. They were heading into their second round series against the Spurs fully healthy (unlike the previous season where Amar’e Stoudemire missed the playoffs) and with a deeper roster than ever before (with sixth man of the year Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell).
Ultimately, the Suns lost this series – but not without controversy. Game 1 was lost due to Steve Nash being forced to sit in the final minutes due to a bloody nose. Game 3 was lost due to poor officiating from Tim Donaghy, discovered after the season by the FBI to have been betting on games he refereed. Game 5 was lost due to unfair suspensions to Diaw and Stoudemire for leaving the bench during an altercation.
Losing to the Spurs twice in three seasons resulted in the front office losing patience in the team’s unique style of play. Despite having the No. 1 offense three years running, the Suns decided to shift to more of a defensive identity.
The front office overlooked several important aspects of their playoff disappointments:
- The Suns probably would have beaten the Spurs in 2005 if not for Joe Johnson’s injury.
- The Suns likely would have made the finals in 2006 if not for Stoudemire’s absence.
- They likely would have been champions in 2007 if not for the confluence of nonsense that occurred in the Spurs series.
The Suns let bad luck in the playoffs morph into an identity crisis and made the trade for Shaq who had trouble fitting into the team’s fast-paced offense as was expected. The Suns fell from the No. 1 seed to the No. 6 seed after the trade and ultimately lost in the first round to the Spurs. Ultimately, the tradeoff of cramping the offense for an improved defense was not beneficial.
Following the playoffs, Mike D’Antoni left the team to coach the Knicks – sensing that the Suns were switching to a more defensive-oriented direction that did not suit his style. This was the peak of the Suns’ identity crisis. Without the offensive leadership of D’Antoni, the Suns decided to hire the defensive-minded coach Terry Porter. After an unsuccessful start to the season, where the Suns were totally out of sync trying to pretend to be a defensive-style team, Porter was fired and assistant coach, Alvin Gentry (who was a proponent of D’Antoni’s style) took over.
Returning to their true form proved successful for the Suns. Despite not being projected to make the 2010 playoffs, the team ended up finishing two wins shy of the Finals. Most importantly, they beat the team they were never supposed to be able to beat – sweeping the Spurs in the second round.
What this ultimately proves is that when the Suns accepted their status as a fast-breaking, incredible offense, they were a championship contender – despite their mediocre defense. Unfortunately, the Suns’ desire to be something they were not – a defensive-minded team – ended up robbing the team of its ability to contend for the championship in 2008 and 2009.
Amar’e Stoudemire left the Suns in 2010 and the Steve Nash era ended in 2012, when he left Phoenix to sign with the Lakers. The Suns’ front office appropriately deemed the team to be in a rebuilding stage.
The rebuild began with the team convincing Goran Dragic to return to the team and serve as Nash’s “replacement” of sorts.
Next, in the 2013 offseason, hope was renewed when the Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe, an up-and-coming point guard, from the Los Angeles Clippers. The move slightly confused Dragic, who thought the team was trying to replace him again (in 2011, the Suns traded Dragic to Houston for Aaron Brooks in what proved to be an extremely short-sighted move). However, the front office assured Dragic that the signing of Bledsoe was done with the idea that the two could play off each other and cause defenses headaches trying to contain the speed, shooting, and playmaking ability of these two guards.
Although the Suns were projected to win less than 20 games in the 2013-14 season to compete with the Sam Hinkie 76ers for the worst record in the NBA, the rebuild seemed to be moving a positive direction. The Suns ended up winning 48 games and were the “feel-good” story of the league. Unfortunately, 48 wins was not enough to make the playoffs in an extremely competitive Western conference.
The success that was the 2013-14 season was the impetus for the Suns’ next identity crisis. It began in the 2014 offseason, with the signing of Isaiah Thomas, yet another point guard. At this point, it became clear that the Suns, following their 48-win season, considered themselves playoff contenders and that the rebuild was, for the most part, over. While Thomas’ talent was undeniable, there was wide-ranging confusion about how three starting-caliber point guards would be able to mesh together.
While the idea might work for a fantasy team, the three point guard experiment was a major failure that marred the Suns’ 2014-15 season (plagued by 18 games lost by 5 points or less and 6 games lost at the buzzer). Dragic again felt that the team was looking for another point guard to replace him. On top of that, Dragic often shared the floor with Thomas and found himself awkwardly standing in the corner not adding value to the team. This greatly frustrated Dragic, who, in the previous season, was able to dominate the ball and take advantage of the spacing created by Frye when Bledsoe was out injured. All of this resulted in Dragic requesting to be traded.
At the 2015 trade deadline, the Suns sent Dragic to the Heat and also decided to trade Isaiah Thomas to the Celtics. The Suns’ key acquisition was Brandon Knight – another point guard. The Suns decided that three point guards was too much and that since the Dragic era was clearly over, it was time to find a new second point guard to pair with Bledsoe and attempt to recapture the magic that Bledsoe and Dragic had in 2013-14.
Despite only having a small sample size of Bledsoe and Knight playing together, the Suns re-signed Knight to a five-year contract in the 2015 offseason. The Suns, similar to the previous offseason, again lacked the patience necessary for a proper rebuilding process and signed the 32-year-old, injury-prone, Tyson Chandler to a lucrative four-year contract. This was with the hopes that having Chandler would lure LaMarcus Aldridge to also sign with the team. However, Aldridge ultimately decided to sign with the rival Spurs.
The ramifications from this disastrous offseason are still ongoing.
Due to the Suns’ overreacting to the success of a surprise 48-win season and making rash decisions, such as signing Thomas and Chandler, the Suns have ended up losing Goran Dragic, and regretting that they traded Thomas for Brandon Knight in the aftermath of the three point guard experiment. Not only that, the attempt to sign Aldridge angered Markieff Morris because, in the process, the Suns traded his brother Marcus to the Pistons to create cap space for Aldridge, who would, if signed, usurp Markieff from the starting lineup power forward position.
Morris’ anger and resentment toward the Suns franchise never went away with time. Ultimately, Morris was traded to the Wizards. However, the Suns are now stuck in a confusing place – with promising young players like Devin Booker, TJ Warren, and Alex Len but also overpaid veterans like Chandler that don’t fit the team’s timetable for future success.
One thing is for sure - for better or for worse, the Suns traumatic 2015-16 season has removed any uncertainty for Ryan McDonough. The Phoenix Suns are rebuilding.