Perhaps it is because the Phoenix Suns are such a likable bunch,
having maintained their good nature and sense of humor through
these difficult times, that you want to keep their spirits up.
Or maybe it's just that being in the Valley of the Sun
(unofficial motto: "...but it's a dry heat") creates a natural
tendency to look at the bright side of things. Whatever the
reason, there has been a strong urge to help the Suns, 0-12
after Sunday's 87-84 loss to the Miami Heat, find a silver
lining in each of their defeats. After loss No. 10, a 113-99
crushing by the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 20, they could take solace
from the fact that their two-game season series against Chicago
was over, that they had no more Bull-whippings on their
schedule. The consolation after defeat No. 11, 115-105 to the
Houston Rockets last Thursday, was that Phoenix had scored more
than 100 points in a game for the first time this season. "We're
grasping for anything right now," said forward Robert Horry, one
of four Rockets traded to the Suns last summer for forward
Charles Barkley and a second-round draft pick in 1999.
"Everybody tells us this thing is going to turn around, and we
know it will. What I wish someone would tell me is when."
It had better be soon, because the valley of the Suns is getting
steadily deeper. The loss to Chicago broke the franchise record
for consecutive defeats at the start of a season, and as of
Sunday the NBA mark, 17 straight losses by the first-year Heat
in 1988, was on the horizon. "The problem?" says rookie guard
Steve Nash, whose play has been one of Phoenix's few bright
spots. "Well, we're not shooting the ball well. We're also
getting outrebounded. And we're turning the ball over too much.
I guess you could say there's more than one problem."
The Suns are even beginning to suffer some of the ritualistic
indignities reserved for truly horrid teams, such as a local
radio personality's vowing to live in his station's mobile
studio until Phoenix wins a game. Worse yet, the Suns are
eliciting something dangerously close to pity from their
opponents, including even Barkley. "I don't want to say anything
bad about Mr. Colangelo or the team," he says, referring to
Phoenix president Jerry Colangelo, whom Barkley has frequently
ripped for his personnel moves, including his decision to put
Sir Charles on the trading block. "I was mad a long time, but I
don't think it's right to kick people when they're down." Any
team in such a sad state that Barkley won't make it the butt of
his insults has hit rock bottom.
Even with the loss of Barkley, no one expected the Suns, 41-41
in 1995-96, to sink this low. The free fall has already cost
Phoenix a coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who resigned after defeat
No. 8, 92-89 to the Vancouver Grizzlies on Nov. 14; he handed
the job over to coach-in-waiting Danny Ainge, who was supposed
to serve a one-season apprenticeship as an assistant before
taking over in 1997-98. Fitzsimmons's exit was hardly the
biggest favor anyone has ever done for Ainge--especially given
that his first three opponents would be the talent-laden Los
Angeles Lakers (who beat the Suns 102-88 on Nov. 17), the then
undefeated Bulls and the Midwest Division-leading Rockets. After
the debacle against Chicago, Ainge's first comment upon entering
the postgame interview room was "Where's Cotton? I'm going to
Ainge was smiling, but Phoenix's plight will put such amiability
to the test. The root of the Suns' difficulties might be that
with the four former Rockets acquired in the Barkley
trade--Horry, point guard Sam Cassell and forwards Mark Bryant
and Chucky Brown--as well as free-agent signee Rex Chapman, they
simply don't know each other very well. "If we're not running a
set play, we have trouble sometimes," says Cassell. "You start
to make a move to the hoop and one of your teammates
accidentally gets in your way, or you think a guy is going to
one spot and he goes to another." The result is that Phoenix
throws a lot of errant passes; the Suns end up having to dive
for more balls than Ozzie Smith did. One scout watching Phoenix
struggle against Houston last week shook his head and said, "It
would be nice to see the Rockets have to play real defense."
With 10 players eligible to become free agents after this
season--all four of the former Rockets as well as guards Chapman
and Kevin Johnson, centers Joe Kleine and John (Hot Rod)
Williams and forwards Ben Davis and Wayman Tisdale--the Suns
sometimes don't seem entirely sure it's worth the trouble to get
acquainted. You've heard of interim coaches; Phoenix is an
"I can honestly say I don't think anybody is out there just
trying to improve his own numbers or playing for his next
contract," says Ainge. But it's obvious that at least some of
the Suns have been playing politics as well as basketball. Even
while Fitzsimmons was coaching, some players lobbied Ainge for
playing time, correctly guessing that he would be the coach
sooner rather than later. The situation grew so awkward that
Ainge offered to leave the bench and go on scouting assignments
to avoid undermining Fitzsimmons's authority. (The offer was
Moreover, the composition of the Suns roster has affected them
in subtle ways. "We have so many guys who can play, you don't
even know when you might be coming out of the game," says Horry.
"You don't have a superstar like Hakeem [Olajuwon] or Barkley
who you have to make sure gets the ball. So what happens is,
guys start to think they might as well do their own thing when
they get the ball. It's not that they just want to get their
stats, it's that their own ability is the only thing they really
feel sure about."
No one is quite sure anymore about the enigmatic Horry, who
seems light-years removed from the player who was instrumental
in Houston's back-to-back championships in 1994 and '95.
Previously an inconsistent player, he has become consistently
disappointing for Phoenix, averaging 8.3 points and 4.1 rebounds
through Sunday. Cassell, the other principal in the Barkley
trade, has been better--he led the Suns in scoring, with an 18.2
average--but the Phoenix offense has often consisted of four
players standing around watching Cassell try to score on his
own. The sad part for the Suns is that that's often their most
effective attack. "With Sam, I think sometimes he comes down the
court knowing a couple of guys have missed their last few shots,
and maybe the confidence in them isn't there, so he tries to
create something on his own," says Ainge.
Nearly every member of the Suns has spent the last few years
playing with either Barkley or Olajuwon, and the adjustment to
playing on a team of equals has been difficult. "We don't have
anybody that other teams have to double-team," Nash says. In the
NBA that is a fatal flaw. "We have a lot of secondary scorers,"
says Ainge. "We have 14 guys who are good, solid NBA players,
yet we don't have one player who is a star or the leader of the
team. Right now, I'd say [second-year forward] Michael Finley is
the closest to being that guy, but life is going to be tough
until we have someone who fills that role."
Phoenix faced an uncommonly tough early schedule, which included
the Bulls and the Lakers twice each, plus the Rockets and the
Pacific Division-leading Seattle SuperSonics. Still, it's hard
to imagine a dramatic turnaround this season, even against less
imposing opponents. The Suns have three solid point
guards--Cassell, oft-ailing Johnson (who returned to the lineup
on Sunday after hernia surgery in September) and Nash. But they
are woefully thin at center, where the 34-year-old journeyman
Kleine is the starter in the absence of Williams, a more
talented pivotman who's recovering from preseason surgery on his
right foot. His return to action is still undetermined.
They have Finley, Horry and Danny Manning at small forward, but
their power forwards, Tisdale, 32, and A.C. Green, 33, are past
their prime. Phoenix has very little outside shooting and even
less interior defense. Colangelo expects to patch up many of
these holes in the off-season free-agent market; the Suns should
have at least $10 million to work with under the salary cap. Or
he might try to make a move sooner. Phoenix could almost
certainly be persuaded to part with Green, who will earn $6.4
million next season, or sore-kneed Manning, who has five years
left on a $40 million deal. Both players have been the subject
of recent trade rumors--one that had Manning going to the New
Jersey Nets in a deal involving center Shawn Bradley, and
another sending Green to the Portland Trail Blazers for forward
The Suns can only hope that any moves they make are more
successful than some of their recent ones. They have been
searching for a reliable center since 1994, when they traded
Mark West and allowed Oliver Miller to leave as a free agent.
The next year they declined to re-sign Ainge and traded swingman
Dan Majerle, largely because they thought Wesley Person was
ready to step into the role of primary outside shooter. They are
still waiting. Through Sunday, Person was shooting 40.5% overall
and just 19.4% from beyond the three-point line. "Every time we
got rid of one of those guys, West, Majerle, Ainge, there was a
little more of a decline," says Barkley. "Look at that team now.
You know they're in trouble because their best shooter is the
Phoenix has a history of success in the draft, but it can't
count on much help there next summer. As part of the deal that
brought Williams to the Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the
option of taking Phoenix's first-round pick in '97 or '98, so if
the Suns continue on their lottery path, the Cavs might well
reap the benefits.
Phoenix does have cause for some optimism, particularly with
Finley and Nash, two relatively late first-round picks who have
worked out nicely. "When I look at the future of the Suns," says
the Bulls' Michael Jordan, "I see Michael Finley and Steve...
what's the kid's last name?" Nash. "Yeah, Steve Nash." (There
was no slight intended. Jordan thinks enough of Nash that he
gave the rookie an autographed pair of his sneakers after the
Chicago-Phoenix game last week.)
But Phoenix's future might depend even more on the 37-year-old
Ainge, whose 14-year career as a feisty shooting guard ended two
seasons ago (he spent '95-96 as an analyst on TNT's NBA
telecasts) and who had no head-coaching experience before taking
over for Fitzsimmons. That would be disconcerting to the Suns if
Ainge didn't seem so perfectly suited to coaching. "He was a
coach when he was a player," says his father, Don. "At least he
thought he was. His problem was he wanted to be a player, coach
and referee all at the same time."
Ainge is refreshingly candid about his team. "When I took this
job, I knew we had no first-round pick, I knew we had a lot of
guys in the last year of their contracts, I knew next summer's
free agents weren't going to be as good as last summer's....
Wait, why did I take this job?" Probably because he was hungry
for the challenge. Ainge's competitiveness as a player was well
known: He was one of the few players willing to stand up to
Barkley, and according to Breaking the Rules, a chronicle of the
Suns' 1995-96 season by The Mesa Tribune beat writer Mike
Tulumello, Ainge was known to bring a stethoscope into the Suns'
locker room before important games and place it against his
teammates' chests, symbolically checking to see if they had the
heart to win. He seems certain to bring the same fire to his
coaching. After one loss this season he contemplated suiting up
for the next day's practice to drive his points home. He decided
against it. This time.
"He's honest," says Phoenix assistant Donn Nelson. "He's not
afraid to tell guys straight out if they're not getting it done.
And he's terrific with players. He knows when they need a kick
in the butt and when they need a pat on the back." But Ainge
doesn't pretend that he has all the answers. During a timeout
near the end of the loss to the Rockets, he sidled up to referee
Jess Kersey and said, "This is hard. This is hard as hell."
It can only get easier. With Johnson returning and the schedule
about to soften a bit, the Suns should improve, if only
slightly. Winning back a bit of respect may not sound like much,
but in Phoenix these days, a win of any kind is a treasure.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Chuck and duck: Chapman, Brown and Manning (from left) couldn't bear to watch Barkley slam his old club. [Charles Barkley dunking basketball over Rex Chapman, Chucky Brown and Danny Manning]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVEROWhile Ainge scratches his head over the losses, Cassell seems down at being a one-man attack, and Person can't hide his woeful shooting. [Danny Ainge]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) [See caption above--Sam Cassell; Wesley Person]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Finley may have the drive to become the Suns' go-to guy. [Michael Finley in game]