By the time the suns were eliminated in the first round of last
spring's playoffs, their fans had become so apathetic they could
barely bring themselves to boo.
Though Phoenix won 51 games last season, coach Scott Skiles often
appeared to be the only person on the bench invested in the
outcome of the game. Ticket sales dwindled to their lowest level
since the team moved into America West Arena in 1992-93. Worse,
three of the franchise's star players made the police blotter
during the season. Point guard Jason Kidd was charged with
domestic abuse (he underwent six months of counseling); forward
Clifford Robinson was arrested on charges of driving under the
influence and possession of marijuana (he pleaded innocent and is
awaiting a court hearing); and guard Penny Hardaway was charged
with threatening the mother of his daughter (the charges were
dismissed). "There was a general malaise," says president and
general manager, Bryan Colangelo. "We lacked personality on the
court, and the fans weren't entertained."
The response of management was dramatic. On July 18 Colangelo
sent Kidd and center Chris Dudley to the Nets for Stephon Marbury
and two salary cap throw-ins, center Soumaila Samake and forward
Johnny Newman. That same day, Phoenix shipped Robinson to Detroit
for forwards Jud Buechler and John Wallace. One day later the
team signed free agent Dan Majerle, a fan favorite when he played
for the Suns from 1988 through '95. The new-look Suns will also
feature a healthy Tom Gugliotta. Over the past three years, the
power forward, a former All-Star, has had an uncanny streak of
misfortune, ripping his left knee to shreds, suffering a
near-fatal seizure on the team bus and losing his mother to
cancer. Now, he claims, he's back at full strength. "I'm feeling
like a totally new player," he says, "and this feels like a
totally new team."
Not everything is new. Hardaway, who missed all but four games
last year with a left-knee injury and has failed to play more
than 60 games in a season since 1996, competed in two summer
leagues, took part in Michael Jordan's cloak-and-dagger workouts
and pronounced himself "100 percent fit." Yet three days into
training camp, he abruptly left for Canada to get ultrasound
treatment. Team officials said all the right things publicly--it
was just a precaution for tendinitis--but there was a palpable
sense of here we go again. "We obviously want Penny healthy,"
says Skiles, "but we did win 50 games without him last season."
With or without Hardaway, the Suns will shine only if Marbury
does. While he lacks Kidd's defensive ability and passing skills,
Marbury is a superior scorer, capable of breathtaking moves off
the dribble. As one might expect from a player who nicknamed
himself Starbury, Marbury, 24, also brings a level of bravado and
hip-hop energy that was absent in Kidd, 28. "Me," says Marbury,
"I'm all about bringing excitement."
Though preposterously talented, Marbury doesn't come
baggage-free. In five seasons he has only been to the postseason
once and made no secret of his discontent in Minnesota and New
Jersey. His shoot-first, pass-maybe mentality has led others to
wonder if he can truly be the fulcrum of a team. "There's a bag
full of question marks," concedes Colangelo. "Is he a playmaker?
Is he selfish? Will he ever be successful? Well, he's going to
have a great opportunity to answer these questions this season."
The early returns are favorable. Like a kid at a new school,
Marbury has taken pains to fit in, picking up the tab at team
meals, hanging out and playing pool at Hardaway's house and
giving unsolicited advice to undrafted rookie point guard Charlie
Bell, his likely backup. "Stephon's definitely matured," says
Gugliotta, whose style clashed with that of Marbury's when the
two played for the Timberwolves from 1996 through '98. On the
court, teammates such as ascending star forward Shawn Marion (the
leading scorer and rebounder on the gold-medal-winning U.S. team
at the Goodwill Games in September) will allow Marbury to
shoulder a lesser scoring load than he did in New Jersey. "When
he dunks, you feel it," Marbury says of Marion. "Basically it's a
good fit, and I can't wait for the season to start."
Despite the enthusiasm of the new point guard, Phoenix may not
rise from the ashes of last season. But management can at least
hope that this year the fans will care.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A STEP UP? As a scorer Marbury is an improvement over his predecessor, Kidd, but he comes with a rep as a selfish player.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GOLD METTLE As the top scorer for the U.S. team in the Goodwill Games, Marion carries high expectations into this season.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Suns
"Jason Kidd had burned too many bridges to stay there, and the
Suns needed to get somebody for him who would sell tickets. But
I don't like Stephon Marbury. He's selfish, he doesn't get other
people involved nearly as well as Kidd did, and he's never made
his teams that much better. How are Penny Hardaway and Shawn
Marion ever going to see the ball? Marion, in particular, needs
touches, yet Marbury jacks it up 30 times a game.... Their bench
is not that good, which is why they may start Dan Majerle and
bring Hardaway or Marion off it.... Their bench, though, can
make shots--Rodney Rogers, Tony Delk, Vinny Del Negro, Jud
Buechler; in fact, this is flat out the best shooting team in
the league. The funny thing, though, is that the Suns are at
their best when they're running. They can't be a setup team;
they've got to be a tempo team. That's how Marbury, Hardaway and
Marion are most comfortable, and even Tom Gugliotta can get
out.... Defensively, they've got problems. Neither Jake
Tsakalidis nor Daniel Santiago is much of a shot-blocking
presence--in fact, Marion may be the best guy on the team in
that department. Plus they've got to be concerned about Hardaway
and Gugliotta, who have both had fairly serious injuries....
John Wallace could be a help but he's totally underachieved
since he came into the league.... All in all, the Suns look like
they're sinking, not rising."
2000-01 record: 51-31 (third in Pacific)
Coach: Scott Skiles (third season with Suns)
PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS
SF Shawn Marion 17.3 ppg 10.7 rpg 1.37 bpg 1.67 spg 48.0 FG%
PF Tom Gugliotta 6.4 ppg 4.5 rpg 1.0 apg 0.82 spg 39.2 FG%
C Jake Tsakalidis 4.5 ppg 4.2 rpg 0.96 bpg 47.0 FG% 59.3 FT%
SG Penny Hardaway16.9 ppg 5.3 apg 5.8 rpg 1.57 spg 47.4 FG%
PG Stephon Marbury23.9 ppg 7.6 apg 3.1 rpg 1.18 spg 44.1 FG%
PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS
F Rodney Rogers 12.2 ppg 4.4 rpg 2.2 apg 1.18 spg 43.0 FG%
G Tony Delk 12.3 ppg 2.0 apg 3.2 rpg 0.91 spg 41.5 FG%
F John Wallace 5.9 ppg 2.1 rpg 0.6 apg 42.4 FG% 77.8 FT%
G-F Dan Majerle 5.0 ppg 3.1 rpg 1.0 spg 33.6 FG% 31.5 3FG%
G-F Jud Buechler 3.4 ppg 1.6 rpg 0.7 apg 46.3 FG% 41.6 3FG%
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 117)
"They can make shots. This is flat out the best shooting team in