Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic have one thing in common: all of these franchises have appeared in at least 2 NBA finals series but didn’t win the title.
Among them, the Suns are historically the most successful. Founded in 1968 in Arizona, the Suns have posted 19 seasons with 50 or more wins, won 6 division titles, 2 conference titles (in 1976 and 1993) and are currently holding the 4th highest winning percentage among active NBA franchises.
Ahead of them are only LA Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, teams that have 38 championships altogether. This fact makes Phoenix the best NBA team without a championship, statistically at the very least. They have also participated in only two games in NBA Finals history that entered the third overtime; in 1976 the Suns lost the game and series to the Celtics while in 1993 they won game 3 against the Bulls, but John Paxson’s dagger with less than 4 seconds remaining in game 6 cost the Suns their first ever championship.
Many great players have worn the Suns jersey: Connie Hawkins, Alvan Adams, Paul Westphal, Van Arsdale brothers, Walter Davis, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and currently head coach Jeff Hornacek.
The Suns are traditionally known for their high-octane offense, flashy style and fast tempo with little to no emphasis on defense. This philosophy culminated in Mike D’Antoni’s “7 seconds or less" system in mid-2000s, with Nash, Barbosa, Johnson, Richardson, Marion, Bell, Diaw and Stoudemire as the key players.
During this era Canadian Houdini, Steve Nash was awarded with two MVP's, Stoudemire emerged as one of the premier power forwards in the game and D'Antoni was named NBA coach of the year in 2005. Unfortunately for Phoenix and its fans, their squad was stopped by the Spurs (2005) and Mavs (2006) in the Western Conference Finals. Without D’Antoni and with a somewhat different style the Suns reached Western Conference Finals again in 2010 but lost to the eventual NBA Champs Lakers in 6 games. Since then the franchise has been in rebuilding mode because Stoudemire left the club that summer for a lucrative contract with New York Knicks and Steve Nash declined slowly due to his age and injuries.
In 2013, some new faces joined the Suns’ front office. Ryan McDonough was appointed as the new GM of the franchise, and he quickly employed a former Sun player and one of the sharpest shooters of the 90s Jeff Hornacek to coach the team. As a member of the Suns, Hornacek made the All-Star team in 1992, but his glory days were with Utah Jazz along Stockton and Malone. Hornacek held NBA record for a while with perfect 8 for 8 shooting from downtown (Sprewell and Ben Gordon share the present-day record with 9 for 9). McDonough proved himself by getting rid of washed up players, overrated players and unsatisfied players while signing a few names that won’t make you bounce off the walls. But those were smart moves. Moves made by a man with a vision.
The most important addition was Eric Bledsoe, a guy who spent the first 3 years of his career with the Clippers, being named to All-Rookie second team, struggling badly in sophomore season with a stint in D-league Bakersfield Jam and then bouncing back to become a valuable piece of Clippers rotation and Chris Paul’s backup.
Bledsoe was heralded for his athleticism, quick hands, ability to hit long range shots and defend both guard positions. As a product of Calipari’s one-and-done system he was a member of Kentucky Wildcats team that included John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, spending a lot of time as a shooting guard beside Wall. Bledsoe was a 5-star recruit coming from high school which means he was almost blue chip to succeed. And he did, but the way wasn’t easy for Eric. He had to share playmaking duties with Baron Davis, Chris Paul, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas.
But after trading Dragic to Miami and Thomas to Boston, Eric Bledsoe is an undisputed first option in the Suns backcourt. Last year he averaged 17.7 ppg, 5.5 apg and 4.7 rpg and it was Bledsoe’s breakout year. In September 2014 McDonough offered a 5-year, $70 million contract to Bledsoe and the player signed it. That was a result of long negotiations. Not even the fact that Eric appeared in just 43 games last season due to meniscus injury was an obstacle for McDonough. He knew that Bledsoe was something special.
Phoenix Suns 13/14 is one of the best teams to ever miss the postseason
Many experts and analysts thought before the start of 2013/14 season that the Suns would be one of the worst teams in NBA and predicted them 18-64 record. The Suns finished 48-34 behind the stellar play of Bledsoe, Dragic, Morris twins, Tucker, Green and Plumlee. Hornacek deserved Coach of the year award, but Gregg Popovich was given the same. 48 wins would be enough for the third seed in the Eastern conference last year, but in the Western it wasn’t enough to even make the playoffs. The eight-seeded Mavericks finished with 49 wins. Do I need to say that the Suns’ 48 wins (like Warriors in 2007/08) is the most ever for a team that missed the postseason?
The Suns started this season with little changes, adding Thomas and signing long term contracts with Markieff and Marcus Morris. The latter two, along with Bledsoe and Alex Len are the team’s base for the future. Right now, after losing Dragic and Thomas and getting Brandon Knight the Suns are standing at 39-41 and they are without the playoff chance. We should not forget Anthony Davis led Pelicans (41-36) and they have a shot to make the postseason.
Eric Bledsoe is having another great year (17.1 ppg, 6.0 apg, 5.2 rpg, 1.6 spg, 44.8% shooting) and he is the Phoenix’s best player. Most importantly, he is healthy and that’s a good sign. Bledsoe is a member of an elite company with Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Lebron James as the only players in NBA with at least 17 points, 6 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Knowing that he is listed just 185 cm or 6-1 (in shoes), makes this achievement much more impressive.
’Mini-Lebron’ is an excellent two-way guard right now, and he can only get better. Morris twins bring 25 points and 10 boards every night, PJ Tucker is there to chase the opponent’s swingmen, Gerald Green ’The Machine’ can still rock the rim like few other players can and Len is showing that he can be a really good rim protector in the near future.
The Suns have 14th offensive efficiency (103.0) and 17th defensive efficiency (103.1) in the league (pretty unusual for the Suns, huh?), they have the 3rd fastest pace this season and they're ranked 9th in points per game (102.6) and 6th in steals (8.6 per game) in NBA. The other side says that Phoenix is one of the most turnover-prone teams with more than 14.6 per game (ranked 26th) and they are allowing a lot of easy points.
There are a couple of reasons for that: Alex Len still isn’t capable of correcting all mistakes and protecting defensive rebounds, Bledsoe and Tucker are good defenders only on the perimeter (I’m not counting Knight who has yet to play significant number of games in Suns jersey and he's shooting just 38%) and the Suns often depend on individual quality to finish actions, which leads to counter-attacks. One thing is undeniable – this team is funny to watch, they offer the show on every given night.
THE YOUNG PHOENIX SUNS
Hornacek has a very young nucleus to coach and that is the biggest reason for optimism. Bledsoe and Morris brothers are 25, Knight is 23 and Len is just 21. The Suns have the possibility to match any offer for Knight this summer, and if they choose not to, they’ll be able to chase other free agents.
This team has weaknesses, but all of them are fixable. The Suns need a high-scoring wing who can play defense (like Wes Matthews or Jimmy Butler) and one big man to secure boards and defend (especially pick-n-slip actions). Len’s development must be one of the main goals for the Suns. It is very rare to see a 216 cm and 122 kg center with great wingspan who also recognizes defensive schemes and can play read-and-react basketball.
Playoffs without Oklahoma and Westbrook would be a disaster, and Unibrow Davis is enjoying a terrific season with the Pelicans, but the Suns have proved that they’re real fighters. Phoenix may not have Golden State’s shooting firepower, Memphis’ tenacity and grit, San Antonio’s versatility or Oklahoma’s individual quality but they possess hearts as big as Mount Everest and lets hope that they will be dark horses of NBA league.
The legend of the Phoenix says that this bird can always be reborn from the ashes of its predecessor after being burnt by fire, and we are witnessing that the same goes for the Suns franchise. Usually after being underestimated, they’d start to play smashmouth basketball. So don’t you dare count them out.