For four years, few teams matched the excitement and mystique that surrounded when the Phoenix Suns were set to appear in a basketball game. Led by the innovative Mike D'Antoni and highly successful Steve Nash, the Suns resurrected a moribound franchise and turned the NBA upside down in the process. With quick cuts, fantastic slams around the basket, a plethora of three point baskets and with absolutely no defense (which in turn allows the other team to follow through with all of those aforementioned offensive attractions) the Phoenix Suns became the team for the casual NBA fan, and the team that most of us wanted to watch when we felt like being assured entertaining basketball. But funny things happen when you tinker with the system and bring things that people are not used to to the forefront. When you introduce basketball's version of the spread offense, success can be attained but only when you bring championships are your efforts truly respected. Many people passed off D'Antoni's philosophy on basketball and said that it could not win championships. That same criticism turned the greatest period in Phoenix Suns basketball upside down, and seemingly prolonged the franchise's now 40 year history.
It all started with a trade back in 2001, when the Suns traded future hall of fame point guard Jason Kidd for the insanely talented Stephon Marbury. This trade was supposed to be a nice swap of talented guards which would result in hardly a change for either squad. Instead, the Suns went to the lottery and the Nets went to the NBA finals. Stephon Marbury's frustrating first season in Phoenix resulted in a trip to the lottery for the Suns, which resulted in Amar'e Stoudemire being added to the team. With Stoudemire garnering rookie of the year honors and the team's quiet acquisition of guard Joe Johnson from the Boston Celtics, the Suns sneaked into the playoffs with the 8th seed and surprised the top ranked San Antonio Spurs in game 1 of their first round matchup. Shortly thereafter, though, the Spurs would emerge victorious and things took a turn for the better; eventually.
The 2003-2004 season started off with mediocre expectations for a seemingly dirrectionless Phoenix franchise. Then in midseason, amidst the team's struggles and inability to show any immediate progress, owner Robert Sarver steamheaded a complete reconstruction of the Suns. Both Jerry and Brian Colangelo went to work on putting the pieces in place for this team to fully take off. Frank Johnson was removed from the head coaching position and assistant coach and longtime European league coach Mike D'Antoni would be given the reigns. Also, in what would headstart a completely opposite direction for the two franchises, the Suns sent Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks for five players who would not finish the season as Phoenix Suns players in addition to two first round draft selections. Although the Knicks made the playoffs that season, nobody could have predicted the decline that would soon follow Stephon Marbury's fourth franchise. Then again, nobody could have predicted the ascension that awaited in Arizona.
In the offseason, the Suns quickly gave Mike D'Antoni a vote of confidence despite his 21-40 record finishing the season as Phoenix's head coach. The team's late surge, which was spurred by guard Joe Johnson, rookie guard Leandro Barbosa and now second year forward Amar'e Stoudemire could have been a huge factor in why D'Antoni was given a second chance. Once free agency started, the Suns made a big splash by signing free agent point guard Steve Nash and free agent forward Quentin Richardson. D'Antoni would move Stoudemire to center and insert forward Shawn Marion at the power forward position (a move Marion continuously complained about despite putting up the best numbers of his career) giving the team a ridiculously small lineup. What ensured was pure, utter, fast break basketball.
Steve Nash spearheaded a revolutionary style of play as the Suns quickly brought offense back to the forefront in the NBA. Gone where the days of walking a ball upcourt while your seven foot center could set up under the basket. With quick, athletic big men like Stoudemire and Marion and with an intelligent and talented point guard like Steve Nash leading the way, the Suns went on to average 110.4 points per game (although giving up 103.3 PPG) and posted an NBA best 62-20 record. Steve Nash shocked all by winning the NBA MVP award while D'Antoni and Colangelo were given the coach and executive of the year awards respectively. In the playoffs, guard Joe Johnson would succumb to an eye injury and the Suns would sorely miss his leadership and skillset. A sound defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies and a trouncing of the Dallas Mavericks set the Suns up with who would become the main reason for the Suns eventual decline: the San Antonio Spurs.
The San Antonio Spurs are basically the anti-Phoenix Sun. They don't dazzle you with fantastic athleticism or bombard you with a multitude of points, they systematically and soudnly defeat their opponents by way of Tim Duncan and a group of role players that are fine performing their tasks for the sake of the greater good: a Larry O'Brien Trophy. The Spurs two centers that year, Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic, would probably not even get a sniff from D'Antoni yet wound up becoming productive players on championship teams. Was D'Antoni's emphasis on speed and offense neglecting all that you were tought growing up? Is a great offense truly better than a great defense? Can you win scoring 110 points instead of focusing on holding your opponents below 90? These all came to a head in this true battle of wits.
Amar'e Stoudemire would experience a coming out party against the Spurs, as San Antonio had no answer for the young player on his way to averages totaling over 30 PPG in the series. But the Spurs, with two championship trophies already to their credit, would be able to answer every trick Phoenix tried. Bruce Bowen was there to contain Steve Nash's explosiveness, Tony Parker was there to expose Nash's glaring defensive deffeciences, Tim Duncan was there to take care of Stoudemire's similar weaknesses, and the Spurs took the Suns out in 5 games, bringing end to the fantastic first season in the D'Antoni era.
Many people did not know what to expect for an encore in Phoenix. The gimmick offense was sure to be stopped when teams were given ample time to prepare for it. Expectations can always ruin a team not used to winning, and Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire would be gone, Johnson in a trade to the Atlanta Hawks and Stoudemire due to knee surgery. The Joe Johnson trade brought Boris Diaw, an afterthought in many instances and then the Suns shipped Quentin Richardson and the draft rights to Nate Robinson to New York for a center in Kurt Thomas that they believed would be able to counter Tim Duncan's effectiveness in a seven game series. The team also obtained guard Raja Bell, a player praised for his on the ball defensive prowress and three point effeciency. But the sky was not the limit this season, as, without Stoudemire, many expected the Suns to fail.
Stoudemire's absence meant wonderful things for Shawn Marion who turned in the best year of his career. Boris Diaw proved out to be a fantastic find by the Colangelo's, winning the NBA most improved player of the year award, and Steve Nash went on to win his second consecutive NBA MVP award after helping lead the Suns to a 54-28 record in the regular season. But the signs of the eventual decline already started to take shape. Bryan Colangelo was said to have major conflicts with owner Robert Sarver and bolted to take the General Manager position with the Toronto Raptors. Stoudemire received heavy criticism from the organization when he spent a majority of the season away from the squad while tending to his knee. And although the team managed to avoid the Spurs in the postseason, draining seven game series with both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers took alout of Phoenix, as they simply had nothing left by the time they met the Dirk Nowitzki led Mavericks in a second consecutive Western Conference Finals.
The 2006-2007 season brought about great expectations for the Phoenix squad. With Boris Diaw teaming with Leandro Barbosa on the bench, the Suns were supposed to finally have that deep squad that would allow for D'Antoni to stray from his favored 7-man rotations and still provide the same innovative offensive schemes that had been prominent the previous two seasons. Phoenix struggled with chemistry some, including Stoudemire back into the lineup and it showed. The team, though, rebounded quickly to the tune of 61 victories and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Elsewhere in the NBA, the 67 victory Dallas Mavericks had been upset by the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs in what would be largely noted as the greatest upset in playoff history, and the Utah Jazz would celebrate their return to the playoffs after a three year absence with a victory over the Houston Rockets, giving the Suns home court advantage, now, throughout the playoffs and seemingly the drivers seat to an elusive championship. After the Suns quickly dispatched of the Lakers for a second consecutive season, they saw themselves standing opposite the 3rd seeded San Antonio Spurs, and a fantastic conference semifinals ensued.
Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker quickly asserted physiciality into the already deeply rooted rivalry with the Spurs, as Steve Nash left game 1 with a bloodied nose recieved from Parker and could not finish the game, as the Spurs pulled out a close victory. This brought about major criticism as some felt it was unfair for the Suns to lose without their best player due to excessive blood loss, but the rules would stay and the Spurs maintained a 1-0 series lead. After taking game 2, Phoenix would head to San Antonio for one of the most controversial games in recent memory. Game 3 between the Spurs and the Suns was known for its excessive fouls called, constant whistles and annoying lack of gamesmanship in the contest. The Spurs would ride a questionable free throw advantage to the victory and then all hell broke loose. With Phoenix rebounding to take game 4, Robert Horry stepped in front of Steve Nash on a harmless drive down the baseline, and changed the Phoenix Suns forever.
With the series tied at 2 games apiece and heading back to Phoenix, all cards seemed to be in place for Phoenix to finally nudge past their nemisis and gain ground towards becoming NBA Champions. But Horry's flagrant foul on Steve Nash sent the Suns into a frenzy, which resulted in both Stoudemire and Diaw leaving the Suns bench and therefore forcing the NBA's hand in having to suspend those two players for a critical game 5 in Phoenix. Mike D'Antoni criticized the decision but his efforts went unnoticed as the suspensions stood. A game Phoenix crowd and shorthanded squad gave the Spurs trouble but eventually succumbed in a game 5 loss. The team returned to San Antonio demoralized, and could not take advantage of Stoudemire and Diaw's reintroduction into the lineup and would lose game 6 in San Antonio.
In effect, the Robert Horry foul gave Phoenix their first leigitmate gripe of the D'Antoni era. Being too inexperienced in 2005 and too tired in 2006, 2007 seemed a prime opportunity for Phoenix to grab the franchise's first championship. The Horry foul took away their best shot at putting a foot down on the rival Spurs' throats, and assured us all that there's always that one squad that prevents you from winning. For Phoenix, it was San Antonio. The Spurs went on to win the championship that season, and in the process demoralized alot of the Phoenix fan base. The same team would essentially return for 2007-2008 but the excitement, hunger and mystique surrounding the franchise had gone away. After posting a mediocre start to the season, new general manager Steve Kerr would make the move that effectively ended the D'Antoni era in Phoenix.