The Best Team That Never Was

By: 07.21.11  •  38 Comments
Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson, Dime #37

Imagine what could’ve been. Imagine all that would’ve been different in the NBA. San Antonio’s run could’ve easily ended three or four years ago. The Lakers might still be fighting to get back on top. Would New York basketball have ever come back?

Things would be so different. Everything would be different. Maybe Dirk and Dallas would’ve never needed this spring to redefine their image because their initial 2006 playoff collapse would’ve never happened. The Celtics probably still would’ve come together but who knows if even their vaunted defense could’ve stopped this juggernaut?

Back in 2005, the Phoenix Suns changed the game with their “Seven Seconds or Less” offense. It was new and so inventive that it made it okay to eventually vote a point guard who didn’t play defense and never won in the playoffs into two straight MVPs. Up until that point, the NBA was still struggling to emerge from the aftermath of the blood ball that had dominated the ’90s and even into the early part of the next decade. But with new rule changes put into place to speed up the game, it gave Phoenix a perfect audience/platform to showcase their gifts.

So in just one season, the Suns rode a newly-stolen Steve Nash, the jaw-dropping explosiveness of Amar’e Stoudemire, the versatility of Shawn Marion and the perimeter shooting of Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson to a 33-game turnaround. Their offensive rating spiked over 13 points as they outscored everyone by nearly eight a game throughout the regular season.

But during Phoenix’s entire run – if you want to call it that – there was always a feeling looming just over the desert: this Suns team should be – and should’ve been – so much better. It was all a crapshoot with Phoenix’s front office, with Robert Sarver always at the head of the table. One minute, they would be preaching finances. The next, they would be throwing $42 million at Quentin Richardson. One minute they’d be preaching more emphasis on defense. The next, they would be giving away Kurt Thomas. Over and over it went for Phoenix. Defense always an issue because no one would spend (smartly) to surround the core. Depth always an issue because no one would spend (smartly) to surround the core.

In 2005, their four best players were a 24-year-old swingman, a 23-year-old freak of force inside, a 26-year-old Swiss Army knife and a point guard turning 31 (who now seems to be able to play until he’s 40). Has there been a better, or more promising, quartet of teammates since the 1980s? I don’t think so. We’ve had teams with four great players, but none so young, none so athletic and none so perfectly balanced.

Now take a look at the draft. After their home run of a pick with the infamous Zarko Cabarkapa in 2003 at No. 17, Phoenix’s next three drafts yielded them Luol Deng, Nate Robinson, Marcin Gortat, Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez, the Suns constantly trading their picks for future picks down the road (they could’ve stopped at ANY time and gotten a decent player). Only ONE of those players ever played for them, and that was Gortat. The only problem was he didn’t come back to the desert until 2010 (he was initially traded for, yup, future cash considerations). (As Bill Simmons loves to point out: “They downgraded from Deng or Iguodala to Rondo to Fernandez to nothing…”) From 2005-2010, the Suns won at least 54 games in five of six seasons, but yet failed to reach the Finals even once because their front office decided it was best to piss off an entire fanbase and fill out their bench with players like Steven Hunter, Eddie House, Marcus Banks and Brian Skinner. Maybe that could’ve been semi-explainable had the owners been complete cheapskates. We would’ve still gotten on them, but at least decisions would’ve been consistent. They’d be our cheap friends: we can’t stand going out with them, but at least we know ahead of time what to expect.

No, the team swung and whiffed on three or four signings, blowing money that should’ve been going to players like Johnson and any number of rookies that they decided to keep (Deng or Rondo, etc.) instead on people like Quentin Richardson, Banks and Diaw (these three players alone were given $112 million by the Suns from the summer of 2004 until the fall of 2006). Diaw was the only one who ever produced on the court, but showed quite obviously that he could never fit in with Stoudemire.

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