The Best Team That Never Was

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.

The 2006-07 season should’ve been their apex. Even with Johnson averaging 25 points a night in Atlanta, with Rondo learning the ropes behind Delonte West instead of Nash and with Deng averaging 19 and 7 for a promising Bulls team (they should’ve had Johnson and one of the latter two), the Suns rode maybe the best year of Nash’s career and a healthy Stoudemire to 61 wins.

This is what their rotation looked like (with minutes in parenthesis):

PG: Nash (35), Banks (11)
SG: Raja Bell (37), Barbosa (33)
SF: Shawn Marion (37), James Jones (18)
PF: Stoudemire (33)
C: Diaw (31), Kurt Thomas (18)

This is what it should’ve been:

PG: Nash (33), Barbosa (27)
SG: Johnson (36), Raja Bell (22)
SF: Deng, or Rondo instead (30), Jones (17)
PF: Marion (36), veteran buyout (10)
C: Stoudemire (34), Thomas (16)

And that’s being fair. It could’ve been even deeper (the Suns were adamant they signed Bell not as a replacement for Quentin Richardson and Johnson, but because he made them better…). 66-68 wins would’ve been possible. They would’ve beaten the Spurs in the second round (they should’ve beaten them as is), and would’ve steamrolled Utah and Cleveland the rest of the way.

This all seems to trace back to one night in early May of 2005. The Suns had just finished up destroying Dallas in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semis, scoring a ridiculous 127 points. But just before halftime of the second game, Johnson (who by the way had lit up the Mavs for 25, 4, 4 & 4 in the first game) landed directly on his face after being fouled on a dunk attempt and breaking bones around his eye. He didn’t return until later on in the Western Conference Finals, when the season-long momentum had been all but eaten up by the Spurs. A healthy Johnson probably doesn’t make a difference in the WCF, but who knows? What it did signal was the beginning of the end for what could’ve been three or four years of Finals trips.

That summer, Phoenix famously decided Johnson wasn’t worth the money – even though they had thrown boatloads at Richardson the summer before and would eventually throw $24 million to Marcus Banks of all people to be their 12th man – and he ended up being signed and traded to Atlanta. And while the Suns did luck out and get Boris Diaw – I say luck because at the time, NO ONE thought Diaw was anything other than a 10th man – and Diaw somehow became a hybrid point-center, as Noam Schiller explains. Yet, he wasn’t winning them any titles.

We’re taught to believe too many great players can never stay together for long. There’s never enough money or shots or minutes. Egos grow, and tilt the ship overboard. It happens all the time. It actually did happen (slightly) in this case. Johnson soured over being a fourth option, too many open threes and quiet 17 point/5 rebound/4 assist games led to the public questioning whether he was really that good, which led to Johnson begging for the opportunity to prove them wrong. But money is money, and what REALLY soured the relationship was the Suns’ insistence on not paying a fourth option, even one with All-Star potential, more than $10 million a year. Marion and Stoudemire co-existed for years despite obvious friction, mostly because of Nash. You can’t tell me Johnson would’ve been different.

Really, the wasted years of Nash’s prime were almost avoided as is. If Johnson doesn’t break his face, if Robert Horry doesn’t lose his mind, and if Ron Artest doesn’t make a lucky shot, I’m betting Phoenix wins one title in their somewhere.

But if Phoenix had smartened up, not been stupid and kept a decent draft pick here and there, realized all along that a 24-year-old who could shoot nearly 50% from deep, handle the ball as a backup point guard, defend other swingmen, lighten Nash’s load and be one of the anchors for a championship team was worth $70 million, this was all avoidable.

Instead, we were the ones who missed out.

What do you think? Was this the best team that never was?

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