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Charting the Long-Running Demise of the Phoenix Suns

Sam CooperCorrespondent IIIDecember 7, 2016

Charting the Long-Running Demise of the Phoenix Suns

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    Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

    It may seem hard to believe given their current situation, but just several years ago the Phoenix Suns were one of the greatest teams in the NBA. They boasted multiple All-Star players and had several consecutive 50-win seasons. Some bad luck kept Phoenix from ever winning a championship during that span, but it came extremely close on a few different occasions.

    Fast forward to today, and the Suns are at the bottom of the Western Conference. What was once a great franchise now struggles in every single game, and this has clearly been one of the darkest seasons in franchise history.

    Every team must eventually rebuild, but how did the Suns fall from top to bottom so quickly? What were the key events of the past several seasons that have led the Suns to where they are now?

    Some of these events were bone-headed decisions, while others probably happened for the best. In any case, you might cringe a few times.

    Let's take a trip down memory lane and revisit the events and decisions that brought down the once-mighty Phoenix Suns. 

Every Draft of the Mid-2000s

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    Alright, so perhaps poor draft-day decisions didn't necessarily make the Suns worse. However, bad selections and trades have definitely prevented them from being in a better position to rebuild right now.

    In the mid-2000s, the Suns were a contending team every single year, so trading away late first-round picks was not that big of a deal. However, when you actually examine the trades that the Suns made, you have to think they could have at least gotten some more value out of those rookies.

    Let's start with the 2004 NBA draft. The Suns drafted All-Star small forward Luol Deng with the seventh overall pick but traded him to the Chicago Bulls for Jackson Vroman and a 2005 first-round pick. Vroman only played 57 minutes for Phoenix in 10 games the following season before being traded.

    Now, on to 2005.

    The Suns had a first-round pick from their trade with the Bulls, and they drafted Nate Robinson with the 21st pick. In the second round, the Suns got a steal by drafting Marcin Gortat.

    However, both of those players were traded on draft day. Robinson was packaged with Quentin Richardson and traded to the Knicks for Kurt Thomas, while Gortat was traded for cash considerations.

    In 2006, the Suns had another two first-round picks. One was Sergio Rodriguez, who was immediately sold to the Portland Trail Blazers.

    However, the other pick was Rajon Rondo, a four-time All-Star who has led the league in assists for each of the past two seasons. He might have had to play under Nash for a few seasons, but Rondo would have fit right in with the Suns' style of play.

    Rondo never did get to play in Phoenix, though, as he was shipped off to Boston for a 2007 first-round pick.

    In the 2007 NBA draft, the Suns took Rudy Fernandez and Alando Tucker. Tucker played for Phoenix but never made much of an impact, and Fernandez was traded with James Jones to Portland for cash.

    Then, several days after the draft, the Suns traded away Kurt Thomas and two first-round picks to the Seattle Supersonics for a 2009 second-round pick. The second-round pick was Emir Preldzic, who was immediately sold to the Cavs on draft day.

    The two first-round picks? Serge Ibaka and Quincy Pondexter.

    So, to recap, the Suns traded away several future starters and two future All-Stars for second-round picks and cash.

    Maybe none of those young players had a place on a contending team like Phoenix. But you have to think that if the Suns had just one of those players on the roster today, they would be in a much better position to rebuild. 

February 2008: The Temporary End of Run-and-Gun Basketball

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    Before the Celtics had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and before the Heat had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Suns had one of the most dangerous trios in the NBA. 

    Steve Nash led the way, of course, and Amar'e Stoudemire was always there to score 20-plus points each night and dominate defenses through the simple use of the pick-and-roll.

    However, you can't underestimate the impact that Shawn Marion had on the Suns during their best years. Marion could rebound like a seven-footer, he was one of the best defensive players on the team, and he was always ready to either catch a lob pass for the alley-oop or get ready to knock down a jump shot. "The Matrix" was recognized for his dominant play, and he made four All-Star appearances during his years in Phoenix. 

    But the up-tempo style that the Suns used with those three was abruptly stopped in 2008, when the Suns traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for veteran center Shaquille O'Neal

    The goal of the trade was to go in a new direction and improve the team's defense. However, the Suns would soon find out that a defensive-oriented team would never work in Phoenix with D'Antoni, Nash and Stoudemire leading the way.

    O'Neal only played 28 games for the second half of the year, but he played 75 games in the following, 2008-09 regular season. 

    The Suns finished just 46-36 that year, and they missed the playoffs for the first time in several years. Terry Porter, the defensive-minded coach who was brought in to replace D'Antoni, was fired halfway through the season, and Alvin Gentry took over. 

    Despite having seven Suns averaging double-figure scoring numbers (Nash, Stoudemire, O'Neal, Richardson, Barbosa, Hill and Barnes), they still couldn't make a playoff push. And this new "defensive" team finished 26th in defensive rating and 27th in opponent points per game.

    But dismantling the "Big Three" was just the first step.

2008: D'Antoni Packs His Bags for New York

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    After the 2007-08 NBA season, Mike D'Antoni left the powerhouse Suns for the New York Knicks, who were one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NBA. 

    D'Anotni led the Suns to four straight 50-win seasons, and he had a 26-25 playoff record with Phoenix. He won the NBA Coach of the Year Award in 2005 and ran the run-and-gun offense that was so effective for several years.

    D'Antoni's replacement was Terry Porter, who as I said earlier lasted just about half a season. Then, Alvin Gentry took control, and he brought extremely up-tempo basketball back to Phoenix.

    Since leaving the Suns, D'Antoni's coaching methods have been questioned, as he has found little success with the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. It makes you question whether he really was behind all of the success in Phoenix.

    But regardless of whether or not he was effective, D'Antoni became a symbol of Phoenix Suns basketball, and his leaving was just another step in the team's demise. 

July 2010: Amar'e Stoudemire Follows in D'Antoni's Footsteps

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    When Shawn Marion was traded, he was at least partially replaceable. The Suns made another deep playoff run in 2010, and Jason Richardson and Grant Hill replaced Marion as the team's No. 3 scoring option and lockdown defender, respectively. 

    However, Amar'e Stoudemire is a different story. Stoudemire made five All-Star appearances in Phoenix, and he scored more than 20 points a game in six different seasons. The Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll combo was the best in NBA history since Stockton and Malone, and those two were unstoppable.

    As the Suns would learn, it's not easy to replace a superstar power forward with role players. 

    To be fair, Stoudemire did ask for a five-year, $100 million contract that seemed fairly unreasonable. After all, Stoudemire suffered a few major injuries in Phoenix and has suffered a major injury both last season and this season with the Knicks. Maybe it was time to let him go.

    However, can anyone know for a fact that Stoudemire would have remained injured in Phoenix? Perhaps he could have been patched up by their world-renowned medical staff. It's silly to think about what could have happened, though, so it's time to let this go.

    Perhaps the real problem wasn't Stoudemire leaving anyway. The players brought in to replace Stoudemire were much worse, and those were the real bad decisions.

    But that brings me to my next point. 

July 2010: Welcome Warrick, Childress, Turkoglu?

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    First, notice that none of those three players are still with the team, despite the fact that those signings and trades were only two years ago. That says something right there.

    When Stoudemire left, the Suns didn't attempt to replace him with another star or even an above-average starting-caliber player. Instead, the Suns had a series of role players on expensive $5 or $6 million contracts who were expected to produce.

    Obviously, that never worked out.

    The main three players acquired in July were Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu. Turkoglu was trying to shake off a bad season in Toronto, Warrick wanted to relive the success he had found in Memphis a couple seasons earlier, and Childress was coming back to the U.S after spending a couple of seasons in Greece.

    None of those three were impact players.

    Turkoglu only played 25 games and averaged 9.5 points and 4.0 rebounds a game before being shipped off to Orlando with Jason Richardson and Earl Clark in a deal for Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus.

    Warrick became a regular part of the rotation, but he was never a starter and only played 18 minutes a game. In that time, he shot 51 percent from the field while averaging 8.4 points and 3.7 rebounds a game. However, he fell out of the rotation in the following season.

    Childress was the worst of the three, as he was reduced to being a benchwarmer by the end of the season. Childress played just 54 games that season, and he averaged five points and three rebounds in 17 minutes a game.

    That production never came close to matching Stoudemire's, and the Suns got rid of all three players within two years.

    It's important to move on, but better signings that offseason definitely could have improved the current roster. 

February 2011: The Departure of the Dragon

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    When he was playing behind Steve Nash, Goran Dragic never received that much playing time in his first stint with Phoenix. He will always be remembed for his 23-point fourth-quarter performance against the Spurs in the 2010 playoffs, but he was not considered a future star.

    So, he was expendable to the front office.

    Still, who the Suns traded for was questionable.

    Point guard Aaron Brooks did win the 2010 NBA Most Improved Player Award after averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists a game, but that season quickly started to look like nothing more than a coincidence. The Suns traded Dragic and a first-round pick for Brooks, who was averaging 11.6 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field at the time of the trade.

    Brooks played the remainder of the season in Phoenix but was not any better in a bench role than Dragic was. To make matters worse, the Suns gave up a first-round pick, which they could have used to really start their rebuilding process.

    The Suns did eventually bring Dragic back as a free agent, but he was on a much more expensive contract, they lost a first-round pick, and Brooks contributed almost nothing to the Suns for half of a season.

    Pointless trades like those can easily bring down a great franchise. 

July 2012: Goodbye Grant, Goodbye Steve

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    In July of 2012, the Suns finally said goodbye to a couple of their last veterans and truly started their rebuilding process.

    Grant Hill never expected to stay in Phoenix very long, but he was miraculously kept healthy and spent five seasons in Phoenix. In that time, he was still able to produce both offensively and defensively, and he became a leader in the locker room.

    But the true story of the offseason was the departure of Steve Nash. It was clearly time for Nash to leave, as the Suns did need to start rebuilding. But when Nash left, the old Phoenix Suns were officially demolished.

    During his time in Phoenix, Nash won two MVP awards, made several All-Star appearances, led a team through a few heartbreaking playoff runs and encountered quite a lot of bloody noses. He was the face of the Suns, a fan favorite and an all-time great. Nothing can ever take those years away from Suns fans. But, it was time to move on so that Phoenix could once again build a competitive team. 

    Even now, the Suns still cling on to a few pieces from their last playoff run as they try to rebuild.

    But with Nash gone, the core of the Suns has officially burned out. 

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