Ranking Phoenix Suns' Best Sixth Men of All Time
Leandro Barbosa’s appearance in Wednesday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves was sure to give Phoenix Suns fans a warm feeling of nostalgia. The Brazilian Blur etched his name in Suns lore as one of the most integral parts of the Run-and-Gun Suns led by two-time MVP Steve Nash.
Barbosa won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award for the 2006-07 season, joining a historic list of Suns super subs in the process.
Barbosa averaged 18.1 points per game off the bench for Phoenix the year he won the award, but is he the best sixth man who has ever put on a Suns uniform?
The Suns franchise has had four players win Sixth Man of the Year, though all four brought different skill sets to the table.
So in honor of Barbosa’s return to the Valley of the Sun, I found it appropriate to rank the best sixth men in Suns history.
Note: This ranking dates back to the 1981-82 season, because prior to that year there are no records of who started and who came off the bench. This seems appropriate since the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award didn’t exist until the 1982-83 season.
If you are wise enough to remember great Suns sixth men of the 1970s, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
How Players Are Ranked
As is the case with any ranking, there needs to be some guidelines.
The Suns have had four different winners of the Sixth Man of the Year award, so differentiating between those guys by other means will be imperative. Each Suns sixth man will be evaluated by the following criteria.
Place in Suns History
This condition is simple. If one of the following Suns players played in Phoenix for more seasons, that player will earn seniority.
For example, a guy who played five seasons for the organization holds a more prominent position in franchise history when compared to someone who played in a Suns uniform for one year.
Simply speaking, players who played more seasons for the Suns tend to mean more to the franchise.
Stats with Suns
While winning the Sixth Man of the Year award is the biggest benchmark for this ranking, the career accolades of players will help dictate the list to some extent.
For instance, the comparison between two players who won Sixth Man of the Year will come down to their place in Suns history (as noted above) and their career numbers.
If someone had better stats and/or contributed to team success more so than another guy during their stint in Phoenix, they’ll get the nod.
This factor is subjective, but having fond memories of said super sub will hold some weight. A player’s big moments and career arc will dictate the nostalgia factor.
While the following honorable mentions don’t crack the top six—we simply had to have a top six for a ranking of sixth men—they still meant a great deal to the Suns franchise by thriving in a bench role.
2009-10 Second Unit
The 2009-10 Phoenix Suns made the Western Conference Finals following the addition-by-subtraction trade that sent Shaquille O’Neal to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a move to clear cap space and save money.
The roster’s second unit was a gigantic reason why.
While many NBA teams rely on two or three key players off the bench to rest the starters, the 2009-10 Suns had a full-blown second lineup that oozed chemistry.
Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Channing Frye made up the squad that thrived in the role of giving the starters a chance to collect their breath.
Energy, hustle, scoring, shot blocking, rebounding...this second unit had it all. Without those five guys, Alvin Gentry’s crew wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.
Wesley Person spent the first three years of his NBA career in Phoenix. He wasn’t a prototypical sixth man because he started 145 of a possible 240 games, but he was still coming off the bench about 40 percent of the time.
Person upped his scoring output in three straight years for the Suns. He averaged 10.4 points per game as a rookie in 1994-95, then improved to 12.7 and 13.5 points per game in two years afterward.
Mike Sanders played more than four seasons for Phoenix from 1983-84 through 1987-88 (when he was traded to Cleveland after 35 games played).
In two seasons from 1985-1987, Sanders played every regular-season game but started only nine times. He averaged 10.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game combined over that two-year span.
6. Tony Delk
Tony Delk only played one-and-a-half seasons for the Suns from 2000-01 to 2001-02, but he’s best remembered for his 53-point explosion against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 2, 2001.
This outburst occurred in a starting role, but it was one of just 11 starts for him on the season. He finished 20-of-27 from the field and made 13-of-15 free-throw attempts. Oddly enough, Delk didn’t make a single three-pointer during the outburst (missing his only attempt from deep). The Suns went on to lose the game, however, 121-117.
Delk appeared in all 82 contests for Phoenix in 2000-01. He averaged a career-high 12.3 points per game that season for the Suns.
Delk also holds claim to being the best Suns player to wear the number 00, because he's the only player in Suns history to wear it.
5. Tom Chambers/Danny Ainge
During the 1992-93 season—when the Phoenix Suns lost the NBA Finals 4-2 against the Chicago Bulls—the tandem of Tom Chambers and Danny Ainge solidified the team’s bench.
Those two players—both 33 years old at the time—played 153 games (zero starts). They combined to average 24 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game off the bench during the regular season.
The devastating loss in the final series of the season lead Chambers to blame Ainge for leaving John Paxson open, but those two Suns combined to create a legitimate dual sixth man.
Now we'll move on to Suns players who separated themselves from the pack by winning the league's Sixth Man of the Year Award.
4. Rodney Rogers
Rodney Rogers won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award for his performance during the 1999-00 season. He played all 82 games (just seven starts) and averaged 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
Rogers played more than two seasons in a Suns uniform. During that span, he became known for his durability (playing all 82 games in two straight seasons) and defense (he ranks ninth on the Suns all-time list with a defensive rating of 99.4).
Sadly, Rogers was paralyzed as a result of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident after his retirement.
He will always be remembered fondly in Suns lore for his gritty play and hard-nosed defense off the bench. He comes in at No. 4 on the countdown because he played fewer than three seasons in Phoenix.
3. Danny Manning
Danny Manning played five seasons for Phoenix from 1994-99, reinventing himself as a super sub after two straight All-Star appearances prior to joining the Suns.
After three consecutive productive seasons (primarily as a bench player), he was finally rewarded with the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1997-98. He averaged 13.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal per game that year for a Suns team that finished with a 56-26 record.
Manning was one of the greatest college basketball players of all time. He won an NCAA championship and the John R. Wooden Award in 1988 while attending the University of Kansas, and won another championship with Kansas in 2008 as an assistant coach.
Injuries derailed a promising NBA career, but Manning had a basketball IQ high enough to make up for those physical setbacks.
Despite his contributions in a Suns uniform, Phoenix only made it past the first round of the playoffs once with Manning coming off the bench.
2. Eddie Johnson
Current Suns broadcaster Eddie Johnson played more than three seasons in Phoenix from 1987-91 (before he was traded to the Seattle Supersonics).
He won his Sixth Man of the Year Award for the 1988-89 campaign when he averaged 21.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game off the bench for a 55-27 Suns team that made it to the Western Conference Finals under head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
While Tony Delk scored 53 points in a game with the Suns, EJ once poured in a ridiculous 43 points in the second half alone against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 12, 1988. The Suns lost the game 138-127.
You can watch the full-length video of Johnson’s second-half eruption on his website. Do enjoy the play-by-play by legendary Suns broadcaster Al McCoy.
Johnson was certainly one of the best pure scorers to ever put on a Suns uniform—and his broadcasting career solidified his spot as a fan favorite in Phoenix—but he doesn’t reach the top spot in the rankings because he played just three seasons in the Purple Palace before getting traded to Seattle in his fourth.
In terms of Suns history, Johnson ranks third in free-throw percentage (87 percent) and sixth in usage percentage (26.4 percent). But there’s still one guy who beats him as the best Suns sixth man of all time.
1. Leandro Barbosa
As far as Arizona sports fan favorites are concerned, Leandro Barbosa has to be near the top of the list.
“The Brazilian Blur,” “LB,” “The Roadrunner”...regardless of what you call him, Barbosa clearly has a special place in the hearts of Suns fans.
Barbosa spent the first seven years of his NBA career with the Phoenix franchise. He won his Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2006-07, when he averaged 18.1 points, four assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. He also drained a game-winning straightaway three against the Chicago Bulls during that campaign.
He ranks third all time in Suns history in three-point field goals made (709) and sixth in three-point percentage (39.8 percent).
He arguably doesn’t stack up with the raw talent of Eddie Johnson, but he spent double the amount of time in Phoenix by comparison.
After signing a 10-day contract with the Suns, Barbosa made his return this season on Jan. 8 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He chipped in three points, three rebounds and three assists in a 104-103 win.
LB said the following about his return, per Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:
I never thought I was going to have a chance to come to Phoenix, seriously...I never thought I’d come back to the purple. I’m very happy. I had another opportunity to go to a different team but because of everything in the past that happened with me with the Suns, I feel like I have an identity with the city and the team and a couple guys who have played with me (Goran Dragic and Channing Frye) in the past. I decided to come here because I like the Suns. I can’t forget all the best times I had with this team and the fans were great and embraced me. It’s just a pleasure to be here again.
With news that Eric Bledsoe will be out indefinitely with surgery on his right knee, per ESPN’s Marc Stein, there’s a chance that Barbosa could be signed for the remainder of the 2013-14 season.