Questions Answered

1980-81

WHEN THE SUNS OPENED THE SEASON, questions surrounded newcomer Dennis Johnson, who had come to the Suns in an offseason deal that sent Paul Westphal to Seattle. There also were doubts about the Suns ability to adjust to the move of All-Star forward Walter Davis to the backcourt and the addition of Jeff Cook into the starting lineup at forward.

The roster changes didn't stop there. The Suns drafted University of Kentucky guard Kyle Macy and traded guard Don Buse to Indiana for a pair of second-round draft picks a month into the season.

The Suns proved they had made the right moves with one of their most successful seasons ever, finishing with a then club-record 57 wins en route to their first division title and the best record in the Western Conference. Phoenix was out of first place in the Pacific for only two days the whole season.

The Suns' 36-5 home record tied their '79-80 mark as the best in club history and their 21-20 record on the road was their first-ever winning road record. The Suns did not lose more than two games in a row all season.

The All-Star Game in Cleveland had a distinctive Phoenix flavor with John MacLeod and Suns assistant coach Al Bianchi at the helm of the West squad. Davis was voted to a starting forward position by the fans and Johnson and Truck Robinson were named to the team by a vote of Western Conference coaches.

The fact that five members of the Suns were part of the All-Star Game, as well as one of them being voted to the team by fans, was taken as a sign that the national spotlight was finally shining on Phoenix. The most pleased was MacLeod. While never actively seeking publicity, the lack of it for his team bothered him.

"John wouldn't come out and say so," said Bianchi at the time, "but it bothers him that we don't get more recognition from the national press, or, for that matter, from the league. That's why this All-Star thing is so great. We're forcing people to recognize us."

MacLeod's West squad fell three points short of the East. With four seconds left, MacLeod formed a play around former Suns guard Paul Westphal, then with Seattle. But Westphal never got open and Sonics center Jack Sikma was forced to try a three-pointer. He missed, and the West lost 123-120.

The trade that sent Westphal to Seattle and brought Johnson to Phoenix appeared to be a wash, as far as which team benefited most. Both teams needed to move players, both teams needed what the new players brought, and both teams continued to win.

The Suns didn't miss a beat because of the change. In Johnson's three seasons, Phoenix won 156 games and lost only 90. Ironically, as Johnson was being traded to Boston in the spring of 1983, Westphal was on his way back to Phoenix to finish his playing career with the Suns after a stint in New York.

At the end of the '80-81 season, Johnson was named to the All-NBA team and All-Defensive team. Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo was named NBA Executive of the Year for the second time by The Sporting News.

But none of the accolades the Suns received would help in the postseason, where the Suns were surprised by a gritty Kansas City Kings club, led by former Suns' Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, that took the Western Conference Semifinals 4-3.

Record: 57-25

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