Suns Fall Short
THE PHOENIX SUNS EXPECTED A FEW GROWING PAINS in the 2001-02 season, but little did they know the growing pains would linger an entire season.
Poor chemistry coupled with a midseason coaching change eliminated the Suns from postseason contention for the first time since 1988 and the Suns fell to 36-46 despite starting the season with big expectations after acquiring dynamic playmaker Stephon Marbury in a blockbuster from New Jersey for Jason Kidd.
“This franchise is absolutely committed to going in the right direction,” Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo said one day after the regular season ended. “It was a very disappointing year in that we had much higher expectations. Some of it we couldn't control... It just didn't happen.
“And that won't happen again, because we're going to get it back on track. If history means anything, we're not down for long and down for us is 36 wins, which is not what you see with a lot of typical franchises. We don't like it and we're not going to stay there.”
A flurry of moves last summer dramatically reshaped a Suns team that had been ousted in the first round of the playoffs in five of the last six seasons heading into the 2001-02 campaign. Jettisoned were Kidd and forward Cliff Robinson and brought in were Marbury, swingman Jud Buechler (who was later traded to Orlando), forward John Wallace, second-round draft choice forward Alton Ford and free agent swingman Dan Majerle.
With the return of a healthy Penny Hardaway, who played in only four games the previous season and forward Tom Gugliotta, who was returning for his first full season after major knee reconstructive surgery in March of 2000, the Suns expected to extend the NBA’s fourth-longest consecutive playoff streak to a franchise-record 14 years.
But instead of getting off to a good start, the Suns stumbled out of the gate losing three of their first four games, including disappointing home losses against the Nuggets and Rockets.
One day before the Oct. 30 season opener versus Denver, Phoenix completed the first of three trades that dramatically changed the look of the Suns during the regular season. Center Jake Voskuhl was acquired from Chicago and immediately paid dividends for the Suns by earning a starting role in only his second game after sophomore center Jake Tsakalidis struggled. “Little Jake” Voskuhl ended up starting 34 games while averaging 5.0 points and 4.2 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game in his first season with the Suns.
A second trade was culminated between Phoenix and Orlando on Nov. 16. In exchange for Buechler, the Suns received defensive-minded forward Bo Outlaw and a future first-round pick. In his first game with the Suns on the day of the trade, Outlaw helped the Suns upset the two-time defending champs Los Angeles Lakers in a convincing 95-83 victory at America West Arena.
After a season-long five-game winning streak (Nov. 26 – Dec. 3), Phoenix appeared to be heading in the right direction with a 12-7 record, but the momentum quickly faded.
Unable to maintain the same defensive intensity as the previous season when the Suns established a club record for fewest points allowed (91.8), the Suns’ defense sprung a leak, yielding 95.8 points in 2001-02.
The month of January was particularly cruel for the Suns, who could only manage a 4-10 record and dropped the first five games to begin the New Year.
Finally, after months of speculation, Head Coach Scott Skiles stepped down and was replaced by his head assistant Frank Johnson, who had 31 games to audition for the Suns’ full-time head coaching position.
Johnson, a former Suns player and community relations’ representative, was not stepping into the most ideal coaching situation. The Suns were one game below .500 at the time of the coaching change (25-26) and the mood of the team was not good. Complicating matters was the season-ending right foot stress fracture injury to Gugliotta, who missed a combined 38 games due to injury.
“I will be the leader of this particular team,” Johnson said upon his hiring on Feb. 17, only hours before the Suns were about to face the Mavericks. “I will provide the leadership right now and hope that someone will step forward and be a leader. But right now, I look at myself as being the leader of this team and the guys can just kind of learn from me.”
Then, only three days after replacing Skiles, the Suns roster was once again reshuffled. This time veteran role players forward Rodney Rogers and guard Tony Delk were traded to Boston in exchange for 2001 lottery pick guard Joe Johnson, playmaker Milt Palacio, veteran injured guard Randy Brown and a future first-round pick.
Following the trade with the Celtics, the Suns concluded the regular season with 20 different players (including injured Randy Brown) for the second-most players in a single season in the team’s 34-year history.
With the infusion of new talent, Johnson made a bold move replacing Hardaway in the starting lineup with the 20-year-old rookie Johnson. After leading the Suns in scoring in seven of the Suns’ first 10 games, Hardaway managed to lead the team in scoring only six more times the rest of the season. He finished with 12.0 points per game, his lowest average for a full season in his nine-year career.
“J.J.”, the 10th selection of the 2001 NBA Draft, was predictably hot and cold, but immediately showed off his immense potential by averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his first three games in a Suns uniform. “I think Joe Johnson is definitely a nice addition to our team,” Marbury said of his new backcourt sidekick. “He plays with a lot of confidence. He’s very poised. He made some rookie mistakes by just not knowing. But I know in time, and everyone else knows, he’s just going to get nothing but better.”
Although Johnson closed the season with an 11-20 mark as head coach, several Suns players raised their level of play, most notably Tsakalidis and “Thunder Dan” Majerle.
After making significant progress during the latter portion of his rookie season in 2000-01, “Big Jake” was expected to take another step forward. It didn’t happen early on. But after the coaching change, Tsakalidis responded big time with 9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds the rest of way, including his first 20-point, 10-rebound game of his career with 20 points, 12 rebounds at Indiana on April 5.
“It’s just amazing to see his growth,” Johnson said. “He is building. He is working extremely hard in making himself a quality NBA player.”
Fan favorite Dan Majerle also got off to a rough start in his second tour of duty with the Suns. Hampered with a right ring finger injury suffered in training camp, Majerle started the season on the injured list and when he returned in mid-November, he struggled making shots consistently and was in and out of Skiles’ regular rotation.
Majerle, a former Suns teammate of Johnson (1992-94), took advantage of his increased playing time under Johnson and over the last 14 games sank .438 (35-80) from three-point range with three or more three-pointers nine times and averaged 8.4 ppg over that time. He even learned a new position, power forward, when the Suns lost the services of “Googs."
“I appreciate him having a lot of confidence in me and putting me in there,” Majerle added. “I think I have paid him back. It’s a great way to go out. I wasn’t playing well earlier in the season. I think that had a lot to do with the spot minutes and not knowing when I’m going to play. Now that I know I’m going to be playing, I’m really shooting the ball well and playing well, especially when it’s the fourth quarter when it matters.”
Even the team’s two biggest stars forward Shawn Marion (19.1 ppg) and Marbury (20.4) improved their play down the stretch. They became the Suns’ first tandem to each score more than 19.0 points since 1993-94 when Charles Barkley (21.6) and Kevin Johnson (20.0) accomplished the feat.
"I certainly welcome this challenge as we go forward of bringing this franchise back to where you all are used to seeing it,” said Johnson, who was signed to a three-year extension on April 18. “We have our work cut out but we have a nucleus of young talent here and we will be bringing in more young talent with this year's draft. We're looking forward to that. We will work very, very hard in getting it back to where we're accustomed to seeing it.”