Surprising Suns Prove Critics Wrong
FOR A TEAM THAT WAS PICKED to finish as low as 28th out of 29 teams by one national sports publication, the Phoenix Suns had one incredible season in 2002-03.
The Suns reemerged as playoff contenders after missing the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons in '01-02 (36-46) by finishing with a 46-36 record and securing the eighth and final seed in the competitive Western Conference in the final week of the regular season.
“You have to look back at what’s transpired in the past 12 months and say a lot’s been accomplished,” Suns’ CEO Jerry Colangelo said of the team’s improvement. “We righted the ship; we put things back on course.”
The Suns weren't just content with being back on their playoff course, though. The young squad put a scare into the NBA’s top team, the San Antonio Spurs, by stealing two victories in their first-round series thanks to a couple of improbable game-winning shots by Stephon Marbury in Game 1 and Jake Voskuhl in Game 4.
“We gave the Spurs a run for their money,” Voskuhl said after San Antonio defeated Phoenix 4-2, en route to the Conference Finals. “They didn’t walk over us. From where we started to where we finished was really awesome.”
Not many outside the Suns’ locker room thought the club would be in contention for anything other than a spot in the lottery. The Suns departed for training camp in Flagstaff seven months earlier with several question marks hanging over them.
Most notably, who would emerge as the team’s leader? What, if any, immediate help would rookie high school phenom Amaré Stoudemire give the Suns? Would Penny Hardaway accept a lesser role behind the team’s two emerging superstars in Marbury and forward Shawn Marion? Could Frank Johnson guide an inexperienced, but talented club to the playoffs in his first full season as head coach?
The Suns have a lot of reasons to believe they are indeed headed in the right direction, but maybe none as significant as the emergence of Marbury as the team’s leader in only his second season in the Valley of the Sun.
The 26-year-old playmaker came to the Suns in a much-debated blockbuster trade with New Jersey for perennial All-Star guard Jason Kidd in the summer of 2001. While “Starbury” posted solid numbers in his first season in Phoenix (20.4 points, 8.1 assists), the resurgent Nets were considered the clear-cut early victors in the deal, particularly after New Jersey advanced to the 2002 NBA Finals. One year later, though, few share that same assessment.
Through his play and his actions on and off the court, Marbury began to exhibit leadership skills on a team that was desperately searching for someone to step up after a lackluster 2001-02 campaign.
Marbury’s metamorphosis actually began before the '02-03 season kicked off. Bothered by bone spurs in the preseason, the Suns’ go-to player in the clutch decided to delay ankle surgery until after the season was completed. The surgery would have sidelined him for nearly two months and likely would have doomed the Suns’ chances of having a winning season.
Further proof of Marbury’s new-found leadership was evident when he spoke on behalf of the team to coach Johnson, suggesting that the Suns should rely less on the team’s new “motion” offense in favor of a more structured offense. Phoenix averaged 84.4 points per game over its first 15 games (8-7 record), but totaled 96.8 points over the next 16 games (11-5) as the Suns climbed up the standings, as high as fourth in the Western Conference at one point.
“As far as my leadership role, I think it definitely changed totally,” Marbury admitted. “I did what I said I was going to do at the beginning of the year. I empowered my teammates to do things that sometimes they might not want to do, but they did them. It was hard. It wasn’t easy.
“You’ve got 12 rich guys in the locker room and they all have their own personalities and their own ways on how they feel they play the game. Whenever you can get them all to listen to you when you talk, you know that’s something.”
Marbury finished with one of his best all-around seasons in his seven-year pro career and was the only player in the NBA to rank in the top 12 in points (12th, 22.3) and assists (4th , 8.1). He was also named to the All-NBA Third Team.
“If you look at the talent, there’s a great story in what Marbury accomplished this year in terms of not just his statistics, but in terms of his perception,” Colangelo observed. “What we’ve witnessed is the maturing of Stephon Marbury in my opinion. That’s a great credit to him.”
Perhaps, just as significant as Marbury’s breakthrough season, was the sudden and immediate impact of the Suns’ top choice in the 2002 NBA Draft. Stoudemire, the ninth overall pick and the only high schooler drafted, became the third Suns player to win the Rookie of the Year award (Alvan Adams, ’75-76, Walter Davis, ’77-78).
“When you look at what he’s accomplished in one year, it’s an amazing story for a 20 year old kid,” Colangelo said.
The power forward’s season really took off after he exploded for a career-high 38 points and 14 rebounds in only his 33rd game as a pro. The point total was the most in NBA history by a rookie who had made the jump from high school.
“I think that was an eye-opener for me and it gave me confidence going into the next game,” said Stoudemire, who followed a stellar rookie season (13.4 points, 8.8 rebounds) with an equally impressive postseason (14.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, .523 FG%), giving the Suns the inside presence they've lacked since Charles Barkley was traded in 1996.
“He’s the reason why we’re in the playoffs,” Marbury said of Stoudemire, who was one of two rookies (guard Casey Jacobsen) on the Suns’ roster. “I mean, without an inside presence you can’t do anything. I don’t care what anybody says. It starts down in the post and then out. You have to be able to play inside and out.”
Another key reason the Suns exceeded most expectations was the steadying influence Hardaway had on the Suns. This was never more evident than when the veteran guard underwent right thumb surgery and missed 24 games from Jan. 10 - March 4. Phoenix went 10-14 without him in the lineup, but were 34-24 with him. Many believe the Suns wouldn’t have had to face the top-seeded Spurs if the four-time All-Star didn’t get hurt.
“Penny made a huge improvement this season, because of his impact on the team compared to just one year ago,” Bryan Colangelo said of Hardaway, who averaged 10.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 2002-03.
With Hardaway playing more of a supporting role in the Suns’ offense, Marion earned his first All-Star bid and joined Marbury at the 2003 All-Star Weekend in Atlanta. “The Matrix” was the only player in the league ranked in the top 20 in points (17th, 21.2) and top 10 in rebounds (8th, 9.5) and steals (3rd, 2.28).
Then there was “Fourth Quarter Frank,” who guided the Suns into the NBA’s "second" season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, despite critical injuries to three-fifth’s of the team’s Opening Night starting lineup – Jake Tsakalidis, Tom Gugliotta and Hardaway.
Prior to clinching a playoff berth, Johnson was named Western Conference NBA Coach of the Month for December when the Suns went 11-5, including 9-2 over their last 11 games. Johnson was the Suns' first Coach of the Month since December 1992 when Paul Westphal earned the honor after a 14-0 month.
“Coach did a great job,” Marbury said of Johnson, who was a candidate for NBA Coach of the Year as a result of the Suns’ 10-game improvement over '01-02. “For myself, I feel like coach was the main reason why my leadership role and the way I play, totally changed.”
Now, Phoenix heads into the offseason with much different expectations than one year ago. With most of the team’s nucleus expected to return, the Suns will be expected to build on a successful 2002-03 season.
“The only thing we can do is get better,” Marbury added. “Last year, I felt like we were at the bottom. The only place we can go now is up.”