The Dawn of Reconstruction
THE 1972-73 SEASON WAS ONE OF CHANGE for the Phoenix Suns. First, the Suns found themselves in the Pacific Division, relocated from the tough Midwest Division, where they had being edged out of the playoffs each of the past two seasons by powerhouses Milwaukee and Chicago. That was a good change.
|Neal Walk had his best season in '72-73, averaging better than 20 points and 12 rebounds a game.|
But not all changes worked out for the best. Most notably, the change(s) in coaching. Following a successful two years at the Suns' helm, Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons decided it was time to move on.
General Manager Jerry Colangelo, meanwhile, decided that his veteran ball club needed a veteran coach to fill the new vacancy. Enter Willem Hendrik van Breda Kolff, who became the fourth man to lead the Suns on June 28, 1972. Van Breda Kolff, a.k.a. VBK, had made coaching stops in Los Angeles and Detroit, but his stay in Phoenix would be the shortest stop of all.
A colorful man on the bench to say the least, van Breda Kolff had been known for accruing more than his fair share of technical fouls. But it was the technical aspects of his coaching philosophy that came into question and ultimately cost him his job, just seven games into the season.
As the 3-3 Suns ventured into Los Angeles for a meeting with the defending World Champion Lakers on Oct. 29, van Breda Kolff failed to make late-game substitutions that many felt were necessary. With the starters on the bench, the Suns made a late-game rally. The starters never saw the floor again and the Suns lost the game 133-123. It would be the last coaching decision that VBK would make for the Suns.
Not only did Colangelo decide to remove his new head coach, but he also chose to assume his team's head-coaching duties for the second time in his franchise's young history. Though this change resulted in some immediate improvements in the attitudes of some players, it did little to move the Suns upward in the standings in the long run.
After losing their first game under Colangelo, the Suns embarked on a five-game winning streak and improved to 8-5. It was the first hill on a roller coaster ride that would go mostly downhill during the middle to late stages of the season.
Following the 8-5 start, the Suns hit another rough stretch losing 13 of their next 18 games. A five-game road trip in mid-November was particularly painful as they lost all five contests, including one to the Atlanta Hawks, who were now coached by Fitzsimmons.
Delusions of grandeur would quickly reappear however, as Phoenix won 10 of their next 14 and found themselves at 23-22 on January 13. A playoff run never materialized, though. In fact, Phoenix failed to climb above the .500 mark from that point on and despite winning four of their last five games, finished up at 38-44 and missed the playoffs by 10 games.
The irony of the season was that Phoenix would have made the playoffs had they been able to duplicate their single-season total of wins (49 and 48) during their two previous non-playoff seasons.
Like the season itself, the Suns' roster brought both excitement and disappointment in '72-73. Guard Charlie Scott, who was acquired with only six games remaining the season before, proved to be an invaluable addition. Upon leading the club in scoring, putting up more than 25 points a game, Scott was named the most outstanding player by the "Guns of Suns" booster group. Neal Walk, the team's fourth-year center, also had an impressive season, averaging career highs of 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds a night.
On the other end of the spectrum, Connie Hawkins struggled somewhat in his final full season with the Suns. The 30-year-old forward averaged just 16.1 points a game, down from his team-high of 21.1 the year before.
And then there was the story of Gus Johnson. A five-time NBA All-Star, who was perhaps the first true power forward in the game, Johnson joined the Suns late in his career, acquired from Baltimore prior to the season for a second round draft pick.
Although he still had the drive that made him one of the sport's top rebounders, the 36 year old's legs had logged too many miles over his nine-year career to stand up to a long NBA season. Johnson saw action in 21 games for the Suns, averaging 7.8 points and 6.5 boards, before he was waived in early December.
The decision to cut the former great was a tough one for Colangelo. Much tougher than his decision at the end of the season to leave the bench behind. The Suns went just 30-35 under the current president and CEO of the club in '72-73.
Named an NBA All-Star for the fourth season in a row.
Averaged 16.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in his final full season with the Suns.
Made his first of three-straight NBA All-Star appearances.
Led the Suns with 25.3 points (fifth in the NBA) and 6.1 assists per game. Only Tom Chambers has averaged more points in a season for the Suns.
Became just the 10th guard in league history to score more than 2,000 points in a season, finishing with 2,048.
Led Suns with 12.4 rebounds per game and ranked second with 20.2 points per game.
Pulled down 1,006 rebounds, joining Paul Silas as the only Suns player to grab at least 1,000 rebounds in a season. No Suns player has eclipsed 1,000 rebounds since.
Was the team iron man, logging more than 3,000 minutes and averaging 38.4 minutes per game.
There was a hidden story behind the 125-124 Suns home victory over Golden State on March 23. The win was due in part to plays drawn up before the game by a young coach named John MacLeod from the University of Oklahoma. He was in town being interviewed as a possible candidate for the Phoenix coaching position when Colangelo asked him if he had any ideas or suggestions for plays the Suns might use. MacLeod drew up a few on the chalkboard in the locker room and they worked out well. As it turned out, the Suns had found their head coach for the '73-74 season.