Playing with Fire
HOW APPROPRIATE. The Suns' marketing slogan for the 1995-96 campaign, "Playing with Fire," was a fitting one as any hopes of returning to their past glory went up in smoke.
Michael Finley was the steal of the 1995 NBA Draft as the Suns tabbed him with the 21st pick.
Who was that Masked Iron
"Dan Majerle is a fine player and there isn't a harder worker in this league, but Dan is not a center," Suns coach Paul Westphal said of the trade.
"We were able to pick up a player that we think will make us much more formidable up front," added Suns President and CEO Jerry Colangelo. "He is a force inside, no question about it."
Phoenix took a dip in the fountain of youth during the summer break, as well. When taking the court for the season opener on Nov. 3, the Suns featured five NBA rookies on their roster (although one of them, Stefano Rusconi, was a 10-year veteran of Italian basketball).
Among the youngsters was Michael Finley, the 21st pick in the '95 draft out of Wisconsin, who caught the fans' attention after knocking down a game-winning buzzer beater against the Lakers early in the season. His vicious jams, three-point bombs and in-your-jock defense earned him the nickname "DynaMike" and drew heapings of praise from his peers.
"Michael's a tough competitor," said Orlando's Penny Hardaway. "That's one thing I respect about him. Even though he's a rookie, he's gonna come at you."
"He's an exciting player man!" gushed Seattle's Shawn Kemp. "He's definitely athletic and he's going to be awesome in a few years."
Finley was no doubt impressive, but the Suns, meanwhile, were anything but. With injuries sidelining key players, Phoenix struggled out of the gate. Not unexpected. But a 14-19 record in mid-January, with losses to the lowly Clippers, T'Wolves, Nuggets and Mavericks, was unexplainable. It was time for a change.
"Replacing Paul Westphal as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns was a very difficult decision for me to make," Colangelo told reporters on Jan. 16 as he named Cotton Fitzsimmons the team's head coach, once again. "We got to the point where I believe it was time to shuffle the cards - to make a change before the season was over."
"I really look forward to the challenge because I do see a light at the end of the tunnel," said Fitzsimmons. "I do think this team is capable of winning and we are going to go about it in a very professional way and get it done as soon as possible."
Although the Suns continued to struggle, dropping three of four games after the coaching change, it didn't take long before they began to show signs of life.
Of course, things were made a little bit easier when playmaker Kevin Johnson returned to health and versatile forward Danny Manning returned to action after nearly a year of rehabilitation on his left knee. Manning, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament the season before, played in 33 games down the stretch and averaged 13.4 points and 4.3 boards.
"I can't express how good it feels," Manning said of his comeback. "I can't even try. No one knows what I've been through to get back to play. I feel fortunate and I feel blessed. I'm excited about the future and every day I just enjoy coming to the gym and playing basketball."
The rest of the Suns were enjoying basketball again, too, going 27-22 under Fitzsimmons guidance to wrap-up the season with a 41-41 record. It was the first time since 1987-88 that Phoenix failed to reach the 50-win plateau, but they had managed to break even and had qualified for the playoffs.
The postseason would be no picnic, however. Not only did the 7th seeded Suns draw the Midwest Division champion San Antonio Spurs in the opening round, but they entered the playoffs with another important player on the shelf. After playing in all 82 regular season games, Finley, who had averaged 15 points a night as a rookie and was arguably the club's best defender, suffered a severe ankle sprain in the final quarter of the final game of the season. He would be forced to watch from the bench as the Suns were torched in four games.
Became 10th player in NBA history to reach the 20,000 point-10,000 rebound plateau on Feb. 19 vs. Vancouver.
Led Suns in scoring (23.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.7 rpg).
Named to the Western Conference All-Star team and scored eight points in 16 minutes.
Named to NBA All-Rookie first-team.
Became first Suns rookie since Walter Davis to tally 1,000-plus points (1047).
Played more minutes (3,212) than any rookie in franchise history.
Completed ninth-straight season without missing a game and pushed his consecutive games played streak to 813, the third longest streak in NBA history.
Stefano Rusconi, whose rights were originally acquired in 1990, joined the Suns as a 27-year-old rookie and became the first Italian player ever to play in the NBA. His Phoenix career would be short lived as he was waived on Jan. 31, 1996.
Cotton Fitzsimmons replaced Paul Westphal as head coach on Jan. 16, 1996, beginning his third stint at the Suns' helm.
Despite their 41-41 record, the Suns qualified for the postseason for the eighth-straight year.
The Suns endured 26 lineup changes and 296 games missed due to injury or illness.