What a Shot! What a Season!
THE 1996-97 SEASON WAS DEPRESSING for Phoenix fans. But it was also encouraging, surprising and even thrilling. One of the more memorable seasons in Suns history took so many twists and turns, had so many highs and lows, that now, looking back, it seems as if it was three seasons rolled into one. At least.
The Suns acquired a franchise player in All-Star guard Jason Kidd.
Calling the Shots
"I had become disturbed with our style of play," said Suns President and CEO Jerry Colangelo the day of the trade. "We had become a slow team, which is not characteristic of how we play basketball. The Phoenix Suns have had their greatest success as an up-tempo team. We want to return to that form and this trade will help us do that."
While Horry, Brown and Cassell all possessed championship rings, the key to the deal was the 6-9 Bryant, a low-post banger who would provide the Suns with needed size and strength.
"Without Bryant, the trade doesn't happen," said Colangelo matter of factly.
With Bryant, Brown, Horry and Cassell joining a core that featured guards Kevin Johnson and Wesley Person, center Hod Rod Williams, forwards Michael Finley, Danny Manning and A.C. Green, not to mention rookie Steve Nash, the Suns appeared to have reloaded their guns with an unlimited ammunition. But they weren't done yet.
Several days into camp, word leaked that the Suns were pursuing sharpshooter Rex Chapman, who had been released by Miami in an effort to clear salary cap room. Unfortunately, the Suns were burdened with cap limitations themselves and were only able to offer the league minimum salary. Fortunately, however, Chapman's priorities weren't dollar-driven.
"I feel like I could have called any team in the league and told them I would come and play for the minimum and would have had a job, but that's not what I wanted," he said. "I wanted someplace where I felt like the team wanted me and Phoenix really made an effort to bring me here."
On paper, the Suns' edited and revised roster looked like it would grab some headlines. Little did anyone suspect how things would actually come together. Or should we say, fall apart.
First the Suns lost the services of KJ and Hot Rod to injuries before the season even started, then they lost the season opener in L.A. to the Lakers. And then came home losses to Houston, Minnesota and Seattle. Those forgettable outings were followed up by a four-game road trip that brought four more disappointments and a coaching change.
Rumors that Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was thinking of stepping down became fact hours before the trip's final game, in Vancouver. Cotton announced he would coach his last game before turning the reins over to assistant coach Danny Ainge, who had been hired during the summer with the intent of grooming him to be the head coach. Of course, the plan was for Ainge to be groomed over a period of seasons, not days.
The coaching change didn't end the drought, though. And either did the return of Johnson and Williams to the lineup. When the Suns fell again on November 26, the losing streak had reached a very unlucky 13, the worst start in franchise history. But the next night had the Suns at home against New Jersey, and FINALLY, they slipped into the win column.
But their problems were not yet behind them.
On Christmas Day, the Suns were embarrassed at home by the Lakers in front of a national television audience. A 108-87 loss exposed the Suns' deficiencies - a lack of shooting caused by an inability to move the ball. A team that had become younger still hadn't figured out how to get out and run.
The next day, Suns GM Bryan Colangelo pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that would shock the basketball world. Phoenix dealt Finley, Green and Cassell to Dallas in exchange for youngsters Tony Dumas, Loren Meyer and the deal's focal point - Jason Kidd.
"I had a lot of support from the coaching staff and Jerry and Cotton in making this deal work," Bryan said. "Jason Kidd brings a new identity to this franchise as we move through this transition year. Things have improved since our 0-13 start, but now there is an even brighter horizon as a result of this trade."
The trade was highly praised, but as had been the Suns' luck this season, Kidd wouldn't be around for long. Shortly before halftime of his first game in purple, the All-Star playmaker suffered a fractured collarbone. No sooner had he arrived, he was gone for six weeks.
Without Kidd, and now without the players the Suns dealt to get him, Phoenix continued to struggle, particularly on the road. A five-game eastern swing to start January brought more problems - problems that came to a head in Boston. During a loss to the Celtics, Horry, frustrated over the losses and his lack of playing time, exploded after being benched midway through the game and threw a towel in the face of Ainge. It would be his last play as a Sun as he was traded to the Lakers days later in a deal that brought former Suns forward Cedric Ceballos back to Phoenix.
Kidd returned to the lineup on Valentine's Day and led the Suns in a win over the Clippers. But that was followed by three more road losses. Considering there were so many new players and that one of them had missed six weeks due to injury, it was no surprise that there were still nights that this talented group of players would perform as if they'd never seen each other before.
On March 2, everything would change. The Suns found themselves in Dallas, where Kidd's first game in Big D since his trade was expected to be a noteworthy affair. Midway through the third quarter, however, it seemed as if the Suns had lost their notes. Down by 27, and having lost Ainge to ejection, the Suns were about to be counted out, not only of the game, but the season.
Then something happened. Assistant coach Paul Silas rallied the troops. Gradually, three-pointers, steals, rebounds and second-chance shots not only reduced the deficit, but wiped it out. Phoenix managed to tie the game, send it into overtime and in the final seconds, pull out a 109-108 victory as Kidd dished to Wayman Tisdale for a running layup at the horn. Those who think a single game among 82 means nothing weren't paying attention.
"I think that was the turning point," said Hot Rod. "Coach Silas took over that game and I think what he did is take the guys and said, 'Look, you're going to play defense and if you don't, you're coming out of this game.'" For the remainder of the season, the opponents fell like dominoes. Houston, Seattle, Portland and Minnesota - all playoff teams - would drop as Phoenix reeled off 11-straight wins becoming the first team in league history to tally double-digit winning and losing streaks in the same season.
Had this amazing turnaround been accomplished simply through improved play, the story would have been a good one. How it was actually done makes the '96-97 Suns a great story.
Bryant, who had been a starter, was sidelined in mid-March with a stress reaction in his right foot. Already undermanned at the power forward position, coach Ainge decided the best thing to do was play without a power forward - or, for that matter, a small forward. Looking at his roster, the rookie coach saw an overabundance of hot guards and decided to play them - all at once. And so "Small Ball" was born.
With a rejuvenated Kidd manning the point and a healthy KJ playing some of the best basketball of his career as he moved to shooting guard, the Suns had, arguably, the game's best backcourt. But what made Phoenix so deadly was that its backcourt extended into the frontcourt. While both KJ and JK could penetrate, Chapman and/or Person could spot up and knock down three pointers. And they all could run.
Although critics said the Suns would never be able to get away with a small lineup in the postseason, when teams have time to adjust and physical play is more evident, they almost did. Despite their final 40-42 record and seventh seed in the playoffs, the mini Suns would take the defending conference champion Sonics to the brink of elimination.
It all started in Game 1 when the Suns shocked Seattle in Seattle stealing a win behind Chapman's heroic 42-point outburst, which included a playoff record nine three-pointers.
The Suns were crushed in Game 2, losing to an angry Sonics club by 44, but headed home with the best-of-five series tied at a game apiece.
Before a raucous crowd at America West Arena, the Suns played a game that saw them shed their image of a basketball carnival and turn into a team worthy of sharing the postseason stage. Whatever adjustments the Sonics had made in Game 2 were out of focus by Game 3 as the Suns lit it up from long range and held their own on the boards.
"They play wild," said Sonics' forward Detlef Schrempf. "Instead of grinding it out slow and playing down low all night, they play playground, run-and-gun basketball." If the day ever comes that the excitement value of the NBA Playoffs goes on trial, the defense should use Game 4 as Exhibit A. Players usually come away from a high-intensity game exhausted, but Game 4 left players, fans, mascots and anyone else at the Purple Palace wiped out. Trailing 100-88 with just two minutes left, the Suns' hopes of closing out the series appeared to have faded. But a technical called on the Sonics' Shawn Kemp changed everything. The Suns staged a furious rally and closed the gap to three with three seconds left.
For the record, the game's play-by-play sheet simply read "Chapman 3-PT FG, :01.9 remaining." But ask the 19,023 who were there, which has surely grown to over 100,000 since, and the descriptions of Chapman's miracle shot would be countless. His off-balance, desperation, running, fall-away three-pointer from 26 feet was one of the most memorable in team history. Hitting nothing but net, the game was tied and it was off to overtime.
If momentum means anything, Kidd's triple to open the extra period ends the game and sends the Suns to the second round. However, like they did over and over en route to the NBA Finals the year before, the Sonics responded. They posted a seven-point win and would settle the issue two days later in Seattle, putting to rest a remarkable season in the storied history of the Phoenix franchise.
Set an NBA Playoff record by hitting nine three-pointers at Seattle on April 25.
Led Suns in scoring during 1997 playoffs, averaging 24.2 points per game.
Became sixth player in NBA history to record 11,500 points, 6,000 assists, 2,000 rebounds and 1,000 steals for his career.
Moved past Dick Van Arsdale into third place on the Suns' all-time scoring list.
Ranked third among league leaders in assists (9.3 apg) and three-point percentage (.441).
Led Suns in scoring (20.1 ppg) and assists.
Recorded his 14th career triple double in the first half vs. Boston on Feb. 12.
In Phoenix debut at Vancouver, totaled six points, nine assists, seven boards and three steals in the first half.
Ranked fourth among league leaders in assists (9.0 apg).
With their 0-13 start and their 11 consecutive wins late in the season, the Suns became the first team in NBA history to record double digit winning and losing streaks in the same season. They also became the first team in league history to start out 0-13 and still qualify for postseason play.
On Nov. 15, Cotton Fitzsimmons stepped down and passed the Suns' head coaching reins over to assistant Danny Ainge, who became the ninth head coach in team history.
Twenty three players wore the purple and orange at one point or another during the 1996-97 season.
Suns rookie Horacio Llamas, signed as a free agent on Feb. 20, became the first Mexican-born player in history to appear in an NBA game.