Partly Sunny Season
LED BY JASON KIDD, the first player in Phoenix history to top the NBA in assists, the Suns tied Sacramento for third place in the Pacific Division with 27 wins and qualified for the playoffs for the 11th straight season. But their frontcourt weaknesses were exposed by Portland, which swept the Suns in the First Round.Kidd, who averaged 10.8 assists per game to dethrone Washington's Rod Strickland (second at 9.9 apg), also led the NBA with seven triple-doubles (the rest of the league had just 11) and was second in the NBA with 41.2 minutes per game (behind Allen Iverson's 41.5 mpg). Kidd averaged career highs in points (16.9 ppg), field goal percentage (.444), rebounds (6.8 rpg, best among NBA guards) and steals (2.28 spg, fourth in the NBA) and was the only player to be ranked among the top 50 in the NBA in 10 different statistical categories. The Suns won all seven of the games in which he had triple-doubles.
Kidd handed out a season-high 19 assists, without a single turnover, at Seattle on March 4. It was one of 30 games in which he had double-digit assists. Kidd helped the Suns lead all NBA teams at 24.9 apg, and the Suns ranked third in the league by committing just 13.6 turnovers per game. He scored in double figures 47 times, with 20+ points 15 times and a season-high 30 points at Seattle on April 14. The only Phoenix player to start all 50 games, he tied for third in the NBA with 30 double-doubles and was named Player of the Month for April.
Despite Kidd's brilliance, the Suns were hurt by inconsistent scoring from other players and the lack of large, physical players up front.
"Jason Kidd had a spectacular season, a phenomenal season," Coach Danny Ainge said. "But we can't have him do it by himself every night, obviously. We need some help in the low post to take a little bit of heat off of him."
Forward Tom Gugliotta, signed in the offseason as one of the prizes in the veteran free agent market after Antonio McDyess elected to return to Denver rather than re-sign with Phoenix, led the Suns in scoring at 17.0 ppg and rebounding at 8.9 rpg (15th in the NBA) but is not a particularly physical player. He ranked second on the team in minutes (36.3 mpg) and field goal percentage at .483 (18th in the NBA) and third in steals (1.37 spg).
Cliff Robinson, who started 35 games and came off the bench in 15, averaged 16.4 ppg and 4.5 rpg, played solid defense and shot a team-high .417 (eighth in the NBA) from three-point range.
Luc Longley, signed as a veteran free agent after helping the Chicago Bulls to three titles, started 39 games at center and averaged 8.7 ppg and 5.7 rpg in 23.9 mpg, but he too was not the physical presence Phoenix needed to combat big centers like Shaquille O'Neal and Arvydas Sabonis.
Rex Chapman, inconsistent as the starting shooting guard, was the only other double-figure scorer on the team at 12.1 ppg. Danny Manning, coming off the bench in all but five of his 50 appearances, averaged 9.1 ppg and 4.4 rpg. George McCloud averaged 8.9 ppg and led the team with 69 three-pointers, shooting .416 (ninth in the NBA) from behind the arc.
The Suns were the NBA's third-highest scoring team at 95.5 ppg but were outrebounded by opponents 42.4 rpg to 40.3 rpg. Phoenix ranked eighth in field goal percentage at .449, second in three-point percentage at .372 and fifth in free throw percentage at .760.
The Suns got off to a 7-4 start but lost nine of their next 14 games to drop below .500 at 12-13 at the midway point of the regular season. They were still at .500 as of April 20 before closing fast, winning six of their last nine outings.
The playoffs were another matter. Portland exploited Phoenix's weakness inside, outrebounding the Suns by over seven rebounds per game and getting enough easy shots to enjoy a whopping .528 to .430 advantage in field goal percentage. In each game the Blazers seemed to wear the Suns down during the second half, prompting Kidd to observe, "It was about like a broken record. We're right there, and all of a sudden our ship starts to sink."
Portland used a 13-2 run midway through the fourth quarter to take the opening game of the series 95-85 and a 22-6 run that began late in the third quarter to capture Game 2 110-99. In Game 3, the Blazers led by as many as 18 points in the first half before the Suns rallied to move in front 83-79 with 4:15 to play. But Portland bounced back, outscoring Phoenix 24-10 after that to win 103-93 and oust the Suns from the playoffs in the First Round for the fourth year in a row.
Looking ahead, General manager Bryan Colangelo says the Suns need a stronger inside game to succeed, and the players agree.
"The biggest needs needs we have are athleticism and interior toughness, and generally overall toughness," said Colangelo.
"We need a few more big bodies," said Robinson, "a few more athletic, big bodies. I just think we need a little more toughness around the basket."
"We have to be a lot tougher on the inside," echoed Kidd. "This whole team was put together pretty fast. This whole year was a learning process for us. Now we have to regroup."