THE PHOENIX SUNS HAD EVERY POSSIBLE EXCUSE to start planning an early summer vacation and miss the playoffs for the first time since 1987-88, but they would have no part of that.
Not much was expected of the battered and bruised 1999-2000 Suns as they lost a total of 269 games due to injury. In fact, the five Suns who started the season opener started only 13 more games together, and the top eight players were together only 17 games over the course of the season. And in one stretch the Suns had four starters out.
But behind a gutsy team effort the Suns reached the 50-victory plateau for the 13th time in franchise history (53-29) and advanced to the second round of the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 1995.
“I think this is a very special team,” said CEO and Chairman Jerry Colangelo. “To have gone through this kind of adversity, to list the players that have gone down with illness and injury, and to take it, it’s like taking a number of bullets and still be standing. It’s a tremendous accomplishment and I think the job that the players and the coaching staff under Scott (Skiles), what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished makes it a very special team.”
The Suns also dealt with an unexpected coaching change when Danny Ainge stepped down as head coach less than two months into the season. Scott Skiles was named the 10th Suns head coach in team history on Dec. 13 and became the youngest head coach in the NBA (36). Taking over the Suns 20 games into the season, Skiles guided Phoenix to an impressive 40-22 (.645) record. His record was the highest of any first year coach in 1999-2000 and ranks second best in Suns history for a first-year coach (Paul Westphal was 62-20 in 1992-93). In addition, his first-year record is 12th in NBA history.
It didn’t take long for the Suns to adopt the new coaches’ feisty attitude and tenacity on defense. Under his direction, the Suns allowed 93.7 points per game, which over a full season would be the second lowest figure in team history behind last season’s 93.3. In addition, opponent’s shot .424 from the field to set a new Suns record for lowest opponent field goal percentage in a season.
Prior to the start of season, expectations were sky high after the Suns acquired former All-Star guard Penny Hardaway to team up with their own All-Star guard Jason Kidd in a blockbuster trade with Orlando. Widely regarded as the best backcourt in the NBA, “Backcourt 2000” logged just 45 games together due to injuries.
Hardaway suffered a painful foot injury (plantar fascitis) and played in 60 games while Kidd missed the remainder of the regular season after breaking his left ankle on March 22. Hardaway improved his play as the season went on, averaging 18.3 points, .471 FG percentage, 7.0 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 38.7 minutes in the final 15 regular season games with Kidd watching from the sidelines and was the team’s leading scorer in the postseason (20.3) despite a limp knee that required offseason arthroscopic knee surgery.
Kidd was his usual self, earning All-NBA First Team honors for the second-straight season and finishing with 14.3 points, team-leading 7.2 rebounds and league-leading 10.1 assists. He made a remarkable comeback in the deciding Game 4 of the Suns’ First Round upset (3-1) of the defending champs San Antonio Spurs with nine points (4-5 FG), 10 rebounds and three steals in 31 minutes.
“The guy is unbelievable. I mean, I got a new-found respect for him tonight watching him play, more than I had before,” Hardaway said of his sidekick. “I've always respected his game and loved him as a person, but for him to come out there today after missing five weeks and having only had a little walk through yesterday, to come out there and play big minutes was huge for us.”
While Kidd and Hardaway returned strong after injuries, Tom Gugliotta and Rex Chapman saw their seasons end prematurely. For “Googs”, the Suns’ leading scorer and rebounder in 1998-99, 1999-2000 was a frustrating and near tragic season. First, he suffered a near-death seizure on the team bus after a big road win at Portland on Dec. 17 and when he finally returned to the court and was playing his best basketball of the season, he underwent season-ending knee surgery after hurting his left knee on March 10. The knee injury prevented Gugliotta from participating in the 2000 Olympics with Kidd.
“King Rex” battled injuries all year and was averaging his lowest scoring average (6.6) of his 12-year career before he underwent emergency appendectomy surgery on March 18 that sidelined him the remainder of the season.
Injuries also ravaged the Suns’ lone first-year player Shawn Marion (out 31 games after knee surgery), but he still lived up to his lofty draft status (9th overall in the 1999 NBA Draft) earning NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors. Had he played a full 82 game slate Marion (10.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks) may have contended for Rookie of the Year honors.
The Suns brought back a couple of old faces along with a couple of new ones. While it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see former Suns centers Mark West and Oliver Miller in a purple and orange uniform again, no one could have predicted the return of Kevin Johnson. With a freak injury to Kidd during the final stretch of the regular season and the Suns frantic to find a replacement to make a final playoff push, the Suns called perhaps the greatest point guard in the history of the franchise, KJ.
“The organization said, ‘We’re in a bind and you’re the only one who can help us at this particular time.’ When you get a call like that from (Senior Executive Vice President Cotton Fitzsimmons) on behalf of (Chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo) and (President Bryan Colangelo), you realize that this is something you really have to consider,” said KJ, who retired at the end of the 1997-98 season after an 11-year NBA career. “If there were some endeavors or some things that I had going on that could not have been gotten out of, or was deeply involved in something that was extremely important at this particular time, I may not have been able to do it. But when you get a call like that, again, it’s kind of like your country calling.”
Perhaps the Suns biggest pickup was forward Rodney Rogers, who emerged from the Clippers’ doghouse to win a landslide vote for the NBA’s Sixth Man Award after posting 13.8 points (.486 FG), 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists while becoming the only Sun in 1999-2000 to play all 82 games.
“At the beginning, everyone wants to start, but everyone can't start,” said Rogers who signed with the Suns as a free agent on Aug. 3, 1999. “My main thing has always been, if you're in there when the game is on the line, that's more important than starting, when you can help the team win the ball game. That's the way it's been and my coaches have confided in me and just told me, ‘Keep playing and keep your head up.’ I had a lot of bad habits coming in, having playing with losing teams. I had to change that mentality and it's all turned into a positive, and look where I'm at now.”
Unfortunately the resilient Suns finally met their match in Second Round of the playoffs when the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Suns 4-1.
“We had a great season, a great run,” Kidd said. “It was a season of injuries, of coaching changes and we gave it all we had. Unfortunately, we came up short against the Lakers but for us to get out of the first round, we can build on that.”