Westy For DJ

It was not unexpected news people heard on their radios Tuesday, June 3, 1980. The Phoenix Suns had just traded All-Star guard Paul Westphal to Seattle for All-Star guard Dennis Johnson.

That was it. No draft picks, no cash. Not even the infamous player-to-be-named later. Just one guard for another guard. Then again, these two were considered to be among the very best in the NBA.

Westphal, obtained from Boston five years earlier, had quickly become one of the top scorers in the league. In each of his five Phoenix seasons, Westphal led the Suns in scoring, averaging more than 20 points-per-game each season. Johnson was considered the league’s premier defensive guard, and averaged 19 points-per-game in his last campaign with the SuperSonics.

On the surface, the trade might have appeared so even that one might have wondered why it was made in the first place. The explanation was very clear, however, to those following the Suns.

During a three-year run in which the Suns won 151 games while losing only 95, they were one of the most exciting teams in the league. While the Suns darted around, however, championships were being won by the big, bruising teams of the NBA. The kind of teams that took the Suns out of the playoffs each of those three years. In fact, it was Johnson’s Sonics that eliminated the Suns in the 1979 Western Conference Finals, on their way to the NBA Championship. That, plus Westphal’s growing uneasiness with the system of Suns head coach John MacLeod, led Westphal to ask for a trade. His request came at a time when the Sonics were looking to move Johnson because of claims he was moody and erratic.

Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo did his homework, interviewing Johnson’s teammates to see if the tag was deserved.

“If I felt he couldn’t fit into our situation, he wouldn’t be here,” Colangelo said. “Sure, we may be giving up a little in trading Paul, but we’re gaining so much more.

“We’re getting a young player and probably the best defensive guard in the NBA. Plus, we’re getting a rebounder and we need that.”

Johnson’s defensive exploits were needed to complete a changeover in the Suns backcourt. Forward Walter Davis was being moved to the backcourt, allowing the Suns to play a taller frontline against the NBA’s heavyweights.

Unlike other trades, the Westphal-Johnson deal didn’t produce an uproar among Suns’ fans. In fact, it didn’t generate much of any kind of reaction.

“It’s been overwhelmingly quiet,” said Suns Marketing Director Harvey Shank. “I think we got four calls in the first 24 hours after the trade, and the reaction was split 50-50.

“Maybe reaction was less because the trade was so played out in the media. Actually, I think it’s because our fans recognize the nature of the business better now because they’ve been around it for 12 years. They look at the team as the Phoenix Suns, not the Paul Westphals. The town has taken the team to heart and not just one player.”

The Suns didn’t miss a beat as a result of the change. In Johnson’s three seasons, the Suns won 156 games and lost only 90, taking the 1981 Pacific Division Championship in the process. Ironically, as Johnson was being traded to Boston on the spring on 1983, Westphal was on his way back to Phoenix to finish his playing career with the Suns after a stint in New York.

Fans love to gauge trades by a “who won and who lost” measuring stick. The trade of Paul Westphal to Seattle for Dennis Johnson never produced a clear winner or loser. Both teams needed to move players; both teams needed what their new players provided - and both teams continued to win with their new players. An even trade? Perhaps. At least it seemed that way on the surface.