The Little Team That Should Have

By Adam Beechen,
Posted: Oct. 27, 2011’s Joe Gilmartin famously dubbed the Suns’ 1975-76 squad, which rose from nowhere to challenge the legendary Boston Celtics for the NBA championship, “The Little Team That Could.” Three short seasons later, they would be in a very different position.

After the 1976 Finals, which featured “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” a triple-overtime heart-stopper at the Boston Garden, followers of professional basketball began taking the Suns seriously…very seriously. After all, if a team that started two rookies, two castoff forwards, and guard that had stewed on the bench of another team for four years could reach the Finals, how far could they go when those rookies had a full season of experience and the entire squad had an entire off-season to acclimate to each other? Forecasters may not have picked the Suns to return to the Finals, or even win their division, but the Purple Gang were definitely on the radar as playoff contenders.

Unfortunately, the 1976-77 team was undone by injuries. The veteran forwards, Gar Heard and Curtis Perry, each missed half the season, leaving the Suns prey to sand-kicking bullies.

Alvan Adams, the reigning Rookie of the Year, and one of the fastest, best passing and best shooting (albeit undersized) centers in the league, got hurt early in the season and never really rounded into form, earning the Best Injured Center trophy to go with his RoY prize. But even though the Suns missed the playoffs, the national media considered them strong candidates for playoff success the following season, particularly with the addition of prized rookie Walter Davis and the previous season’s league leader in assists and steals, Don Buse.

Indeed, that team, with Davis fitting seamlessly into the starting lineup, and darting and gliding to the Rookie of the Year title himself, scored the best record in franchise history. But, short on bulk (yet again) following an injury to Perry, the Suns were rudely thrown out of the playoffs on their ears by the upstart Milwaukee Bucks.

But okay, 1978-79. That was to be the Suns’ year, and everybody knew it.

Not only was everyone healthy, at last, but the division was up for grabs. In Portland, Bill Walton was having his usual troubles at both foot and mood.

In Los Angeles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not yet surrounded by the Showtime supporting cast. In Seattle, while prospects were bright following the squad’s run to the Finals the previous season, their own dominant center, Marvin Webster, had bolted to the Knicks in free agency.

Only because the Suns were still somewhat undersized (Hence the “Little Team” in “The Little Team That Should Have”) were they not considered overwhelming favorites to win the whole thing. And they addressed much of that issue in mid-season, by trading two reserves and a draft pick for one of the league’s premier power forwards and the very definition of muscle, Leonard “Truck” Robinson, the prior season’s leading rebounder and a first team All-NBA selection.

That’s right, the Suns starting lineup for much of 1978-79 included five guys who’d played on All-Star teams, two former Rookies of the Year, reigning league champions in rebounds, assists and steals, and one guy who was considered perhaps the best guard in the game (Westphal). They were young, talented, and unselfish.

Plus, they had one of the league’s brightest young coaches in John MacLeod, one of the sport’s best executives in Jerry Colangelo, and had kept intact the core of the team that had gone to the Finals three seasons earlier. Maybe they weren’t the 1927 Yankess, but you had to like the Suns on paper.

And maybe their bench was a little thin, with only one rotation player with significant NBA experience (Heard), but with those starters, who needed a bench? Commemorative lighters were placed next to boxes of victory cigars, and local grocery stores that spring reported shortages of champagne-cooling ice. The Suns of that season were a Dream Team before there was a Dream Team.

The Suns blazed their way once again to a franchise record in victories, placing second in the Pacific Division only because Seattle, under the steady hand of Coach Lenny Wilkens and the emergence of players like Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma, had learned the deceptively simple math that twelve-man chemistry equals more than a Marvin Webster. The Suns bashed the Blazers, then mashed the Kings, in the first two rounds of the playoffs, bringing them face-to-face (well, face-to-sternum; the Suns were still pretty short) with the Sonics.

And had the two teams been at full strength, it might have been a more hotly-contested series than it was, which is hard to believe, considering it went seven games and almost came down to the final possession. But, as has been the case with the Suns for their entire existence, it’s always something.

In this instance, it was some things, plural, as Adams twisted an ankle, leaving the center position to an even more slender rookie, Joel Kramer (who filled in splendidly, it must be said). And Truck was just out of the shop and in recovery mode, having fallen victim to a viral infection late in the season that had caused him to miss 15 games.

Those, however, are excuses, and no matter how legitimate they may be, the fact of the matter was that Seattle happened to be just the kind of team the Suns didn’t want to see – big, physical, and reliant on defense and rebounds. The Suns were lithe, athletic, and fast, not inclined to mix it up under the boards or grind out a half-court offense.

In the end, the Suns were undone by one past teammate and one future teammate. Veteran power forward Paul Silas came off the bench to help Seattle dominate the glass and utterly neutralize Robinson, who never got into gear. And Dennis Johnson proved too athletic for the Suns’ guards, particularly in close, where he used his strength and jumping ability to give his club an added advantage in rebounds and defense.

The Suns had an opportunity to win the series at home, but lost a heartbreaker in Game 6 by a point, then, four days later, Game 7 in Seattle by four. The Sonics went on to the Finals, where they captured their first and only championship.

As for the Suns, they’d post yet another franchise high for victories in 1979-80, but by then, Magic Johnson had landed in Los Angeles, and it would be a long decade before the Suns would overtake them again, and more than that before Phoenix sniffed another NBA Finals.

They fielded some strong clubs in the seasons immediately following 1978-79, but none had the potential of that year. It was a season “Should” became “Should Have,” the cigars went stale, and the cork stayed in the champagne.