By Steven Koek, Suns.com
FROM THE ROSTER TO THE COACHING STAFF to the arena they play in, 2003-04 became a season of change and adjustment for the Phoenix Suns. Disappointment in the present was tempered by an honoring of the past and a look forward to a promising future.
The journey through the past six months saw a departure of some favorite Suns and the emergence and growth of some future stars. The end result is a core of talented young players and the financial flexibility to add some pieces to the puzzle that could put together a return to championship form for the NBA franchise that owns the fifth-best record in the history of the league.
It all began just as training camp was set to open. The surreal atmosphere of preparing for the season at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, home for the first quarter century of the franchise’s existence, was heightened by the Sept. 30 trade of Bo Outlaw and center Jake Tsakalidis to Memphis for three players that would not be on the Suns’ roster by the All-Star break.
The Suns got off to a rocky 7-10 start to the regular season, yet began their first eastern road trip with a dramatic victory in Boston on Dec. 5 after falling behind by 29 points in the third quarter. It was the biggest comeback in the team’s 36-year history. Unfortunately, it also began an extended stay on the injured list for sophomore forward and reigning Rookie-of-the-Year Amaré Stoudemire, who suffered a third-degree ankle sprain in the second quarter. The inury further depleted a team dealing the loss of Serbian rookie Zarko Cabarkapa, who suffered a broken wrist after being shoved in mid-air on an open breakaway by the Mavericks' Danny Fortson on Nov. 26.
The club lost the remaining three games of the trip and assistant Mike D’Antoni became the club’s 12th head coach replacing Frank Johnson on Dec. 10.
"This is one of those parts of the game and the business that is a reality," said Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo. "I’m not laying any blame at the foot of Frank Johnson. Circumstances dictated that we weren’t where we wanted to be. Many contributing factors go into that. "
A former point guard and coaching legend in Italy, the West Virginia native with a reputation for being an offensive guru had the Suns showing signs of improvement early on, and the team improved in several offensive categories, including points, field goal percentage and assists. D’Antoni seemed to have a calming effect on the team, but the losing continued and more changes were ahead.
“We kind of overachieved last year,” Stoudemire said of the 2002-03 Suns that made it to the playoffs after most preseason polls projected them near the bottom of the league. “This year started out kind of slow, going nowhere pretty fast. I think Jerry and Bryan (Colangelo) came with the decision to make a couple of trades and made a couple of moves, and try to restart it.”
In the midst of another eastern swing to begin the New Year, Phoenix was 11 games under .500 and held sole possession of the Pacific Division cellar. Even the firing of the head coach could not have prepared the team for what was to come next.
On Jan. 5, the Suns pulled off a blockbuster eight-player deal with the Knicks that included sending All-Star point guard Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to New York for Antonio McDyess, Howard Eisley, rookie Maciej Lampe and the rights to European point guard Milos Vujanic.
Marbury’s departure signaled an end to the plan of building around a core that also included Stoudemire and All-Star forward Shawn Marion, and left the Suns searching for someone to fill the league-leading minutes Marbury was logging, in addition to the team-leading shots he was taking.
More importantly, money again was freed up for the future in the release of the two-year player option on Hardaway’s seven-year deal and the four-year contract extension Marbury signed just before the start of the season.
“It was a difficult decision to make,” Suns president Bryan Colangelo said. “Taking a couple steps back might result in a bound forward. That’s what we were looking at when we made this deal.”
The team continued adjusting to the shock and personnel logistics in the wake of the trade, the coaching change and the loss of Stoudemire to the injured list. They lost the first six games in January before putting together a season-high four-game winning streak, including the club’s first-ever win over the Lakers at the Staples Center on Jan. 13.
As the Suns continued struggling to find an identity, third-year guard Joe Johnson began to find the consistency and confidence he had lacked since being acquired from Boston during his rookie season in 2002. For the second year in a row, Johnson had begun the regular season as the Suns’ starting shooting guard, holding the job for only four games in 2002-03 before being benched in favor of veteran Hardaway and routinely hitting the pine early in games this year.
With Hardaway in a different conference and the Suns searching for someone to fill Marbury’s scoring void, Johnson emerged as a formidable scorer and court leader. Days after the trade he began a streak of 43 straight games scoring in double figures, the NBA’s fifth-longest streak behind only Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett, Sacramento’s Peja Stojakovic, the Grizzlies Pau Gasol and Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson. The 6-7 guard averaged 20 points and led the Suns in assists in 27 of the team’s final 47 games, and would end up leading the league in total minutes and minutes per game.
The Arkansas product increased his scoring average by seven points over last season and eight of his top nine career scoring outputs came since the trade, including twice recording a career-high of 31 points.
“His game has expanded,” D’Antoni said. “He’s taken more of a leadership (role). Every once in a while the ball will stick to his hands, he dribbles too much, but he knows that. He’s working on that and he’s working on seeing the floor a little bit better. But he’s pretty good at 22 (years old). He’s got a lot to learn, he’s got a long way to go, but he can get there.”
Another in the many byproducts of the trade with the Knicks was the insertion of rookie Leandro Barbosa into the starting lineup. The Brazilian point guard scored a career-high 27 points in his first start at Chicago, a Suns record for a rookie in his first NBA start. Barbosa spent the rest of the season taking advantage of the rare opportunity to get some quality minutes and gain invaluable experience while learning the league at arguably the game’s toughest position to master.
“I think Leandro’s made pretty good strides this year,” Stoudemire said. “Being a point guard is not the easiest job, especially in this league when you’ve got All-Star point guards coming up playing against you every night. He’s done a good job of taking care of his business on and off the court.”
Barbosa is appreciative of the opportunity afforded him his rookie season and will spend the majority of the summer in Phoenix working with the coaching staff on every facet of his game, as well as expanding his ever-improving mastery of the English language.
“My first time here, I think I’m not going to play,” he said without the aid of his season-long interpreter, Michael Fernandes. “I just go work and work, and lift weights because I’m skinny. It’s a surprise for me because I play a lot and I’m very happy. My family is very happy. I’m going to work every day (in the offseason) for this to happen next year and next year and next year.”
After missing a good deal of his first NBA offseason recovering from toe surgery, Stoudemire spent 27 games of the season on the injured list with ankle and toe problems. Upon his return, however, the Florida native made up for lost time and displayed the kind of raw talent and work ethic that could propel him to develop into one of the elite power forwards in the game.
“STAT” led the team in scoring 11 straight games, the most for a Suns player since Charles Barkley’s 11-game streak in 1995, and his streak of 11 consecutive games of scoring over 20 points were the most by a Suns player since Barkley recorded 14 in a row during the 1992-93 season.
“When I came back (from injury) I was ready to play,’ Stoudemire said. “The game was becoming fun to me, even though we weren’t having the greatest season in the win column. But I was learning the game a lot more.”
Perhaps the most stabilizing force with all the changes surrounding this season was the consistent play throughout the year of Marion. He finished the season at or near his career averages in nearly every major category and led the league with 167 steals.
“The stuff that happens, that goes on in the NBA, you’ve just got to learn how to deal with it,” he said of his focus throughout the difficult season. “That’s what happens. We had our ups and downs this year. We’ve just got to get some more experience, that’s all.”
As the season wore on and it became increasingly clearer that the Suns would finish the year playing for pride instead of the playoffs, major honors were bestowed upon two of the organization’s largest figures. Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo was elected for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame just weeks after he inducted Barkley into the team’s Ring of Honor.
Making amends after years of animosity following Barkley’s 1996 departure from Phoenix, he and Colangelo buried the hatchet, clearing the way for the 1993 NBA MVP to become the 10th member in the Suns’ most exclusive club.
Just as the cheering subsided from Barkley’s night, it was announced that Colangelo would be honored for a lifetime of achievements and contributions to the game of basketball with a spot in Springfield, Mass. to take his place among the game’s all-time greatest.
“It’s something you don’t plan on and something that you can’t even dream about,” Colangelo said. “You start playing a game, you get involved with the game and you hope for the best, obviously, and you shoot for the stars. But it’s pretty hard to shoot for that star. It is a humbling thing and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”
With the aura of greatness in the air and the prospects for a bright future on the horizon, the Suns began to show some signs of where they could be headed with another year under their young belts and some help via free agency and/or this summer’s NBA Draft.
An impressive overtime victory at Houston on March 15 and a win over a Sacramento team battling for the top spot in the West on April 9 were two of this disappointing season’s high marks as the Suns went 8-8 to finish the year.
For D’Antoni, the most impressive aspect of the final portion of the season was the way his team approached every practice and every game.
“The players made it a lot better than what it should have been,” he said. “It should have been tougher but because they came every day and practiced, we had no problems. I have to thank them. They believed everything we were doing and trying. They kept working and kept getting better, and made it bearable.”
One of the more surprising contributions to help make the final days of a long season bearable was the play of McDyess. Filling in for injured centers Jake Voskuhl and Jahidi White, “Dice” showed the first signs of a full recovery from three knee surgeries over the last two years. The nine-year pro in his second tour of duty in Phoenix provided veteran leadership for the youngest team in the league and made a statement that he still has enough left to make a contribution.
“That was a big role for me for this team, being a veteran guy taking the leadership,” the six-year forward said. “It’s been great the whole season. Most guys would give up when you have the worst record in the West, but these young guys kept going, kept pushing. They earned my respect and I think they’re going to be some great players in the future.”
With the help of trainer Aaron Nelson and his staff, McDyess made major strides since his arrival in the Valley. His knee is feeling no pain and as impressive as some of his rebounding totals were in the final weeks of the season, the minutes he racked up without the huffing and puffing displayed in first appearances this season were an even stronger indication that his physical problems are behind him.
“I think McDyess is a great addition to the team,” said Stoudemire. “He’s come along strong these last couple of weeks, grabbing 14-15 rebounds. That’s huge. That’s telling you that he’s back and his injury is not really affecting him anymore. When we’re out there playing, we’re very comfortable out there on the court. I think he’s a good addition to the team.”
A free agent, McDyess hopes he has proven worthy of a chance to play and has designs on returning to Phoenix next season, but is grateful for the opportunity to play this year regardless of where he winds up next fall.
“It’s my expectations to be back here next season,” he said. “If not, I’ve had a great time here. I’ve rehabbed well. Hopefully, if things go well and I am back, but as far as I know right now, I couldn’t tell you.”
The Suns finished the season at 29-53. The last time the Suns finished with a worse record in 1987-88, they came back the next year to win 55 games, the largest turnaround in franchise history that culminated with a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
“I don’t look behind, I try to look forward and just enjoy,” Johnson said putting this season behind him. “It’s part of the game. It happens that way sometimes. I just hope that whatever moves they make are best for the organization and for the team. I think we’re going to prove tremendously next year and I think it’s going to be fun.”
The NBA Draft on June 24 and the start of the free agent signing period on July 14 have the potential to be two of the biggest days in recent memory for the Suns’ organization. Throw in the Charlotte Bobcats expansion draft and the possible arrival of Vujanic, said to be the best point guard in Europe, and the franchise’s actions this summer could determine the fate of the team for years to come.
“I’ll be very surprised if we don’t do anything,” D’Antoni admitted. “We’re going to try to do everything and get it right, right off the bat. It would be great to totally turn it around.”