Suns Throwback: The Rambis Effect

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by Matt Petersen

The Suns were underachieving.

In December of 1989, this was unacceptable. Phoenix had just come off its best season and deepest playoff run in years, riding the dynamic duo of Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers all the way to 55 wins and the Western Conference Finals.

The fresh success and hope was met by a dud of a start to the 1989-90 campaign. Despite a minimally changed roster, Phoenix began the season 7-10. Kevin Johnson's health (hamstring) was a factor. So was Tyrone Corbin departure. The defensive and hustle-minded small forward had been lost in the previous summer's expansion draft.

Leaving Corbin unprotected not only took teeth out of the defense, it also left Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons corralling a surplus of score-first athletes. After a humiliating 105-83 loss at Houston on Dec. 12, change was needed.

Fitzsimmons and Jerry Colangelo wanted to shake the team out of its malaise and into the qualities they deemed were most lacking.

"We needed defense, rebounding and an [attitude] fix," Colangelo said.

All of those, they deemed, could be found in a player who had tormented Suns fans while wearing Laker purple and gold for years: Kurt Rambis.

“He gave us that toughness that we needed, that understanding of 'that guy might not be scoring a bunch of points, but damn, when he’s on the floor we’re pretty freaking good.'”

— Mark West on Kurt Rambis

Here, the Suns thought, was the perfect combination of hustle, defense and unselfishness. Rambis knew how to win. He'd done it to the tune of four championship rings with the Showtime Lakers. He knew what it took.

By now, however, Rambis was 31. And while he fit the mold Phoenix was looking for, many questioned whether he was worth the price Phoenix paid. In exchange for Rambis and a pair of second-round picks, the Suns sent Armen Gilliam -- the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft -- to Charlotte.

After a solid first two seasons with the Suns, Gilliam had not fulfilled the potential many billed with "The Hammer" when he came out of UNLV. He could score fine and rebound at a decent rate, but his game never consistently delivered the punch or urgency Phoenix thought must reside within him.

His value on the trade market had subsequently declined.

"I've been working on an Armon deal since he went to the bench last March," Fitzsimmons said. "We just couldn't trade him. At the draft last year, we couldn't get a pick in the middle of teh first round for him. Finally, we made a deal. At some point you cut your losses."

Still, one local columnist blasted Phoenix for the lack of return.

"The logic for moving Gilliam can't be faulted. Still, conventional wisdom suggests that Phoenix should have gotten more. A lot more. Kurt Rambis? Had Gilliam's stock dropped that much? Rambis will be 32 in Frebruary and has a limited game. He is a guy who bears some resemblance to Clark Kent, but never will be mistaken for Superman on the court."

The fans thought otherwise, giving Rambis a standing ovation in his Suns debut two nights later. His individual stats were modest (four points, nine rebounds, one block in 17 minutes), but the result (a 25-point win over Houston) spoke volumes.

That was exactly what the new goggle-wearing fan favorite had in mind.

"What I bring to the Suns is inside defense and rebounding," Rambis said after his first game in purple-and-orange. "They don't need another guy scoring from 20 feet."

By subtracting scoring, Phoenix began adding wins. A lot of wins. After a brief acclimation period, the Suns used a game against Rambis' old team and their own nemesis as a springboard. Behind Rambis' first night in the starting lineup (11 points, 12 rebounds) and Kevin Johnson (34 points, 15 assists) matching Magic Johnson (24 points, 24 assists) scored a 121-118 overtime win that put Phoenix back on the road to contention.

That landmark victory was the start of a landslide, one that saw Phoenix win 10 in a row and 30 of their next 35 games.

"Defense wins it for you," Rambis said after the win over Los Angeles. "If we beat a good team like the Lakers with good defense, we can beat everybody else."

That statement held true for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, where the former Laker and his new team "beat L.A." for the first time in the Suns' postseason history.

“Kurt understood, from playing on championship teams, all the little things that you had to do and do well to win,” said former Suns center Mark West. “He gave us that toughness that we needed, that understanding of ‘that guy might not be scoring a bunch of points, but damn, when he’s on the floor we’re pretty freaking good.’”