Suns Throwback: Westphal Comes West

NBAE/Getty Images
by Matt Petersen

For half a decade in the 1970s, the Suns had plenty of star power but few wins to show for it. Connie Hawkins and Charlie Scott – larger-than-life pioneers in the ABA and perennial All-Stars in the NBA – put points on the board and fans in the seats. That was good for Phoenix, which was still finding its way as one of the newest teams in the league.

By the summer of 1975, however, discontent had reached a franchise-high. The Suns’ lone taste of the playoffs (1970) had become far too faded. Hawkins, the team’s first superstar, had been traded less than two years earlier. Scott had stepped up his own production (25.0 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.1 rpg, 1.7 spg), but his numbers weren’t translating in the wins column.

There was no denying Scott’s greatness, only his fit with a young Suns team seemingly in need of more team-oriented play in order to flourish.

“It takes a team concept of play to win in this league,” Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo said at the time.

A survey of the NBA landscape revealed a matching set of surplus and shortages. On the opposite side of the nation, the once-formidable Boston Celtics had fallen surprisingly short in the previous postseason despite a 60-win effort in the 1974-75 campaign. Eventual Hall-of-Fame guard John Havlicek had shown alarming signs of slowing down.

“He is a stable, quality individual who will add leadership and experience to our club. We are confident that this decision will prove to be a major step in developing a winner and that the Phoenix Suns are more important than any one individual.”

— Jerry Colangelo on Paul Westphal (1975)

It was Havlicek’s backup that held Colangelo’s attention. Despite a standout career within shouting distance of Phoenix (USC) and being selected 10th overall in 1972, Paul Westphal had not yet made a big splash in Boston. Reports of distrust from then Celtics-head coach Tom Heinsohn appeared to be the main reason behind the young guard’s lack of progress.

In Westphal, the Suns saw untapped and unselfish potential. In Scott, Boston saw ready-now ability to push them over the top. Phone calls were made, a deal was agreed to, and the players (figuratively) swapped jerseys on May 23, 1975.

“In Paul Westphal, we are acquiring a player from a winning situation,” Colangelo said. “He is a stable, quality individual who will add leadership and experience to our club. We are confident that this decision will prove to be a major step in developing a winner and that the Phoenix Suns are more important than any one individual.”

All that was true, but Phoenix was about to enhance Westphal’s individual value less than a week later. On May 29, the Suns used their two first-round picks on players’ whose skill sets complemented Westphal’s perfectly. Alvan Adams (fourth overall) brought a high-post passing game would mesh with the 6-4 guard’s high-IQ style of play like a glove. Ricky Sobers (16th overall) added a defensive edge to pair with offensive flair.

Adams in particular remembers Westphal’s impact, which he says started in summer league before the 1975-76 regular season.

“I set a back-door screen on the forward, then I step out and try to get my guy to come with me, then I just plant and cut backdoor ‘cause I’m a lot quicker and Paul throws a lob for the dunk,” Adams said.

“I felt sorry for one guy,” he continued. “One time we ran it three times in a row and his coach was screaming at him and I felt bad for that guy. I believe it was Indiana and Dan Roundfield. I liked Dan and I go ‘Paul, let’s not run that same play again.’”

Westphal and Adams would run that play on the rest of the league with immediate success. Now a fully unleashed starter, the West Coast kid wasted no time breathing new life into Phoenix basketball with his ambidextrous creativity. He went on to average 20.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals per contest while shooting 49.4 percent from the field that season.

Incredibly, that wound up being his least productive year in a Suns uniform.

Westphal’s first impression in Phoenix lasted all the way to the NBA Finals. It was there that he and the Suns clashed with – of all times – the Celtics. Game 1 took place exactly one year after the franchise-altering trade, proving that all parties involved had won in the deal.

“I can honestly say I’m much better off where I am,” Westphal said before the Finals began.

The Suns were certainly better off with Westphal. After missing out on the postseason five years in a row, they made the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with the team. In that span, “Westy” made four All-Star teams, four All-NBA teams and ranked in the league’s top 10 in points, assists and steals in several of those seasons.

Most important of all, he helped give Phoenix a long-lasting identity.

“He brought a winning image,” Colangelo said. “He’s unselfish. There is an aura about him. He’s got a winning image.”