A once-proud franchise had fallen on hard times. It was 1988, and the Phoenix Suns had just finished a futile season: 28 wins and 54 losses — 34 games behind the division leader in their fourth straight losing campaign. The future looked bleak. But it couldn’t turn out worse than what the team had just endured.
Phoenix was still recovering not just from on-court failure, but also scandal and tragedy. In April 1987, the biggest drug bust in NBA history implicated three active members of the team — James Edwards, Jay Humphries, and Grant Gondrezick — as well as two former Suns, Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz. Authorities brought the charges after troubled Suns star Walter Davis testified in exchange for immunity. The prosecution’s case would unravel, but by then the inner strife of a divided locker room had been revealed. The team’s core was broken. Four months later, center Nick Vanos, his fiancée, and 154 other people were killed in a plane crash.
Reeling from 12 months of struggle and in search of rebirth, the franchise turned to a familiar face.
Cotton Fitzsimmons first came to the Suns in 1970, immediately guiding the nascent franchise to its first winning season. A basketball lifer who began coaching at a junior college in Missouri before advancing to Kansas State and the NBA, he rejoined the team as director of player personnel one year before again becoming head coach in ’88. Fitzsimmons stood 5-foot-7, nearly a foot shorter than his players. But they respected his ironclad principles and forthright manner. He didn’t mince words about the job ahead of him.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said at his reintroductory press conference in May 1988. “Now we just have to do it. I’m aware it’s a young team and they have defensive problems. But I think we can play an up-tempo game next season — run off missed free throws and made field goals.”
Fitzsimmons and Jerry Colangelo, the team’s vice-president and general manager, earned the scorn of an avid fan base when they traded away its one chip, popular high-scoring All-Star Larry Nance, to Cleveland for an unproven haul midway through the season. Things were going to get worse, it seemed, before they got better. The deal returned Kevin Johnson, an unproven point guard who had played limited minutes behind Mark Price during his rookie season; center Mark West; forward Tyrone Corbin; and a future first-round draft pick that fell just outside the lottery, 14th overall. The Suns chose Dan Majerle from unheralded Central Michigan with that pick.
Most people around the NBA assumed Phoenix would take yet another step backward. It had a new (and old) coach and players who were also new and not necessarily better. Instead, the Suns won 55 games and advanced to the Western Conference finals in 1989 before losing to the Lakers, the team they had finished so many games behind a season earlier. “One thing is changing players,” Fitzsimmons responded to reporters when asked about the roster’s drastic transformation. “Basically, we cleaned them out, and the biggest difference is the attitude of the players. They’ve been given a new lease on life. We need to improve our defense and rebounding, certainly. But I want to compete with good people. I want people with character. We tried to do that — and it worked.”
Fitzsimmons’s rebuilding plan had just one holdover, an integral part of the backcourt. The player was a coach’s son, an accounting major, and a college walk-on. “Jeff Hornacek is the only guy who was here two seasons ago,” he said.
The Phoenix Suns played disastrously last season, stumbling all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference. Coach Alvin Gentry was fired in January and replaced by his assistant Lindsey Hunter. Hunter didn’t fare much better. The roster consisted mostly of veterans with a short shelf life and lottery picks who had failed to live up to their potential. Steve Nash was gone. Amar’e Stoudemire was gone. Mike D’Antoni was gone. Seven Seconds or Less was no more. They looked like an organization with no definable future, struggling to hang on to whatever strands of the past remained.
This offseason, the Suns again reached into their past to redefine their future. The organization hired Hornacek as coach. After a 15-year playing career in Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Utah, he spent just over three seasons under Jerry Sloan’s wing with the Jazz.
“Hopefully, I can take Jerry’s toughness, Cotton’s enthusiasm and confidence-building, and blend them together and become a great coach like some of the great coaches that have been here in the past,” Hornacek said at his introductory press conference.
The Suns spent the summer reconfiguring the roster and entered this season retaining just one of their top seven scorers from a season ago. Pundits expected Phoenix to sleepwalk through the season and awake to its choice of one of the elite college freshmen in this summer’s draft. Instead, they’ve assembled an unlikely but aspirant group. And they’re actually winning games.
Hornacek recently described his hodgepodge crew at the Suns’ practice facility.
“What do we have?” he asked. “Nine new guys or something like that? A team coming off of 25 wins, all of a sudden you’re going with a center who only played 55 minutes last year, you’ve got another guy who’s been out for a year and a half with a heart issue, you’ve got a new player, a backup point guard who’s now going to be one of your starters.”
Hornacek stopped there, but he could have continued: a rookie general manager; a set of twins blind to passing to other teammates when they share the court; and a small forward who played in Italy, Greece, Puerto Rico, Germany, Israel, and Ukraine between NBA stops.
Those pieces are uninspiring until you see the final product. These Suns are the NBA’s biggest and best surprise. Instead of tanking, they’re competing in a deep Western Conference at 27-18 to the astonishment of most — Hornacek included.
“I think we’d all be lying if [we said] we’re not surprised by the start,” he said.
Lon Babby, the team’s president of basketball operations, called Hornacek’s history with the organization “the cherry on top of the sundae.”
“We kind of lost our link to the past,” he said. “When you’re going through a transition and the present isn’t very good, people are going to look to the past for comfort.”
Team doctors discovered Channing Frye’s enlarged heart during a routine physical. Frye missed all of last season, spending part of it broadcasting games for the team to stay close to the team.
As he recuperated, he watched and studied the game.
“Last year, we were a more talented team, but the chemistry was awful,” Frye said. “Things just didn’t fit. The puzzle pieces just did not fit how they should have.”
Frye is one of the roster’s final links to the D’Antoni-Nash-Stoudemire conglomerate. They ran up and down and stretched the floor, allowing Nash to orchestrate and Stoudemire to finish with power. The team’s best defense was outscoring opponents. The style resulted in three trips to the Western Conference finals, with its peak beautifully chronicled in Jack McCallum’s appropriately titled :07 Seconds or Less.
D’Antoni left first, fleeing to the Knicks in an ill-fated decision in the summer of 2008. Gentry, D’Antoni’s longtime assistant, replaced Terry Porter, who had bottled up Nash and the high-powered offense during his brief tenure as coach. Steve Kerr, the team’s president and general manager at the time, interviewed Hornacek before hiring Porter. Hornacek impressed Kerr, his former Suns teammate, but Kerr opted to look elsewhere. Hornacek had not yet apprenticed as an NBA assistant. He still had work to do.
With Gentry, the offense flowed again and the Suns ventured to the 2010 Western Conference finals, losing to the Lakers in six games. Stoudemire then joined D’Antoni in New York. Phoenix aimed to keep its high-flying power forward, but balked at paying the uninsured1 $100 million the Knicks guaranteed for a player with a long and complicated injury history. That summer, Kerr resigned.
“When do you move on from a superstar?” Kerr said the organization had to ask itself. “It’s one of the most difficult issues in management.” Babby, a respected agent, joined the organization and strung together a roster of veterans in Stoudemire’s absence: Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, and Hakim Warrick. None of those acquisitions came close to replacing Stoudemire. The organization made another substantial move that winter, acquiring Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, and Marcin Gortat from Orlando, as well as a 2011 first-round pick (which it used to select Nikola Mirotic), for Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Earl Clark. “That was probably the moment to start the rebuild, but it was too painful for the franchise to go through,” Kerr said. “So they delayed the inevitable, really, with a couple of those signings. But it’s understandable. You had Nash still playing at a really high level. You’ve still got some really good pieces and you want to compete. You’ve been competitive for eight years. It’s tough to just step back.”
Nash and Grant Hill were the constants. But the moves placed Phoenix squarely in the worst possible situation for a franchise: not contending but not rebuilding. The Suns also took hits nationally when several outlets reported that Robert Sarver, the team’s managing partner, aligned himself with the owners taking a hard stance in initiating the 2011 lockout. “He’s probably the main guy that’s pushing for this lockout,” Stoudemire told Newsday.
For years, many criticized Sarver’s unwillingness to pay the luxury tax. But he said he stuck with certain players out of affection.
“I probably hung on too long, because you get attached to players,” Sarver said of the roster, “and you want to see that team that was so successful have one more chance, and you do that a couple of years in a row.”
In summer 2012, Babby and general manager Lance Blanks dealt Nash to the Lakers for a bounty of draft picks. Nash had played eight seasons in Phoenix, capturing two MVPs and becoming an icon in the process. Nash asked for the trade to be closer to his children. In a statement, the 38-year-old point guard said the front office remained reluctant to deal him.
“They couldn’t really move on until they traded Nash,” Kerr said. “Once they moved him, it was a clear signal for the fans that the organization was moving on and it was about the future. It cleared up what the next step was.”
The Suns were reluctant to embrace rebuilding even after Nash departed. They claimed Luis Scola, amnestied by Houston; reacquired Goran Dragic; picked up Jermaine O’Neal; and added lottery washouts like Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, and Sebastian Telfair. Sarver hoped the roster would overachieve. It didn’t. By the 2012-13 season, the team had regressed to 25 wins.
“It was tough to see the end of the winning, and that was difficult,” Sarver said. “We tried for a few years to reach for players and reach for contracts and try to put a quick fix, but that really wasn’t probably the best move.”
The team disappointed on the court and off. It had made Beasley, once the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, a top priority in the summer of 2012. He had washed out in Miami and Minnesota. In Phoenix, Beasley scored a career low in points and barely played defense. He faced a number of off-the-court issues that culminated with his arrest on August 6 on suspicion of marijuana possession.
“Our team just wasn’t playing that well last year, so we knew we had to make some changes,” Sarver said. “Not just coaching changes, but changes in general.” Babby said he joined the organization knowing he would have to transition from one group to another.
“It’s almost a little bit like a grieving process,” he said. “You have to go through the end of one era in order to prepare yourself to begin another era.”
Phoenix began the transition in April by dismissing Blanks. Sarver and Babby wanted a general manager who would have input on the selection of the new coach. They plucked Ryan McDonough, an assistant to Danny Ainge in Boston, from relative obscurity. “He’s very definitive, and that’s important,” Babby said. “In that position you have to have someone who is willing to make the call and make the decisions and have confidence in his judgment. It’s a collaborative process, but his area of expertise is personnel and evaluation of talent, and he’s very sure-footed.”
McDonough is from a sports family. His father, Will, was a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe. One brother, Sean, is an ESPN broadcaster. Another, Terry, was recently promoted from scout for the Arizona Cardinals to vice-president of player personnel.
Ryan McDonough worked several roles in Boston’s front office over the past decade. He is a modern general manager, one who merges statistical analysis and scouting to make decisions. He started in Boston as an assistant to the video coordinator and scrapped his way up to become Ainge’s right-hand man.
“It was a pretty easy sell to everybody here and to the fans to shake it up, that some changes needed to be made,” McDonough said. “But that’s the thing I learned from Danny [Ainge], to be unafraid. Of course, now he’s trying to shake me down for a bunch of different things, but that’s who he is; he’s a competitive guy.”
Hornacek knew last season’s Suns nearly as well as the outgoing coaching staff. He scouted the team as an assistant in Utah. When he sat down with Babby and McDonough for an interview, he recited the offense inside and out, and told them exactly how he would alter it. Their power forward, for instance, clogged the lane on offense, limiting the point guard’s maneuvering room. “The big was always there to help out,” Hornacek said. “Sure, they got a good shot, Markieff [Morris] or Scola, but now you’re taking your 4-man and having him take 18-foot jump shots.”
He told them of his desire for an unselfish team of workers who played smart, pushed the ball, and competed defensively. They told Hornacek of rebuilding the organization’s culture by stockpiling draft picks and youth. McDonough wanted a coach in his first year, just like him. Babby wanted to split the difference between a coach who could relate to his players but also be strict when needed.
“One of the things I’ve observed is, you have coaches who are players’ coaches, and then you have coaches who are disciplinarians,” Babby said. “Most organizations go from a players’ coach, and then they feel like he’s not strong enough. And the players get too much leeway, so they hire a disciplinarian. After a couple years, the disciplinarian is viewed as an asshole and they’ve got to go back the other way. The key to finding the right coach was finding someone right down the middle. Gregg Popovich is like that, Doc Rivers is like that.”
Hornacek filled all the criteria. At 50, he’s young enough so that most of the team can remember him running up and down the court with John Stockton, duking it out with Michael Jordan. He played under Sloan and Fitzsimmons, coaches respected for playing the dual roles Babby sought.
With Hornacek signed, the Suns deconstructed their roster. They traded for the Clippers’ Eric Bledsoe. Like Dragic, Bledsoe had been best known for the point guard he backed up. Until this year. “I knew once CP3 signed his contract that I was pretty much done [with the Clippers],” Bledsoe said. Scola went to Indiana for Miles Plumlee, the center who hardly played a season ago, and Gerald Green. Another deal brought an injured Emeka Okafor and a draft pick from the Wizards for Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, and Kendall Marshall, another lottery pick who hadn’t panned out. They had to cut to grow, too: The Suns arranged a buyout for Beasley, who had two years left on his contract. The team is paying him $7 million not to play for them.
“We went into it with our eyes open,” Babby said of Beasley’s time in Phoenix. “We knew what the risks were. I’m proud of the effort that we made here to do everything we could to make it successful. It didn’t work out [in recent seasons], and I think it became obvious both to us and to Michael and his representatives that he needed to move on.”
The Suns were apparently the only ones who did not realize this was supposed to be a lost season for the franchise.
“We’re not tanking anything,” McDonough said. “Guys are playing hard, they’re playing together. The main things we wanted to do this year were create a culture of effort in hard work and try to put a core together that’s able to have success going forward for a long time.”
The Suns opened training camp with only Dragic, Frye, P.J. Tucker, and Marcus and Markieff Morris on the roster from a season ago. After the Suns traded Dragic to the Rockets in 2011, he spent his time in Houston sharpening his basketball acumen. His decisions on the court now come crisp and correct. “From a little caterpillar to a butterfly,” Frye said. The tandem of Dragic and Bledsoe reminded Hornacek of when Fitzsimmons paired him with Kevin Johnson. Both had been point guards. “Eric is similar to Kevin in his strength and his speed,” Hornacek said. “Goran is kind of similar to me in size. We had a lot of success playing that way, so I felt right away that these guys could play well together. The Suns last year didn’t run that much. I think they tried, but they really didn’t have a guy besides Goran who could really push it. We just felt the combination with the two of them would give us a great advantage to get the ball up and down the court.”
Hornacek preached defense in training camp, just like Fitzsimmons did back in 1988. “We went over offense, but we didn’t really focus on it,” Hornacek said. He told his roster full of unknowns that recognition would come through unity. “Individually, if our team is terrible and you’re getting some points, nobody cares,” Hornacek said he told his team. “Nobody’s going to talk about you guys. But if everyone plays well, it doesn’t matter what your numbers are. They’re going to talk about the team and then they’re going to talk about you.”
They’re talking about the Suns around the league. Tucker is the small forward with the frequently stamped passport. “We laughed when we saw those preseason rankings that had us last in the West and we would only win 15 games in the season,” Tucker said. “That’s funny.” He didn’t smile as he spoke. “For us, we knew the guys we had and we can play together. Once we got together and saw what we had and got to training camp, we knew we could be able to win some games this year.”
Dragic and Bledsoe are a dynamic pairing when healthy. “He’s definitely given me the freedom,” Bledsoe said of Hornacek. “He encourages me every night to take shots. Sometimes I don’t want to take them, and he tells me to take them anyway.” Both can push the ball, score, pass, or settle the team into its offense. They are relentless together. When one attacks the rim, the other can set up behind the 3-point arc and rain jumpers.
Frye played mostly with the second team and Dragic during the Slovenian point guard’s first run in Phoenix. “I’m gonna say right now, I think he should be an All-Star,” Frye said. “You look at his numbers, you look at what he’s done for this team, and you look at how he’s playing with arguably another guy who could be up there with Eric Bledsoe. So we have two legit point guards and they’re young.”
Hornacek’s accounting major is paying dividends beyond his tax return. He merges a traditional approach to the game with an understanding of its ever-growing analytics — for example, he’s cognizant of the areas on the court where missed shots best translate into fast-break opportunities for the other team. These concepts are changing how the Suns play in profound and measurable ways. The return of Frye, a stretch forward in every definition of the term, alleviates the glut of post players. This creates new ways to score and defend. They’re limiting their opponents’ 3-point percentage to 33.6 percent, down from the 38.8 percent conversion rate last season, which tied with Charlotte for the league worst. “It starts with our two point guards — Goran and Eric — who, for the most part, don’t allow other teams to break us down,” Hornacek said. “That’s when teams get a lot of 3s, when your front line or your point guard area gets broken down. Now, all of a sudden, he’s attacking the basket, people collapse, and they kick it out.”
Those times have come in fits and starts. Dragic missed a few games at the beginning of the season with a sprained ankle. Worse, Bledsoe sustained a torn meniscus in his right knee in early January that’s expected to sideline him for four to six weeks.
But Hornacek is not one for excuses. Phoenix scores frequently on fast breaks, and activates its offense by inbounding the ball as soon as an opponent scores — a trend that would have made Cotton Fitzsimmons smile. But Hornacek isn’t satisfied. “We still aren’t great at that, to my liking,” he said. “I’d like as soon as the ball goes through the net, every single time, to have it up the court in just a couple seconds.”
Most of all, the Suns hold one another accountable. “This team, there are a lot of guys pulling for each other,” Markieff Morris said. “It’s not about stats. It’s about winning. We have our arguments, but it’s more so about winning. Last year, we were scattered all over the place. It wasn’t a good team.”
The Morris twins power the team’s deep bench. They’d played together their entire lives before declaring for the NBA out of Kansas in 2011. The Suns selected Markieff. They obtained Marcus in a trade with Houston last season. Dick and Tom Van Arsdale are the only other twins to play together in NBA history. They too played for the Suns. “We’re like a team inside a team,” Markieff said. Both say they play better when their brother is on the court — they’re trying to prolong their run as teammates for as long as possible.
Marcus and Markieff — the eldest twin by seven minutes — live together. They’re virtually inseparable. Markieff won the home’s master bedroom by besting Marcus in a first-to-seven round of NBA2K. “We play video games for everything,” Markieff said. “That’s the only thing we really compete in.” Markieff played as the Spurs. Marcus switched from Toronto to Golden State, losing seven of the eight games. He will not receive a rematch anytime soon. “It was a seven-game series,” Markieff said. “You can’t get a rematch for that.”
If it were all so simple, every organization would hit the reset button at the first sign of struggle. The Suns delayed doing so for years. “We’re trying to have this be sustainable going forward, but we do still have an open roster spot, we have about $6 million in cap space,” McDonough said before the team brought back Leandro Barbosa. “We do have potentially six first-round picks over the next two years coming, so we’re open to anything. I say that what we’ll never do is pass up on a star if a star becomes available — especially a guy who is younger and we can build with and grow together, we’re going to go get him. I’ve told a number of people that just because we have six first-round picks over the next two years doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll use all six.”
They’re adapting to Bledsoe’s absence, though the team is clearly weaker with him gone. Still, Phoenix is still staying afloat in a loaded Western Conference. Lottery be damned, the Suns are vying for a playoff position — the team sits sixth in the Western Conference standings. And a season without the playoffs would not derail the organization. The foundation is set. The assets are there so that McDonough can tinker and improve.
Hornacek, meanwhile, is already showcasing how he will push with whoever is on his roster. He’s already modeling those two hats Babby described. “He allows us to be responsible for our own play,” Frye said. “I think that’s really the biggest thing that I appreciate, is that Coach doesn’t do a whole lot of yelling. You’re just more disappointed that you let him down and let your team down.”
Hornacek is also skilled in keeping his players mentally prepared at all times, something that will come in handy during Bledsoe’s prolonged absence. Green didn’t play much in the beginning of the season, but with the team needing offense, he’s averaged 15.9 points in January. He was once a top prospect who washed out of the league and landed in basketball Siberia. Now he’s hitting game-winning shots and mentoring the team’s younger players. “It takes the little things to be a great team,” Green said. “I just tell them little stuff I learned from being on a great team last year, and a lot of guys are just taking the stuff that they learned over their careers and putting it all together.”
To Babby, these Suns are a product of the groundwork laid last season with Blanks. The future is better after reconnecting with the past. Everyone in the organization cautions against being overexcited, but …
“At some point you’re going to have to say, ‘Why not?’” Babby said. “We aren’t able to continue this?”
Frye sees what everyone else saw. He knows why this team, with this roster, shouldn’t be this team. He looks over the list of players and conducts an inventory of his own.
“Rookie, hasn’t really played the big minutes, hasn’t really played the big minutes, never a starter, never a starter, never a starter,” Frye said. “But then you look, and we have P.J. Tucker, who’s a worker. The Morris twins are workers. Everybody who’s come in, and who’s here, works hard. Ryan really kept the workers, the guys that are gonna stay in the gym like this, and get in here early and do what’s asked of them with no questions. You’ve got a group of hungry guys. And I think that’s what people didn’t see. They underestimated that.”