(To be played to the tune of from Light of the Seven from the Game of Thrones season finale.)
Back in April, I was working downtown within a stones throw of the Phoenix Suns arena. My office had a birds eye view of their arena and everyday I had to stare down the home of my favorite sports franchise and ponder – what happened?
One fateful morning, I got the chance of a lifetime to answer my question. I hopped in the elevator to find Suns owner Robert Sarver staring back at me. As a lifelong Phoenix Suns fan, I had been waiting for this golden opportunity to give this man a piece of my mind. Maybe it was the lack of coffee, maybe it was his recent words scapegoating my generation for his failures, maybe I had grown too apathetic to care. But I found myself at a loss. We exchanged pleasantries and bid each other good day.
Since that day, I’ve been thinking a lot about my lowly Suns. With Cleveland recently winning their first title I figured it as good a time as any to self inflect more pain and look back at the Suns most heartbreaking moments.
The Suns recently wrapped their worst season in franchise history. They have become the laughing stock of the league. Fans wear bags on their heads. Former players openly mock the state of the franchise. But it wasn’t always this way. Mind you, though our team is currently in a Charlie Sheenian tailspin, we still hold the league’s fourth highest winning percentage.
Look at those three teams ahead of us. They’ve combined for 38 NBA Championships. The Suns are currently 0-48 on their quest for a title. That means that there’s been some serious heartbreakers. I’ve been going full Rust Cohle on this, trying to map together the pieces so that it all makes sense, dammit!
It’s like True Detective, but more depressing!
Without further ado, here’s my definitive ranking of the top 5 most depressing moments in recent Suns memory.
5.) 2008 Trade – Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal
Back in 2008, the Suns continued to dominate the regular season with their “Seven Seconds or Less” style of play. The Suns core three of Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion helped them reach a record of 34-14, good enough for 1st place in the Western Conference.
However, a few disappointing playoff runs and poor moves by Robert Sarver (most notably getting rid of Joe Johnson) had fans uneasy. The uneasiness was compounded when the Lakers got Pau Gasol and also rid themselves of Kwame Brown in the process.
Cue the Suns front office going into panic mode. They shipped Shawn Marion, an integral piece of the Suns run and gun offense, to Miami in return for a 36-year-old Shaq (coming off his worst statistical season.) Even if Shaq could regain the magic of his prime, the trade made absolutely no sense. This team was built on the transition game and getting ahead of opponents with speed. Then they added a clunking 350 pound center to the equation.
Shaq averaged 12.9 points per game and 10.6 rebounds per game and the Suns struggled to find their identity. They finished the season sixth in the conference with a record of 55-27. Predictably, they lost to the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. This was largely due to having a 350 pound center trying to play in a high octane offense. Spurs coach Greg Popovich intentionally fouled Shaq throughout the series. Shaq was literally so bad at free throws that his name echoes into eternity as being synonymous with poor shooting. Just take a look at Shaq’s highlight reel from his days as The Big Cactus in Phoenix.
This arguably started the domino effect of the Suns failures. Mike D’Antoni got fired. The Suns brought in defensive minded coach Terry Porter to accommodate the big man’s strengths. The fun Suns were no longer.
At least Pat Riley got a good laugh out of the trade.
4.) 2015 Trade – Goran Dragic & Isaiah Thomas for Brandon Knight & Draft Picks
The post Nash-era Suns had a predictably rocky start. Rather than go into full tank mode to stock pile picks, Sarver and company decided it wise to cling to the belief that we could compete in a star studded Western Conference. The new Suns were led by an aging Luis Scola, an further aged Jermaine O’Neal, and Michael Beasley. The Suns dropped to 25-57 on the year, good enough for 15th in the Western Conference.
Then something crazy happened. They started winning again! In the summer of 2013, the Suns brought on Ryan McDonough as GM, signed Eric Bledsoe, and brought in Jeff Hornaceck as head coach. The Suns were projected to be a bottom feeder in the Western Conference. Instead, they catapulted to a 48-34 season and were the talk of the league.
(This record would have been good enough for a 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but alas. We’re Suns fans. The Suns got the 9th seed in the West and missed the playoffs for the 4th straight season.)
This was the worst thing to happen to the Suns.
Rather than develop their talent, the Suns had the notion that they could compete again. McDonough nabbed point guard Isaiah Thomas in free agency and signed Eric Bledsoe to a long term deal after playing hardball. This ostracized Goran Dragic – the closest the Suns had to a franchise man. This led the oft soft spoken Dragic to lash out at the Suns front office and made him sound more sinister than Ivan Drago.
The rest is history. The Suns traded Isaiah Thomas, seemingly to save face with Dragic, but it was too late. Thomas has since led the Celtics to the playoffs and sped up their rebuilding process. Dragic has also led the Heat to the playoffs.
The Suns, meanwhile, have found a new rock bottom. Eric Bledsoe continues to struggle with injuries and can’t seem to be a number one guy. They also continue to pay this guy exorbitant amounts of money.
3.) 2005-2006 Season
I could go on for days about the disappointing front office moves of my beloved franchise. (For further reading, see: Josh Childress, Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, Vince Carter, Shannon Brown, Rajon Rondo, Loul Deng, Joe Johnson, the Morii Twins, etc.)
But let’s get to the court.
Coming off a 62 wins in the 2004-2005 season, the Suns had levied expectations and were poised for another deep playoff run. The Suns were able to attain the league’s best record largely off of the pick and roll game of league MVP Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. Sadly, Amar’e went down with a knee surgery and was only able to play three games that season.
However, Nash would go on to earn his second straight MVP and lead the team to a 54-28 record. Shawn Marion stepped up to lead the Suns in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals. Newly acquired Boris Diaw stepped in for Stoudemire as an undersized Power Forward/Center and earned the league’s “Most Improved Player” honor. Contributing role players included the speedy Leandro Barbosa, the sharpshooting Tim Thomas, and the defensive stalworth Raja Bell. Hell, even Pat Burke got in on the action.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Suns squared off against the division rivals L.A. Lakers. Surprisingly, they fell down 3-1 in the series after Kobe Bryant turned into a madman. The Suns took game 5 at home but were without suspended guard Raja Bell after he clotheslined Kobe Bryant.
The Suns then faced the top seeded Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Game 1 was extremely back and forth, but ultimately, the Suns came out on top with more late game heroics.
After four games, series was tied 2-2 and headed back to Dallas. The Mavs proved to be too much for the Suns to handle. It took a Herculean effort from Dirk Nowitzki as he put up 50 points in a crucial game 5. The Suns lost in six games and their title hopes would have to wait another year.
Still, it’s tough not to wonder what could have been had the Suns been at full strength and if Amar’e had stayed healthy. Injuries, you are a fickle bitch.
2.) 2010 – Suns-Lakers Western Conference Finals
After a few bad seasons (see: Shaquille O’Neal) the expectations were moderate going into the 2009-2010 campaign. Don’t count out the Suns. With Steve Nash, Amar’e, and Jason Richardson at the helm, the Suns regained their mid-2000’s glory and high octane energy.
After firing Terry Porter, the Suns let D’Antoni carryover Alvin Gentry take the reins. The Suns led the league in points per game, finished the season 54-28, and earned their fans a helluva lot of free tacos.
Impressively, they defeated a Brandon Roy led Portland Trailblazers in six games. They also swept the vaunted San Antonio Spurs (despite Nash playing with one eye) on the way to a Conference Finals berth. Though the L.A. Lakers awaited, the Suns had their swagger back.
Steve Nash and Amar’e were in their final year together and it seemed like poetic justice that the Suns defeat their rivals on the way to their first NBA Finals berth since 1993.
As Louis C.K. wisely said, optimism is for fools. The Suns ultimately lost in six games. It’s not that the Suns were outplayed. The Lakers probably deserved this series. They should have locked up Game 6 at home – and would have – if not for otherworldly play from Kobe Bryant.
The real tragedy here was Game 5. The garbage rebound still lives in infamy. It still haunts my dreams. The glorious sight of Jason Richardson’s banked 3 pointer. The beautiful airball by Kobe. Only to be followed by this.
Damn you, Avocado Farmers.
This was the end of the Nash-Stoudemire era in Phoenix. Though Nash would complete two more seasons in Phoenix, STAT was shipped of to New York. The Suns failed to make the playoffs with Nash again and have yet to make the playoffs since. It’s been 6 years and counting with no end to the drought in sight.
1.) 2007 – Suns-Spurs Western Conference Semis
There have been so many epic Suns losses to the Spurs.
But when you think of the Suns-Spurs, it all boils down to 2007.
So much to dissect. Steve Nash’s uncontrollable bleeding. Shady refeering. The bench suspensions. The ensuing Spurs sweep of the Cavs.
Coming off a second consecutive Western Conference Finals loss, the Suns entered the season healthy, hungry, and with a title or bust mentality. With the Suns core in tact, they steam rolled the Western Conference. They had respective win streaks of 15 and 17 games and finished the season 61-21. Nash finished with 18.8 points per game, to go with a 10.5 assists per game and fell just .01 percent shy of a another .50, .40, .90 shooting season. Nash also almost won a third straight league MVP, but narrowly lost out to Dirk Nowitzki.
The Suns once again defeated the L.A. Lakers but lucked out when the Golden State Warriors beat the top seeded Mavericks in the first round. The Suns had their best chance of winning a title and only the Spurs stood in the way.
WHAT WENT WRONG?!?
Well, a bunch of things.
The Suns lost a costly Game 1 at home 111-106. Steve Nash was unable to remain in the game during the final minutes after conking heads with Tony Parker. He bled profusely, and missed key plays as the Suns training staff desperately tried to close the wound.
After winning Game 2 decisively, the Suns went to San Antonio and lost a pivotal Game 3. Of course, this loss wasn’t without its share of controversy. Take a look at this:
Notice anything? Oh yeah, that’s the Tim Donaghy!
Amid a sea of bad calls, the Suns ultimately fell in Game 3 101-108. There’s been some evidence that perhaps the game was not called fairly. Well, at least there’s no credence to these wacko conspiracy theories.
Game 4 arrived and the Suns took care of business on the road. They won the game 104-98 to even the series. Yet again, the game is marred by controversy.
With the Suns up three and time expiring, the Spurs had to intentionally foul. Robert Horry took it upon himself to hip check Steve Nash. Nash, clearly irritated by being thrust into the scorers table by a man with 60 pounds on him, got up and barked at Horry. Then all hell broke loose. The benches cleared, technicals were assessed, Horry was ejected, and the scuffle ended harmoniously enough. End of story, right?
Sadly, David Stern and co. decided to suspend Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving their bench during the scuffle. Robert Horry was also suspended. It didn’t look like Stoudemire or Diaw had any intention to fight but the league chose to go by the book. The only thing is…Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen did the exact same thing earlier in the game. They left their bench during an altercation and physically walked onto the court. The league didn’t deem the scuffle an “altercation” and thus they were not suspended. Oh, Bruce Bowen also kneed Steve Nash in the groin but again, no penalty.
Game 5 arrived and the Suns had a chance to take a series lead at home. Things were looking good for a while. The Suns led by as many as 16 points. But without two keys players in an already small rotation, they faltered down the stretch. They lost the game 88-85 after Bruce Bowen’s late three pointer.
With the Suns down 3-2 in the series, they faced a hostile game 6 on the road. Despite the return of Stoudemire and Diaw, the Suns fell 114-106. The Spurs went on to face an inferior Utah Jazz team in the Conference Finals. They defeated the Jazz in five games and swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
This series was truly devastating. Had it not been for the poor officiating, suspensions, and a bloody nose, the Suns had a great chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2007. But alas, the path of a Suns fan is a dark and lonely road.
There you have it. The Suns may be at rock bottom and perhaps I’m a sadist, but I still love them. It’s why I go on passionate, drunken rants on their Facebook page.
It’s why I share texts with my fellow beleaguered friends about the state of our beloved franchise.
It’s why I cry for our owner to sell the team and get the hell out of town. (I’d recommend joining one of the following Facebook pages: Sarver: Please Sell the Suns, Robert Sarver Stop Destroying the Phoenix Suns, or Boycott Robert Sarver)
They prepared me for a world of gut punches and horrible Game of Thrones deaths. I’ll be there through the good, the bad, and the ugly. As for the Spurs? Someday, we shall have our vengeance.