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“Who got fired…
…for trading me away for Marquese Chriss?”
Thank you, CP3!
Do you have any idea how unbearable Knicks fans would be, right this minute? Chris Paul sunk seven points in the space of the final 85 seconds at Madison Square Garden on April 26. He assisted on a Mikal Bridges jam for the Phoenix Suns’ score before that binge, all of it needed to fend off the hard-charging Knicks one night after Paul’s Suns set across town against the Nets.
Aside from that one blemish for Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, they would currently be riding a 13-game winning streak, a run nearly thwarted early if not for an untimely Trae Young injury, and Macy’s would be out there doing the New Year’s Day parade all over again.
Spike has conveniently kissed and made up to Hideous Lord Jimmy Dolan, finding his way back to a seat on MSG’s Gucci Row with a slew of front-running celebs. There’s blue-and-orange ticker-tape everywhere around Manhattan, as dreams abound of a Subway Series for the Eastern Conference Finals. Ewww.
This is a good, and rare, time to praise the well-heeled individuals who have been, objectively, the worst owners in The Association, going on decades now. Glen Taylor, for one, is slowly stepping aside in Minnesota. Although Sactown’s back in the lottery once more, Vivek Ranadive is no longer acting as if he’s running his girls’ AAU team. And like Dolan, when was the last time anyone had a thought about Robert Sarver?
“In my view, people are the most important,” Sarver shared with CNBC last week, as his Suns (47-18) continue on quite a roll of their own, now surging to a tie with Utah for the top honors in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, and thus the NBA. For too long with those under his employ, “people” meant, “Soylent Green.” But he’s gained a new lease on life as an owner. “In this business, from a basketball standpoint, it’s people that can identify talent, develop talent, and people that can coach talent.”
It was just a few years ago when Sarver thought it clever to sneak live goats into his neophyte GM Ryan McDonough’s office – intended to inspire a search for a GOAT on par with his WNBA Mercury’s Diana Taurasi – only to discover the goats’ greatest talents involve shedding hair, chewing furniture, and defecating profusely. These Suns aren’t baaaaaad anymore, and it’s a testament to their longtime interventionist owner, who is learning to simply let talented people link together under his umbrella, and then get out of the way.
The stench of the goats and the Suns’ owner-tinkered operations are long gone. In its place, NBA retiree James Jones has been granted the room to make critical decisions, from hiring coach Monty Williams, to aiding (before McDonough’s ouster) in the decisions to Max-Ex star Devin Booker and to acquire Bridges, Cam Johnson and #1 pick Deandre Ayton via the Draft, to enticing point god Paul to join a so-far unaccomplished club in free agency.
Pretty much everything has worked out, and with the latest Sun-burst confirming their emergence pre-CP3 in the 2020 Bubble was no fluke, Jones and Williams are among the reasons Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan will be Honorable Mentions, respectively, at NBA Awards time.
Phoenix distinguishes itself in the standings as the only NBA club yet to endure double-digit road losses (NBA-best 22-9, after outlasting Cleveland in overtime last night). Even if they join the other 29 teams today (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Arizona), who are the only other clubs at just 7 games above-.500 in away games? Denver, Dallas, and Portland, the weary latter of whom succumbed to a barrage of three-pointers at State Farm Arena on Monday night.
Slithering their way to the top of the NBA, Monty’s pythons are no laughing matter. Even so, something is amissssssssss. Possessing a very young core despite the presences of Jae Crowder, league late-comer Torrey Craig and Paul, the Suns lack the steamroller instinct versus lesser competition seen among traditional title contenders.
Despite the fewest losses in the NBA, early-season losses for the Suns included games at Sacramento, Detroit, and at a still-clueless and Westbrook-less Washington. After the All-Star break, there were home losses to Indiana and Minnesota, then a schedule loss on the road in Orlando, the farewell game for several Magic players before getting traded away the following afternoon.
Phoenix hasn’t rattled off a double-digit winning streak all season, currently winners of six in a row. On Sunday, they nearly lost their second game of the season to OKC, a Thunder club that was just blown out 152-95 by visitors from Indiana the evening before. With the Suns up by as much as 18 midway through the final quarter, and 12 with two minutes to spare, a sudden lack of rim protection and turnovers, plus a technical foul by Booker, required free throws from Bridges to close out a seemingly unnecessary high-wire act. The daredevil stunt was a near-repeat of a close-shave win in Houston a month ago.
Last night in Ohio, the Suns let Collin Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro go off in the second half, the Cavs erasing a 12-point deficit in the third quarter, then closing a seven-point gap in the final six minutes to force an overtime period. With six points and a game-tying assist, Sexton feasted in the final 70 seconds on buckets all within feet of Phoenix’s rim. The Sun saviors in these recent comebacks have not been Paul and Booker, and certainly not Ayton, but Bridges (17 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 4th-plus-OT @ CLE) and Johnson, perhaps a risky approach, by Williams, to test the younger guns’ mettle as the playoffs approach.
The sum of the Suns’ past three wins has been a galling minus-23.3 Net Rating in fourth quarters (2nd-worst in NBA), a recession that encourages teams to endure Phoenix’s game-planned early efficiencies and hang around long enough to take part in a threatening comeback.
It’s reminiscent of when Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic and his Hawks made their pandemic-delayed visit to Phoenix on March 30, a couple nights after getting drubbed in Denver. Riding red-hot shooting from Dario Saric (20 points vs. ATL), Phoenix blazed to a 16-point first-half lead, but they plateaued over the next two quarters before Bogi’s hot hand (team-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-8 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO) had the Suns feeling as though they were running uphill with the lead.
Responding to a spectacular dunk by Bridges, a Bogdanovic triple narrowed the score to 109-108 with under 70 seconds to go. An Ayton putback of a Booker miss, and a CP3 dish to Crowder (5-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 30) in the corner finally put the game on ice, keeping Atlanta from disrupting what would become Phoenix’s season-best seven-game winning streak. “We closed the game out,” Paul told postgame media. “But we shouldn’t have been in that situation.” Despite their recent uptick in success, they have found themselves in several similar situations since.
The already-hobbled Hawks may have been able to squeak that one out, had John Collins not tweaked his ankle in the second quarter. Atlanta dropped below .500 with that loss for what would be the final time this season. Tonight, with yet another road-weary team in town, a recuperating Hawks club (36-30) could secure a winning season for the first time in Collins’ four-year career. They may not wish to hold off and try achieving that above-.500 status in McMillan’s former NBA town tomorrow, as a seventh-straight home win, this one over the momentary NBA leaders in the standings, would be an impressive feat.
Phoenix is thrilled to be reaching the postseason for the first time since then-coach Alvin Gentry took the Suns to the Western Finals in 2010, and the prospect of making a Utah team that’s 28-4 at home the road team in this year’s conference finals, with a chance of giving Paul the breakthrough to the NBA Finals he has long craved, sounds mighty tempting. But they’re going to want to avoid am early-round letdown similar to McMillan’s ’94 Sonics, who found themselves mounted by a Mutombo. To that end, Phoenix is going to need their former local high school and college star, Ayton, to string together some not-pedestrian performances.
For Ayton (14-and-14 vs. ATL in March), who did his best to keep up with Clint Capela (16-and-15 @ PHX) when the Hawks and Suns last met, a 15 point, 8 rebound showing versus the Cavs was a slight departure from his previous four games (7.5 PPG and 10.0 RPG, 2.0 FTAs/game, 46.2 FG%). Still, aside from a blocked shot, Deandre was persona non grata in the fourth frame as Cleveland made their advance. Two more overtime rejections brought his block tally to a season-tying high of 5 by night’s end. But for the former first-overall pick, it should not have come to that, nor Johnson’s reverse-yam in OT over Jarrett Allen, to put the Cavs to bed.
At the Omni hotel this morning, Williams will be grateful not having to awaken to tornado sirens. But he will have to make tough decisions on who can log heavy minutes against a Hawks team bearing a rest advantage. Look for more minutes for ex-Hawk Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter in the backcourt, and for Saric and Frank Kaminsky upfront. Craig continues to start in place of Crowder, who remains out with a sprained ankle.
Phoenix (NBA-best +2.3 bench plus/minus) hopes to sustain any early leads they can seize for as long as possible without relying on star turns by Booker (8-for-19 FGs vs. ATL in March; 25.1 PPG but 25.3 3FG% since April 5), Bridges and Paul (active leader in career steal percentage at 3.21%, as per bball-ref; a fellow Carolinian, McMillan’s 3.75% ranks 3rd all-time).
The Hawks’ reserves (NBA-worst minus-8.6 bench plus/minus and 38.2 bench FG% in last 4 games) could use a boost from sixth-man specialist Lou Williams (19.2 FG%, 5.3 PPG in last 4 games), held under 15 minutes of action in his past two games, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell, to at least hold serve in this area. With Bogdanovic (NBA career-best 15.5 PPG and 42.0 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs vs. POR; listed as available despite a still-sore hammy) having averaged over 36.2 MPG as a starter during his past four back-to-back series, Coach Nate would love to spread his sharp-shooting guard’s floor time out at a lower scale today and tomorrow.
Among Atlanta’s starters, a stronger interior presence from Collins (just 9-for-14 2FGs over past 3 games) would be a welcome sight. But he has the outside jumper that Ayton comparatively lacks. Showing newfound confidence as a shooter since his return from injury (multiple threes in four consecutive games, longest since last February’s late-season scoring tear) while sharing the floor with multiple Atlanta snipers, balancing Collins’ offense with more paint finishes will have defenses unsure of whether he’s going or coming.
After citing his boss’ maturation and the Suns’ recent retooling as an “inflection point,” one of Sarver’s few hangers-on, CEO Jason Rowley, via CNBC, presses longtime skeptics to “look at the people we have on the team, you look at the culture that’s been built here – when I look at the success we’re having now, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We have the opportunity to have something sustainable.” This may hold true. But then you take a gander at the cap sheet.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe foretells of the looming “money crunch” for Sarver, as Paul’s $44 million player option for 2021-22 either kicks in or gets torn up in favor of a lucrative negotiation. Ayton may not be worthy of an extension nearing the values coming for, say, Young or Luka Doncic, but the first-overall pick’s agents will be as demanding as Zona boosters in pursuing that kind of deal. Crowder and Saric are under contract through 2023. Their deals are reasonable, but they’ll likely hold more value as expirings than as contributing players by then.
That Grant Hill is one classy fella. “He never dressed me down. Was always good to me,” he said of his former boss, Sarver, refuting a 2019 ESPN report (same one, by Kevin Arnovitz, featuring the goats) that the Suns’ owner barged into a halftime locker room and demanded better on-ball defense by Hill against another withering former superstar, the Mavs’ Vince Carter. Hill took great pains to explain Sarver’s intentions were to have switch Hill off of Dirk Nowitzki.
It would take a monumental effort to get Grant to baaaaaad-mouth anyone, even Sarver. But it’s no longer lost on the owner that intruding in player affairs, as he once did, does his team and his franchise no favors. Sarver thanks his lucky stars that Jones accepted his entreaties instead of latching onto any of his GOAT-pal LeBron’s endeavors. Because there’s at least one reason Hill, and former Sun Carter, didn’t choose to spend their NBA retirement years in the warm climes of Arizona. They’ve elected to invest their time and energy in Georgia with the Resslers, who aim to prove that this state is a better place to do business, and basketball. I do hope Mr. Paul is taking notes.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“The Shining (2011)”
Happy Ten-Year Anniversary! Ten! What is that, aluminum? Paper? Velvet?
Are ya feeling old yet, Squawkfolk? It seemed like yesterday when a former referee, one that even other refs couldn’t stand, snuck around Atlanta Hawks postgame security aiming to shame team vice prez, color analyst and living legend Dominique Wilkins in hopes of collecting what the former claimed was a debt. Well, don’t call him Eric B., because the homie Rashan Michel got Paid In Fist.
After dispatching Hoosier legend Mike Woodson and giving his assistant Larry Drew a head coaching shot, ownership and fans alike simply hoped to see a little more fight out of their Hawks, as the 2011 Playoffs approached. After that evening’s win by the Hawks over the bullying Orlando Magic, Nique proved to be a good model, demonstrating how to clown a clown that keeps trying to clown you. Respectfully.
I’m a pacifist by nature. Give peace a chance! But serving up a two-piece isn’t the worst thing in the world when all else fails.
Here’s the deal. There was not a fur store in North America that ever fixed an invoice with Joe Namath’s name on the “To:” line. Neither Broadway Joe, nor recent birthday boy Clyde the Glide, gets handed a bill for their outfits. You think either K or G has ever troubled LD with a running tab for their zoot suits? ‘Course not.
“Hi, Mister Wilkins, sir. Do you remember me, I used to T you up at Vince Carter’s celebrity summer games? Well, now, I make custom suits for a living. May I make some for you?” “Sure, thanks.” ((Months later)) “Hey, Nique, nice suit!” “Thanks! So-and-so made some for me, you oughta look him up!” THAT is the twelve thousand dollars you seek, Rashan!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with an enterprising young fellow having reveries of building his own Brutha Men’s Wearhouse empire one day. Admirable, actually. But if you’ve got ins with at least B-list celebrities, you have got to understand that these folks can become your walking, talking billboards. Grown athletes, in particular, aren’t the ones you risk chokeouts trying to shakedown. There’s no need to go to Goizueta B-School to figure this out.
You don’t even have to be 7-foot tall and 250 pounds to be a profitable clothier. Kevin Willis eventually got his clothing line up and running at Lenox Macy’s. He didn’t get there stalking former Hawks all around town seeking compensation for services rendered. He also managed to make a clean second career for himself without, say, running afoul of the FBI.
Michel almost turned his fortunes around in the years after the swelling went down. Through his regional and sports-related connects, he made inroads with college stars on the verge of lottery-level paydays going pro in the NBA and NFL. Building on his growing set of Instagram follows, he opened a shop in Grant Park, and was planning to expand his tailoring business to Charlotte.
Sadly, a lack of game fails to recognize a lack of game. A greedy Michel soon found himself ensnared in the underworld of greasy sports agents, greedy sneaker execs, grimy cash-carrying coaches, and grinning FBI informants. Now, because of his willing participation in the ploy of stuffing bills behind the lapels of kids like Deandre Ayton – 2018’s number one pick for the rising Phoenix Suns, who host our Hawks tonight (10 PM Eastern, Once More, with Feeling! Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona) – Rashan had to plead guilty in a sting that stung far fewer and less valuable people than the Feds intended.
Thanks to Rashan’s involvement in the scheme, a former NBA player with one of the greatest nicknames in sports, “The Rifleman” Chuck Person can’t even show his face on the plains in Auburn anymore. Players, head and assistant coaches and agents, all give the Mariah Carey “I don’t know her!” face when queried about their appearances with Michel, tagged in pics embracing him on his website. The ex-ref’s rebounding rep? Shattered. His shop? Shuttered. And as soon as his name hit the Internet, many quickly recalled, “Hold up, isn’t that the dude Nique five-knuckle-shuffled just a couple years ago?”
Our Hawks found themselves on the wrong end of their first two-hit fight – I hit you, you hit the floor – in quite some time, getting grounded and pounded in Denver on Sunday night. Quite coincidentally, things went south because of Atlanta’s perturbance with the antics of some referees. The ones with actual whistles, on this occasion.
“I thought we got distracted by the officiating,” admitted Nate McMillan to the AJC’s Sarah K. Spencer, The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner and the postgame press, “me included.” Marc Davis, in particular, tends to have that effect on people.
“I didn’t make adjustments during the course of this game, as far as how they were attacking us,” the Hawks’ current head coach correctly acknowledged, of the promising 49-45 start that snowballed into an avalanche of threes by the Nuggets’ JaMychal Green and, in garbage time, Bol Bol (???) to sum up a 126-102 defeat. “I just thought that we got caught up in the officiating. We can’t do that. We have to focus on the game.”
Trae Young (game-high 21 points, but 7 TOs) was sloppy with his handle and his shot decisions in the pivotal second quarter, leading to ample fastbreak scoring options for the Nuggets as the Hawks chased them through Colorado’s thin air. Atlanta (23-23) found itself on even thinner ice during the middle quarters as Clint Capela and John Collins were lethargic and ineffective in keeping Denver’s frontcourt off the glass. The Nuggets collected 15 offensive rebounds, 13 in the second and third quarters alone, to Atlanta’s two (half of that by Bogi Bogdanovic) for the entire game.
Crafty Chris Paul (8.5 APG, 1.4 SPG) and Mikal Bridges hope they can coax enough turnovers and tough shots out of Trae today to keep Young out of a shootout with All-Star slinger Devin Booker (35 points in Sunday’s win vs. CHA; post-All-Star -- 25.8 PPG, 32.3 3FG%).
Coming off the momentous run in 2020’s Bubble, the Suns and their fans ought to be thrilled with a 31-14 record that has them, for now, looking down at both the Lakers and the Clippers while holding down 2nd place in the rambunctious Western Conference. But it has been their late-game play, as of late, that has the Suns and their fans fearing a nightly meltdown.
Only the Spurs (89.4) have held a lower 4th-Quarter Offensive Rating over the past five games than the Suns (92.8), and no team has shot the ball worse (NBA-lows of 44.0 TS% and 40.0 eFG%) over that stretch. They scored 20 points in the final frame while visiting the Magic last week, 21 in Tampa against the Raptors, and then a paltry 14 in Charlotte on Sunday, permitting the Hornets to wipe out a 9-point deficit and force OT.
The silver lining is that coach Monty Williams’ club won four of those five games, the fumbled loss in Orlando last Wednesday the sole blemish. It’s a signal that Phoenix does just enough practical things to establish leads early on that they won’t often have to scramble with the game hanging in the balance in the closing minutes.
Still, fans that should be preparing to celebrate Phoenix’s first playoff appearance since 2010 have instead been fretting that the ends of games have looked more like The Devin Booker Variety Hour that they grew accustomed to withstanding during their young star’s first five seasons on objectively bad rosters. Ayton’s offensive role seems to shrink in these phases of games, and the hope is a more balanced attack in and around the paint will improve their prized pivot’s abilities to close games, while taking defensive pressure off of Booker and Paul.
Beyond rebounding from their rebounding woes in Denver, Atlanta will want to keep turnovers and forced-shot volumes low versus the slow-paced, possession control-minded Suns. Better contributions from Hawks reserves (31.5 bench PPG, 3rd-lowest in NBA; NBA-low 40.1 bench FG%) would be warmly welcomed, including hopefully the returning De’Andre Hunter (sore knee) and newcomer sixth-man Lou Williams.
Collins and Capela will want to wear down a Suns’ interior that depends on Jae Crowder, Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric to hold the fort, especially when Ayton (team-high 30.8 MPG; 11.0 RPG, 10th in NBA) needs a breather. Doing so could turn Phoenix’s perimeter defenders (34.1 opponent 3FG%, 2nd-best in NBA) into contracted helpers and freeing up the Hawks’ shooters for higher-quality looks.
This, a game previously scheduled to be played in January, is Atlanta’s NBA-high 27th road contest. Only Boston, presently playing at home, and free-falling Tampato have played 26. Some clubs, notably Eastern 10-seed Chicago, have played as few as 19 or 20. There will continue to be wild jockeying for final Playoff and Play-In positions on this back stretch of the season, the middle of the Eastern Conference particularly looking like a Bristol dirt track. But it is of some comfort to know that many of the teams the Hawks are chasing, and the teams chasing the Hawks in turn, will be making the lion’s share of their climbs away from their home locales during the final months.
If the Hawks get refocused, provide more balanced scoring, rebound well at both ends, and at least keep the contest close through three quarters, will they have a chance of notching their 13th road victory of the season, the most they’ve won since 2016-17, tonight?
Dare I suggest, they’ll have a puncher’s chance? Hope that raspberry was worth it, Rashan. You wore it well!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“I’m getting traded to the New York area? WHY???”
“Baby, I’m a Starbury!” Georgia Tech’s one-and-doner couldn’t believe his fortune as he slapped on his purple-billed, white and green, exclusive NBA-issue baseball cap. Thanks to the 1996 NBA lottery and draft, Stephon Marbury was about to pair up with one of the NBA’s hottest young forwards in Glenn Robinson. What a combo!
Whoops! Scratch that, Steph. It’s Ray Allen that Milwaukee really wants. But, guess what? You’re getting an even hotter, younger talent to grow with, in Kevin Garnett!
Coming together for iconic magazine covers, “Showbiz and KG” would eventually ignite expansion Minnesota’s first multi-year playoff run. Championship glories awaited for the Teen Wolves, with The Big Ticket and The Big Star as 1A and 1B!
Welp! Scratch the record again. Marbury reportedly wanted to be the 1A, and sought the All-Star accolades granted to Timberwolf bigs Garnett and leading scorer Tom Gugliotta. He felt he was being overlooked by the mass media, left out in the cold in the Twin Cities. Coney Island’s Finest was also getting homesick.
The Wolves shoved Googs aside to make room on the payroll for Marbury’s mega-bucks contract extension. He got agent Peter Falk to refuse their offers and demand a geographically focused trade. Fine, the Wolves said. We’ll make-do with two-time All-Star Terrell Brandon.
The three-team deal sent Sam Cassell to Milwaukee and Marbury back to the NYC area. He and his homeboys would finally get to see him become an All-Star. Just as well, the 2000 Draft for New Jersey netted his team the hottest young collegiate forward in Kenyon Martin. K-Mart was raw, understandably so after the injury he suffered late in his senior season at Cincinnati. But on the road back to playoff contention, Starbury was eager to join forces in the Garden State with somebody who had a bit more ummph than Keith Van Horn.
The Nets (enjoy James, Nets fans.) would indeed return to the playoffs, and even reach The Finals, but not with The Original Steph. Marbury would watch Jason Kidd tag-team with K-Mart and build an Eastern Conference champion. Still, traded to Phoenix for Kidd, Marbury couldn’t believe luck was finally turning in his favor.
In the Valley of the Suns, Marbury found himself dishing buckets to a rookie first-rounder fresh out of high school. Unlike Big Dog, KG, and K-Mart, Amar’e Stoudemire was not a prized #1 overall or top-five draft pick. But Michael Olowokandi was, and Steph’s screen-roll bounce pass set up his rookie big with one of the defining dunks of the decade, leaving Marbury teary-eyed, and The Kandi Man reevaluating his career decision.
With exception to KG, Stoudemire was as powerful and unstoppable coming down the lane as any NBA big Marbury had ever lobbed to. Time for yet another iconic SLAM cover! Steph would grace the February ’04 edition with jack-of-all-trades Shawn Marion and the surprise, reigning Rookie of the Year winner. One problem. By the time the mag hit the newsstands, Marbury was already on his way back home, to NYC. Scratch!
The Suns, like the Wolves, were trying to quit overspending on veteran talent to make room for their aspiring forwards at contract time, and to build around them via free agency. Incoming Knicks GM Isiah Thomas wanted to replenish the point guard stock, so off went Marbury to the hometown squad he dreamed of playing with as a child. Attached with him was fellow shoot-first guard Penny Hardaway, a remnant of Phoenix’s original plan to feature Kidd and Penny together.
That scheme for the Suns failed to bear fruit due to injuries for both point guards. Later, Hardaway failed to mesh with Steph, once Kidd was sent to Jersey. Those two were Isiah’s issue now. The Suns freed up money to woo back to town a 30-year-old who had honed his passing chops while making Dallas’ wunderkind Dirk Nowitzki, and thereby himself, an All-Star. Might there be enough magic left in Steve Nash’s bottle to make STAT a top-line star, and the Suns a playoff threat?
Nash would do all of that, and much, much, more. In his first full season, Suns coach Mike D’Antoni pressed the tempo of the Suns to complement his offensively oriented bookends of Stoudemire and Nash. While STAT and The Matrix wrecked shop upfront, wearing many older frontlines out, Nash had an array of shot-takers and shot-makers to turn to, in Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, and Jimmy Jackson.
Heating up the pace to levels rarely seen in the league, the Suns went from 29-53 in 2003-04 to the titans of the Pacific Division, tying a team record at 62-20 in 2004-05. Nash would earn his first MVP trophy as a tricenarian, then accomplish the feat again the next season.
With Nash and Stoudemire carrying the banner, and with D’Antoni and Steve Kerr taking over the front office, Phoenix’s stars never quite reached the Finals pantheon, like predecessors KJ and Charles Barkley, and the late, great Paul Westphal. But despite being thwarted at turns by the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs, Nash and STAT created not a gimmick, but an indelible brand, one that many upstart teams of today would like to copy.
Comparisons abound whenever wizardly, high-scoring guards team up with studly, bucket-crushing bigs. Will Trae Young and John Collins one day be that dynamic duo by which future legends will be measured? Fans in both Phoenix and Atlanta have reason to hope, unlike the plights of poor Mr. Marbury, these teammates might get to stick together for a while.
It borders on blasphemy, but I could argue the mythos of Nash-and-STAT being a sure thing from the jump didn’t meet up with reality. At what is momentarily known at PHX Arena, these two played together for the first time against the lowly Atlanta Hawks during 2004-05’s season debut. Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, and a bust of a rookie in his second year named Boris Diaw provided little resistance to Steve, Joe, and the emerging Amar’e.
But the connection wasn’t quite there in their debut, Nash finishing the game with just four assists, only one of which made its way into Stoudemire’s hands for a short jumper. But by the time they could master their pick-and-roll magic, in mere months, Phoenix became something like a phenomenon. Tim Duncan was too tough to eclipse in the Western Finals, but don’t blame Amar’e after averaging 37 PPG in the brief series with San Antonio.
All was looking bright, until Stoudemire came to know the word “microfracture” all too well. Following preseason surgery, Amar’e tried to rush back by mid-season, but to no avail, shelved again with stiff knees after just a few games. Perhaps more worrisome for him, D’Antoni had discovered a workaround – (CLOSE YOUR EYES, BELKIN!) – Boris Diaw, arriving from the Joe Johnson sign ‘n trade, who could hit jumpshots well outside the paint. Oh, and the Frenchman could pass, too! Ooh, la la!
Nash would earn his second and final MVP award without Stoudemire in tow. With the Suns back in the conference finals in the rough-and-tumble West, Nash pushed his old buddy Dirk nearly to the brink with Boris, who bookended the Mavs series with games of 34 and 30 points. Maybe it’s already time, fans pondered, to move on from dunk-dependent Amar’e and those ticking time bombs in his knees?
Not so fast, said Stoudemire. He returned to All-Star form in 2006-07, leading his team in scoring. When MVP Dirk’s top-seeded Mavs got upended in the first round, the coast was clear for the stacked, second-seeded Suns squad, having made quick work of the leftover Lakers, to finally break through to the title round.
That was, until the Discount Hip Check by the Spurs’ Robert Horry on Nash caused Amar’e to leave the bench and take umbrage with Horry, a decided no-no to the league’s officials in the afterglow of the Palace Malice. Stoudemire was suspended for Game 5 of those conference semis, the Suns never won again, and the Spurs went back to earn yet another ring in The Finals.
That 2007 series proved to be Phoenix’s best chance at ditching the title of the winningest franchise without an NBA title from any era on its shelf. Kerr took over as lead executive, he dealt Marion away in midseason for a bloated, aging Shaq, a move which brought inertia to D’Antoni’s run-and-gun style and no longer gave Stoudemire defensive cover.
Nash was still dropping dimes, but the increasingly geriatric teammates like Shaq, Raja Bell and Grant Hill were having a harder time picking them up. D’Antoni would wind his way in the offseason to New York in hopes of salvaging the Knicks, who by that time had given up on both Marbury and GM Isiah.
The Nash-and-STAT Suns would have one last hurrah under coach Alvin Gentry, by then a noted D’Antoni disciple, in 2009-10, after Stoudemire missed much of the prior season with an eye injury (ushering in the protective goggles era) and Kerr moved on from Shaq and, excepting Hill, some of the slowpokes. Finally sweeping the dastardly Spurs in the playoffs, the Suns would come up short versus Kobe and his new running buddy, Pau Gasol, in the Western Finals.
And that was about it. Kerr abdicated his executive post to become a television game analyst on TNT (who does that?), and his second-in-command, David Griffin, wanted out, too. A trade target all that season due to his expiring deal, Stoudemire ditched Phoenix to reunite with D’Antoni, declaring, as Marbury once errantly thought, “The Knicks are back!” With no more playoff appearances in Phoenix, the sun set on Nash’s All-Star years by 2012, after which he was dispatched to the Lakers Retirement Home.
With Nash-and-STAT, the Suns were a veritable double-supernova. But over the better part of their six seasons together, through all the MVP and All-Star honors, they were never quite able to string together, due to injuries, formidable foes and an untimely suspension, enough to outshine established super-teams and get over the hump into the Finals zone.
Inaugurated in Arizona the same season the Hawks emigrated from Missouri, the Suns join the Hawks and what was then the Cincinnati Royals as the only clubs since 1968-69 to never touch the championship gold. As a small consolation, neither of the first two organizations, in their present day, have to stress over whether they can ever make something out of Marvin Bagley.
Another advantage Atlanta and Phoenix’s top backcourt-frontcourt duos have, over Nash-and-STAT, is that their developmental stages as pros are quite coincidental.
Now in his fifth straight season scoring over 20 PPG, 24-year-old Booker is a scoring assassin who shone most brightly in 2020’s Bubble, the biggest gameday stage he has enjoyed to date. Ayton is coming along nicely as a steady rebounder in his third NBA season, although both players are sacrificing scoring in coach Monty Williams’ more egalitarian and decidedly un-D’Antonian (29th in Pace) offense.
Young and Collins face similar challenges, working through the bumps and bruises of elevated expectations under coach Lloyd Pierce’s watch, but with a vastly less healthy roster than the Suns (7-4) in the early going. On their ever-evolving, ever-revolving injury report, rookie lotto pick Onyeka Okongwu (foot) was listed as probable for today’s game, while starting pivot Clint Capela (hand) was listed as questionable.
What both these couplings need to excel, though, is a similarly young but steady third-wheel, à la The Matrix. And it sure is shaping up as if each club already has one.
Brett Brown, the 76ers head coach and Interim GM at the time of 2018’s NBA Draft, is no longer with the Sixers largely because Philly native Mikal Bridges is in the NBA, and Zhaire Smith is very much not. The Biggest Mistake of the 2018 Draft (that’s right, Dallas. Deal with it.), Philly acquired Miami’s 2021 first-rounder and Smith (3.7 PPG in a whopping 13 career appearances), and now feel like they’ve burnt their bridges. Mikal enjoyed a career-best 34-point outing on Sunday (6-for-8 3FGs) as the Suns toppled the Pacers in Indy.
A full-time starter in his third season, Bridges carries a sterling reputation as a young on-ball defender, joining Chris Paul, the veteran point guard star and protégé of Williams back in the New Orleans Hornets’ days, as players putting intense pressure on opposing offenses while simultaneously alleviating D-Book and D-Ayt to play to their strengths. Mikal’s jumper has come around, too (45.3 3FG% on nearly six attempts per game), and his unwillingness to put the ball on the floor (2.1 TOs/100 plays, 2nd-best among NBA’ers w/ 20+ MPG) helps Phoenix maintain useful possessions.
Howls that Atlanta and Phoenix fumbled away their chances at certain glory by not drafting or keeping Luka in 2018 have quieted, at least for now. Also, nary a soul is chirping critically about the top-five draft pick Atlanta took the following year. De’Andre Hunter (16.3 PPG) has improved across the board, as a crafty defender and rebounder, and especially as a confident shot-taker (45.3 3FG%, 57.8 2FG%) and decision-maker at the other end of the floor.
Minnesota got got by Phoenix in the 2019 Draft, too. The Wolves wanted to trade up, for Jarrett Culver, and they wanted to rid themselves of Dario Saric. Done and done, But in so doing, the player they drafted, Cameron Johnson, is helping Phoenix put out a pair of prodigious Pennsylvania-prep products that closely rivals Hawks lotto-prizes Hunter and Cam Reddish.
Free agent pickup Jae Crowder has struggled of late, and the Suns have floundered, losing the day before the Pacers game in Detroit, then getting blown out on Monday in Westbrook-less Washington. Coach Monty suggested it was already time to shake up the starting unit. “That group has not played well,” said Williams. Substituting Crowder for Cam Johnson (8-0 in the Bubble as a Suns starter) sounds like The Move. But Williams and the Suns will now have a little longer to figure it out.
Just yesterday, @AZSportsZone ran down a foreboding list of teams riddled with COVID positives, protocols and quarantines, and it seems as though most everybody has run through the Wizards along the way to having to postpone games. While it was hoped the Suns would luck out, the premonition proved true, and for now, the Hawks-Suns game scheduled for tonight is off (Scratch!), canceled one day after the scrapping of the Jazz-Wizards game. (Sorry, Rudy.)
Rookie big Jalen Smith was already under Protocols Watch, left behind as the Suns headed east last Friday. NBA top-scorer Bradley Beal was suddenly DNP’d after spending time talking to Boston’s COVID-positive Jayson Tatum, then was cleared for takeoff to face the Suns. PG County native, Williams, brushed aside concerns about Beal, and also about a selfie he took in the team hotel’s parking lot with his mom, who he had not seen in person since Thanksgiving.
While the blow-by-blow on impacted Suns players and staff has not yet been shared, there is enough to know Phoenix wouldn’t have the minimum 8 COVID-cleared contributors like Philadelphia did ahead of the Hawks game. “I think every minute and every hour and every day is going to be an adjustment,” LP said after shootaround yesterday, just as the news of the Wizards’ cancellation was trickling in. “Obviously, this has been the toughest week since we’ve started, as you’re seeing games postponed.”
Taking so much time rambling down Memory Lane isn’t always a sign that I’m not caring much about the results ahead of a game. But this week’s games are an exception.
Now that the Hawks have nipped their losing skid in the bud with their 112-94 victory over Philly on Monday, the only things I care about, as Atlanta spends its time out West this week, is that the Hawks stay healthy and get healthy, basketball-wise, and they that stay vigilant enough to avoid not just COVID-19, but the league’s ever-constricting Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Any Ws they can bring home along the way is just gravy.
After the plug was pulled on last season prematurely, following an over nine-month wait to resume regular-season play, the last things Atlanta need are unforeseen cancellations and postponements. From one week to the next, Bubble-less-ious squads like the Hawks need to see the preparation they put in paying off, in real time.
After so many close encounters, it does kinda suck that Starbury never could settle down somewhere and become the Kobe to somebody’s Shaq, or even the Penny. But all was not lost. Sure, he had to go to Beijing, but he finally earned his statue somewhere. By the way, it must be noted, the Beijing team he’s coaching now is playing its full slate of games, including a win just yesterday, without a hitch.
“I really don’t see any panic,” Coach Marbury said all the way back in March 2020 about his native land’s response to a raging pandemic that was dying down in China but percolating across the Pacific shores. According to the AP, he found the nonchalance, “a little nerve wracking, because I left China and I saw what was going on, right when it was starting.”
At the premiere of his biographical film in NYC (remember movie premieres?), Steph hoped Americans would take the threat as seriously as the Chinese government and citizens eventually would, to minimize its spread across the continent. Of course, a highly attended movie premiere was just the latest sign Starbury’s Americans had other priorities in mind.
The Suns had hoped to avoid becoming subject to disease, and the Hawks hoped to avoid disruption, too. But if they need someone to blame… hey, thanks, “Washington!”
Let’s Go Hawks! Just Not Tonight!