How the mid-2000s Suns f’ed it all up

How the mid-2000s Suns f’ed it all up

What happened to the Suns of the 2000s?
Image: Getty Images

Everything we love about the current NBA was made mainstream by the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s. They mostly ran lineups that went four out, surrounding their All-Star big man, Amar’e Stoudemire, with space to dominate less athletic bigs. In the 2000s, just about every other power forward was a lumbering, methodical dinosaur. Along with future Hall-of-Fame point guard Steve Nash, they formed the most athletically unstoppable pick-and-roll duo since Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

The Suns were led by head coach Mike D’Antoni with a starting five of back-to-back MVP Nash, defensive specialist Raja Bell, Swiss-Army Knife Shawn Marion, pick-and-roll powerhouse Stoudemire, and passing savant big man Boris Diaw. The bench consisted of Sixth Man of the Year winner Leandro Barbosa, sharpshooter James Jones, underrated enforcer Kurt Thomas, and sturdy two-way guard Marcus Banks.

In his prime, Nash was one of the most clutch players in the game. Between 2000 to 2012, Nash had the third-most offensive win shares among active NBA players and league-record splits of 50/40/90 in four years. During that time, Nash ranked third in the NBA in clutch shooting in terms of field goal percentage and first in 3-point rate while having the lowest overall percentage of those shots assisted on. No doubt about it, Nash was a fucking dawg.

Nash was the engine of everything the Suns did. Nash unlocked Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and head coach D’Antoni’s system. Without him, all three are viewed differently in the NBA annuals. Nash’s elite floor vision, endless motor, and smooth pull-up jumper made him the perfect point of attack for a system predicated upon constant movement, passing, and high pick and rolls.

The High Point

The “7 Seconds or Less” era began early in the 2003-04 season when then-assistant D’Antoni took over for dismissed head coach Frank Johnson. D’Antoni brought the European style of play, predicated on perimeter shooting, up-tempo pace, and fluid ball movement, which he honed while coaching in Italian leagues. Everything clicked when the Suns signed Steve Nash away from the Dallas Mavericks that summer. Adding Nash to D’Antoni’s offensive schematic was an immediate hit, as the Suns earned the NBA’s best regular-season record (62-20) and posted the best offensive rating (114.5).

But the best version of the team came in the 2006 – 2007 season. Stoudamire finally stayed healthy, and Nash narrowly missed his third MVP award, finishing second to former teammate Dirk Nowitzki. The Suns ended the season with a 61 and 21 record, scoring 3.2 more points per 100 possessions than their opponent. They never played much defense. Instead, they tried to outscore their opponents. And while this was a conspicuous Achilles heel, they almost did win a championship that season, if not for one egregious shove by Robert Horry to Steve Nash in the playoffs. But we will get to that later.

During the 2000s, they were worth a League Pass subscription alone, slinging three-pointers from all across the perimeter while Nash zigged and zagged throughout the paint, finding open shooters or rolling Marion and Stoudemire for a slam. Sometimes, he bent time and space to fade away, pull up, and drain a mid-range jumper. What the Suns perfected during that stretch was a progenitor for what the modern NBA delivers nightly — from teams like the Warriors, Raptors, Pelicans, and Grizzlies.

What Fucked It All Up

 Nash had already overcome a knee to the groin from Bruce Bowen of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Three of the 2007 Playoffs. But in the Western Conference semifinals of that year, a kneecap to the nuts was only the beginning of the nightmare for the Suns in what was one of the great contending robberies in the history of the NBA.

In the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Suns were down 10 but mounted a furious comeback on the back of Nash, who orchestrated perhaps the most efficient pick-and-roll execution with Stoudemire in their shared time as teammates. Nash found Stoudemire in a series of back-to-back behind-the-back passes, finding Stoudamire who used his cache of post moves and footwork to score at the rim. Nash tallied 15 assists for the game.

With 20 seconds to go and the Suns up by three, the Spurs needed to foul. Spurs player Robert Horry, known as “Big Shot Bob” for the playoff daggers he hit to win championships with the Spurs, Lakers, and Rockets, met Nash on the right sideline, hip-checking the guard into the scorer’s table. The collective breath of the stadium braced for the impact, silent yet sentient to the sheer brutality they had witnessed.

Nash would get up. He always did, even when he had a bloody nose (also earned during that Spurs series). But so did the Suns players on the bench, most notably Stoudemire and Diaw, who each received a one-game suspension for leaving the “immediate vicinity of their bench.” With the Suns’ two best post players out for Game 5, the momentum shifted in the Spurs’ favor. The Suns fought valiantly back in Phoenix for Game 5 but fell 88-85 without their two frontcourt stars. With the series shifting back to San Antonio and the Spurs up 3-2 in the series, the writing was on the wall, despite 38 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks from the returning Stoudemire. The Spurs won the game and the series.

The Suns’ best chance at a championship ended on two bullshit suspensions. Stoudemire and Diaw came onto the court to protect their teammate, who had just been slammed against the wall, suffering his second nasty injury of the series. It was a rational thing to do. Suns fans called foul, as they should. That post-season had been the best shot at a Larry O’Brien trophy for the franchise since the 1993 Finals. It’s easy to think that if the Suns had gotten past the Spurs, they would have easily taken care of the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by a then 23-year-old LeBron James dragging around a bag of bums. The Spurs wound up sweeping them. It would have been a much easier Finals matchup than what Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, and company faced against a prime Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Bulls.

The following season, things began to unravel. The Suns would trade Shawn Marion for an aging Shaquille O’Neal, signaling the end of the run-and-gun approach to the team’s identity. That summer, D’Antoni would leave the franchise for the New York Knicks. Neither of D’Antoni’s replacements, Terry Porter or Alvin Gentry, could rekindle the fire of the team’s prime contending years. In 2010 Stoudamire would join D’Antoni in New York as a free agent. While Nash remained until 2012, the Suns continued to devolve into lesser versions of that 2007 roster. It was never the same. Once Nash was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, the fun went with him. With D’Antoni on the sidelines, and Nash running the show, the Suns were a legitimate title threat. In the end, it wasn’t their lack of defense that did them in. It was the bullshit histrionics by the league reacting to a natural situation from the Suns’ bench to an egregious, borderline violent foul to the heart and soul of their team.

The league never recognized the absurdity of their suspensions. They were undoubtedly influenced by the Malice at the Palace, which saw players not only leaving the bench but leaving the floor altogether to enter the stands and knockout fans who deserved what they got coming to them after throwing bottles at fans and squaring up to fight players. To make matters worse, years later, infamous referee Tim Donaghy, who was banned from the league for betting on games, admitted the referee team for Game 3 “threw” that game in favor of the Spurs.

The fact remains that the Suns still had a shot to win Game Six, with Stoudemire and Diaw back from their suspension. But they lost, and by doing so closed the window on their championship window. It took more than a decade, and the arrival of another Hall-of-Fame point guard in Chris Paul for the Suns to return to contention. With a trio of Nash, Stoudemire, and Marion and led by D’Antoni, the Suns of the 2000s were the most potent offensive team of the decade and one of the few teams from that era that could compete in today’s game. Which makes sense, as they were the blueprint for the modern NBA.

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.