The Phoenix Suns are a prime example of how weird the NBA was when you got away from the four teams that mattered in the 1980s. Those were of course the Lakers and Celtics throughout the decade. Plus you had the 76ers early and the Pistons late.
The 1981 Houston Rockets made the Finals with a losing 40-42 record before getting dusted by Larry Bird and company. The 1987 Seattle SuperSonics (we’ll get to them in this series—eventually, like I’ve said many times, my day job has eaten my life) got to the Western Conference Finals despite going 39-43 in the regular season. And we’ll soon be talking about the 1985 Denver Nuggets, the peak year for one of my favorite runs of seasons of any franchise from a pure fan perspective regardless of won-lost record.
Phoenix went 41-41 in 1984, Despite this, it took Magic and company six games to deny the world a rematch of the 1976 NBA Finals. Instead, Boston and Los Angeles would face off three times in four years in one of the most iconic rivalries in NBA history.
But seriously. 41-41? What’s up with that?
Let’s peel back the numbers and have a look.
Larry, The Underrated
I have made the case on this here site that Larry Nance belongs in the Hall of Fame. 13 seasons, 109.6 Win Shares (.171 WS/48), 43.5 VORP including a peak of 5.2 with the ’92 Cavaliers, and intangibles for days thanks to the ’84 dunk contest. That’s a Hall of Famer to me. Not a top-tier GOAT candidate type like Bird or Russell or Kareem or LeBron, no. But better than Allen Iverson and at least as good as Ben Wallace.
Nance scored 17.7 points a game on 57.6 percent shooting. He also posted 9.8 WS (.163 WS/48), and 4.8 VORP, all on a 41-win team. This was otherwise a team of good-but-not-great guys. Think guys like Walter Davis and Maurice Lucas and James Edwards and Alvan Adams. Adams and Davis had been around since the ’70s. Edwards came over in the continual freeform fleecing of Ted Stepien. That, of course, accompanied anyone who played in Cleveland in the early ’80s.
And Lucas came over after a journeyman career. Lucas started in the ABA and won a title in Portland in 1977. His All-Star years were long behind him by ’84.
But then again, that’s exactly the kind of ragtag band of misfits that coach John MacLeod loved to bring to deep playoff runs.
In fact, let’s talk about MacLeod.
Coach of the Island of Misfit Toys
The ’76 Suns, a team that made the Finals with a 42-40 record, was the only Phoenix outfit even to post a winning season in MacLeod’s first four years at the helm. Once Davis showed up in 1978, things got better. The Suns made the ’79 Western Conference Finals and lost to eventual champion Seattle. They lost to Magic and the Lakers in the conference semis in 1980. Indeed, the Lakers eliminated Phoenix in the early rounds in 1980, ’82, and ’85 as well.
But the Suns went 55-27 in 1980 and 57-25 in ’81. If anything, that ’81 team should’ve done more in the playoffs but lost the conference semis to a 40-42 Kings team that went on to lose to 40-42 Houston in the conference finals. That should’ve been the year we got that Celtics rematch in the Finals.
MacLeod was finally shown the door in 1987 after a 22-34 start, only to emerge a year later with a misfit squad in Dallas that we’ll talk about later in this feature (again, job ate my life, I promise I will finish this series) because they made the ’88 WCF.
The career record for the underrated giant of the sideline? A respectable 707-657 (.518) in the regular season, a Finals appearance, three additional conference finals, and an overall 47-54 mark (.465) in the playoffs.
And let’s remember. With the Lakers, Sixers, Pistons, and Celtics winning everything in the ’80s, nobody had a winning record in the playoffs as a coach unless they coached one of those teams.
Could They Have Won It All?
Let’s see. Larry Bird and company beat Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy in one of the most hotly contested Finals in history. The ’84 Finals were a clash of titans. The Celtics were in their first of four straight championship round appearances.
The Suns were a 41-41 team with their only Hall of Famer, Paul Westphal, in the last year of his career and playing just 14.7 minutes a game.
So…Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Danny Ainge, and Dennis Johnson as your starting lineup. That’s three Hall of Famers. And Kevin McHale, the fourth Hall of Famer on the Celtics, was the sixth man. And oh by the way, McHale was an All-Star despite starting just 10 out of 82 games for his own team.
Yeah, I’m not seeing the Suns beating that Boston team.
NEXT: The ’85 Nuggets. We get to talk about Doug Moe. And man, the world needs to talk a lot more about Doug Moe. Because that guy was…well, let’s save that for next time. I’m going to try to get that out in short order. But as I’ve said three times now: My job has eaten my life. That’ll happen when you take a day job in accounting that pays more in one year than freelance NBA writing used to pay in three.
But enough whining. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!