The Phoenix Suns and playoff disappointment go together like guns and ammo. You can’t have one without the other.
The best regular season of the John MacLeod coaching era in the 1970s and early ’80s came in 1981, where they went 57-25…and lost to the Kansas City Kings, who had gone 40-42 that year.
And the 2021 Suns went 51-21 (a 58-24 82-game pace) made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years and jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals…before losing in 6 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
But the best combination of regular-season and close-but-no-cigar in the playoffs goes to the 1993 team. They set the franchise record for wins at 62, which they tied 12 years later, and went all the way to the Finals.
Trouble was…well, let’s get right to it, shall we?
The On-Court Record
Phoenix, as franchises go, has been a fairly successful one. Their all-time winning percentage is .531 even after a lost decade that included four straight years failing to win even 25 games between 2016 and 2019. They won at least 54 games seven times in a row between 1989 and 1995, then did it three times in four years between 1998 and 2001.
The 1993 squad broke the franchise record (set in the aforementioned 1981 season) by five wins.
Trouble was, they ran into Michael Jordan in the Finals, and His Airness personally took out his irritation at having been snubbed for MVP by the Suns’ Charles Barkley by scoring 41 points per game in the championship round as the Bulls won in 6.
The Suns had a monstrous road to the Finals. The Western Conference was as deep as it’s ever been. Phoenix beat the rapidly fading Lakers in Round 1, beat a 49-33 Spurs team in the second round, then beat the 55-27 Seattle SuperSonics in the conference finals.
The Spurs beat the defending West champ Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Seattle had to get through the Utah Jazz and the 1994 champion Houston Rockets in their first two rounds. Of all eight teams in the 1993 West playoffs, only the Los Angeles Clippers failed to make at least one NBA Finals in the 1990s. That’s how insanely deep the field was that Phoenix fought their way out of to get to the all-the-marbles series in 1993.
Phoenix was tops in offense, ninth in defense, fourth in overall Net Rating, and had the best record in the entire league—the Knicks won 60 games and the Bulls 57 in the regular season. And again, they did that while playing the majority of their games against Western Conference opponents. You can only beat up on the 11-71 Dallas Mavericks so many times. Phoenix had to earn their 62 wins against squads that either previously had or in the future would make the Finals.
The Featured Players
Charles Barkley was the 1993 MVP, much to his own chagrin when His Airness and friends teed off on him in the Finals.
Barkley led a deep scoring attack for Phoenix with 25.6 points per game while adding 12.2 rebounds and dishing 5.1 assists, all while shooting 52 percent from the field and a surprisingly respectable (for him) 30.5 percent from three-point land. Barkley even led the NBA in triple-doubles in 1993 with six. His 7.1 VORP led the team, and he combined it with 14.4 Win Shares, good for .245 per 48 minutes.
Dan Majerle was second on the team in VORP with 3.6, placing second in scoring with 16.9 points per contest, leading the team in minutes (39.0 per game, and he played all 82 games for a total of 3,199 minutes played.)
The rest of the team was a bit of a mishmash thanks to injuries distributing out the minutes a bit. In descending order of VORP, the next four Suns on the list were Danny Ainge (1.9), Cedric Ceballos (1.8), Kevin Johnson (1.6 in 49 games), and Richard Dumas (1.2 in 48 games.)
Ten Suns played at least 1,000 minutes. The worst of the ten by Win Shares, Frank Johnson, still managed 1.5 WS in 1,122 minutes and 77 games. The worst by VORP, Mark West, had minus-0.1 VORP but pulled 3.4 WS (.104 WS/48) in 82 games and 1,558 minutes.
Seven Suns, the top six in VORP plus Tom Chambers (4.5 WS, .128 WS/48, 0.0 VORP in 73 games and 1,723 minutes), averaged at least 11.8 points per game.
The only guy on the Suns who truly stunk out the joint was Negele Knight, the backup point guard, who started 35 games when Kevin Johnson got hurt and posted a wretched minus-0.6 VORP, .007 WS/48, and .444 True Shooting percentage as one of the worst starting players at any position in the entire league that year. It speaks testament to Phoenix’s depth that they were still able to go 62-20 despite starting a total scrub at point guard for half the season.
Paul Westphal debuted as a coach for this season. He had been on the Suns’ 1976 Finals team and the 1984 squad that made the Western Conference Finals in his final season as a player. As a rookie in Boston, he was on the 1974 Finals team, and he is in the Hall of Fame as a player, inducted in 2019.
As a coach, Westphal pushed the Suns to the next level, getting them into the 1993 Finals and coaching the league’s best offense in a league where the Chicago Bulls existed.
Sadly, that was his high-water mark. After two straight second-round outs, Westphal was fired 33 games into the 1996 season with a record of 14-19. He coached Seattle to one playoff appearance in 2000, a first-round out, before finally coaching the woeful Sacramento Kings to 25 and 24 wins in 2009 and ’10, getting fired after seven games in 2011, and never coaching again.
In Phoenix, he had a coaching winning percentage of .685. In Seattle, it was .517. And in Sacramento? .298. Oh well, can’t win ’em all, especially if you’re coaching the Kings.
The Suns have two other Finals appearances, so let’s start there.
The 1976 team had a mediocre regular season, going just 42-40. But “caught fire at the right time” is a tale as old as the concept of sports leagues having playoffs. They beat Seattle—who would go to the Finals in 1978 and win the title in ’79—in the West semis. Then they beat the defending champion Warriors in the conference finals. Then…well, they ran into the Celtics, who won their second title in three years.
The 2021 team had a young core of guys who looked forever doomed to being Great Stats, Bad Team guys—guys like Devin Booker especially—but proved that veteran leadership is worth more than those of us who tend toward stats-tell-the-story journalism tend to acknowledge. Chris Paul taught us all a lesson, and the Suns nearly won the title behind his veteran leadership.
And no discussion of Suns history is complete without Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, coach Mike D’Antoni, and the Suns teams that helped pave the way for the NBA to rise from the gloomy Dark Ages and finally become fun to watch again.
The 2005 team matched the franchise high for wins with 62. The 2007 team won 61 games. They made the playoffs five times in six years between 2005 and 2010, and the one year they fell short (2009), they went 46-36 in a year when the Jazz took the 8 seed with a 48-34 mark. Those teams should have done so much more, but they were sandwiched between the Spurs and the Lakers, who dominated the aughts. The one chance they had to break through, in 2006, they couldn’t get the job done at home, losing twice on their own floor to lose the WCF to the Mavericks in six.
And the 1984 team got as far as the WCF before Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as they did to every team in the West other than the Rockets (who got to the Finals in 1981 and ’86) in the 1980s, knocked Phoenix out in the penultimate playoff round.
NEXT: Portland Trail Blazers, or “the best thing to come out of 1977 that didn’t involve a certain sportswriter entering the world in a Boston-area hospital.” Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!