Looking for Philly’s Savior; Finding Hope in Phoenix’s Dysfunction
By J. Patrick | 10/28/17
Ben Simmons Says, “F**k the Process,” Sets Records
Okay, so, he didn’t actually say that, and he definitely wouldn’t say it to Joel Embiid, but Ben Simmons–the 76ers’ first-overall pick in the 2016 draft–is already making history.
On Monday night, against the Pistons, he recorded 21 pts, 12 rebs, and 10 asts, dropping a triple double in his 4th ever career game. Simmons isn’t the youngest player ever to do it (while he is 21 years old, LeBron (for reference to modern greatness) got his first one when he was 20 years old), but he is far and away the quickest to hit the mark, considering the overall number of games played.
Simmons picked up his first triple-double merits in only his 4th career game, it took LeBron a full season and almost half another one to get his. On top of that, he joins Oscar Robinson as the only two players in NBA history to record double-doubles in their first four games. Talk about elite company. So far, through his first 5 games of regular season play, Simmons is averaging 16.4 pts, 10.0 rebs, 7.4 asts per game.
Simmons doesn’t seem content to wait patiently on the process. It could be that it’s really him, and not Embiid, who will be the savior Philly has so desperately needed.
A Quick History Lesson
So: the Phoenix Suns. … That’s it.
Why would you think there would be more to it than that? Sadly, nothing more needs to be said.
In an era of basketball when, as the great Ricky Bobby once said, “if you’re not first, you’re last,” rings more true than ever, some teams, like the 76ers and Kings, have found a way to make losing seem appealing, or at the very least profitably worthwhile. A weird positive here is that teams that decide to take still seem to have some sense of direction, or end game–something to look forward to sometime, sooner better than later. Teams that find themselves in a kind of purgatory, floating miserable between tanking and accidentally contending, range in evaluation from merely “treading water” to sad and outright disgraceful.
Enter the 2017 Phoenix Suns. The Suns have somehow managed to make losing seem unappealing, without direction, and utterly hopeless. Earlier this week, the Suns announced, after only three games, that the organization was letting coach Earl Watson go. Following that, their starting point guard (and best player) Eric Bledsoe essentially begged to be let go and traded on twitter, tweeting, “I don’t want to be here.” What worse? This is not the franchise’s first rodeo when it comes to organizational dysfunction.
Here’s a list of players the Suns have either traded or let walk over the course of the last 12 years: Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus & Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo, and Luol Deng (Stoudemire doesn’t really count–injuries made his situation tougher to manage).
To make matters even worse, from 2009-2015, the Suns have only retained three of their fifteen draft picks. This is a far cry from the rich history and proud legacy carried by the Phoenix Suns basketball organization. Yes, until just recently, the Suns were a respectable franchise.
In recent memory, the Suns have been nothing short of mediocre, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the organization owns the 4th best winning % all-time (behind only the Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics). They have a better winning % than the Bulls, Rockets, Warriors (for now, at least), Knicks, Heat, Mavs, and Pistons. In the Suns’ entire 48 years of existence, they have only had 21 sub-.500 seasons.
Of course, there were the Steve Nash years, and the Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson led teams of the early to mid nineties. It’s been easy, in time, to forget, but the Suns’ identity as a classy and historically great franchise is older than even those iconic eras.
The Suns entered the league, along with the Milwaukee Bucks, in 1968, and suited up for the 1968-1969 season. That season, they went 16-66, a very Suns-esque season, or so it would seem. Despite a rocky start, it only took the upstart Suns eight years to reach the finals, led by 3rd year guard Paul Westphal and rookie center Alvin Adams. They faced the Celtics in the finals that year, a team that hadn’t finished lower than the Eastern conference finals in the previous four seasons. The Celt’s were heavy favorites to win that series, and tied at two games apiece, the series returned to Boston for a huge Game 5. This game, tape delayed and aired at 12:00 A.M. at night (as most games were up until the 1986-87 season were), was perhaps the defining game of the whole Suns organization.
Heading into halftime of that game, Phoenix was down by 22 points, and nothing was falling for them. A comeback was almost impossible against the tough, top ranked defensive unit of the Celtics. Somehow though, the Suns, more specifically Paul Westphal, came shooting out of the gate to start the third quarter, and by the very end of the fourth Phoenix was back in the game. With 39 seconds left, Westphal hit the go ahead bucket to put the Suns up by one. On the very next possession, the Celtics’ John “Hondo” Havlicek was fouled with about 14 seconds left. He hit the first free throw, tieing the game, then missed the second, the shot that would’ve put the C’s ahead by one. A Celtic player came down with the rebound though, giving them the last shot. For whatever reason, Hondo took a long jumper (before the 3 pt line was introduced, no less) with eight seconds left, and missed. The Suns had the last shot, but whiffed on an errant pass. The game goes into overtime.
It was sort of lost in the frenzy of emotion during the waning seconds of regulation, but Alvin Adams committed a blocking foul, which fouled him out of the game. Without their second leading scorer and rebounder, the Suns were attempting to do the (nearly) impossible.
Only a minute or two into the overtime period, the Suns leading scorer and assister, Paul Westphal, went down with a twisted ankle. The Celtics took a comfortable six point lead. The Suns, once again, fought and clawed their way back, collecting almost every rebound that came off the glass. Ironically, the Celtics had two of the top five rebounders that season in Paul Silas (12.7 rpg) and Dave Cowens (16.0 rpg). Anyway, with about 10 seconds left, the Suns have the ball, and a chance to win the game. Once again, they whiffed on a simple pass. Tension builds to exploding as the game goes into double overtime.
Let’s fast forward to the last minute of double OT so we can focus on what’s important. With exactly one minute left, Dave Cowens takes a lay up on the right low block and makes it, only to be called for a charge which negated the bucket. This would’ve put the Celtics up by three, and almost effectively ended the game (remember, this is before the 3 pt line was introduced). On the very next possession, the same Suns player who got the foul against Cowens committed one on Cowens, which was his 6th, which means he was fouled out too. Now the Suns are down to their third string center. The next possession down the court Havlicek is fouled again, but unlike last time he was at the line, this time he hit both shots. Now the suns have the ball with 19 seconds left to go. They called a timeout and had the ball advanced to half court. The ball was inbounded to Nick Van Arsdale in the corner, who took and made a shot. There is only 15 seconds left on the clock.
As the Celtics inbound the ball, Westphal, who had come back into the game, stole it and passed it to teammate Curtis Perry for the go ahead bucket. He missed. Another Suns player collected the rebound and passed it back to Perry, who took another shot at it. Bang! He hits a contested jumper with six seconds left on the clock. Boston Garden is in a frenzy.
With 5 seconds left, the Celtics are inbounding from half court. Everyone knows who the ball is going to. So when John Havlicek races towards the scorers table to catch the inbound pass, no one is surprised. He caught it, and raced towards the left elbow. He started fading away to the left, and took his shot. As time expired, his shot banked off the glass and went right through the hoop. This is where things get weird. When his shot goes in, there was actually two seconds left on the clock. The Bostons fans didn’t know, as they began to storm the court. The Celtics players didn’t know, as they began to run into the locker room in victory, and the Suns players didn’t know as they began to run back in defeat. The strangest part though was when a fan that had ran onto the court began to fight head referee, Rich Powers. The police escorted the fan off the court though, and restored order to the Boston Garden. Amazingly, with one second left, the man with the hot hand, Curtis Perry of the Suns, hit a turnaround jumper to tie the game once again, and it slides into insanity and triple OT.
Quick sequence of events from triple OT: Celtics forward Paul Silas fouls out. JoJo White, a celtics guard, falls on the court because he’s so gassed. Glenn McDonald, a random nobody for the Celtics, scores six points to give the Celtics a 126-120 point lead. Westphal did his best to keep the Suns in it, but they couldn’t do it. The Celtics win 128-126. They eventually won the series the next game in Phoenix.
So what’s the point to all this?
What’s important about a game that the Suns lost? Two things:
- Just to make a point that despite how bad the Suns have been in recent years, they played in what is widely considered the greatest game of all time. I didn’t watch the game live (I’m nowhere near old enough for that), but I did watch it in the classics section of NBA League Pass, and let me tell you, even though I’m watching it 40 years later (and having already known the outcome), this game has been absolutely riveting and held my attention for a solid two hours now.
- There’s no grandiose theme or clever connection from the Suns of then to the Suns of now. The Suns still have a long ways to go before they can even sniff a playoff series. This is simply me showing you that things haven’t always been this way, that there are in fact, good Suns memories.
Let’s not mince words: the Suns are stuck in a weird place, and they’re stuck with a good deal of promising (albeit currently undisciplined/underdeveloped) talents. A lot of this can be placed at the feet of the front office for cluelessly handling the organization’s essential functions. And, problematic for fans, there’s not a clear and immediate solution for some of what we’re seeing. And that’s sorta why I gave that short history lesson and hardwood classic recap. All of this has been to say that despite how bleak things may look right now, there is still hope for (and reason to believe in) one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.