Phoenix Suns 2002-03 Season: Rising from the Ashes
Key personnel losses: Dan Majerle (retired)
Key personnel gains: Amare Stoudemire (9th pick in draft), Casey Jacobsen (22nd pick in draft), Scott Williams (free agent), Dan Langhi (free agent)
Record: 44-38, 4th Place in Pacific Division, 8th Place in Western Conference.
I. Season Overview:
"Rising from the Ashes." Hackneyed, but so appropriate.
By the end of the 2001-02 season, expectations for the following season were low. The team had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1987-88, finishing with a 36-46 record, including a 13-18 record after a mid-season coaching change and a trade that sent Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk to Boston. How much better could the 2002-03 season be?
Penny Hardaway and Tom Gugliotta surely weren't getting any younger, or healthier. The only heralded addition to the roster was a high schooler. Surely he couldn't have much of an impact as a rookie... could he?
But then came the summer leagues, and the high schooler, Amare
Stoudemire, dominated. Of course, it was only summer league, but he looked like he was ready to play in the NBA. In a public intrasquad scrimmage, he continued to impress. In the NBA preseason, he continued to impress. So, when the games started to count, Stoudemire got playing time, and did well.
Ten games into the season, with the Suns' record at 5-5, starting PF Tom Gugliotta suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, forcing him from the lineup. Head coach
Frank Johnson, apparently looking to the future, put Stoudemire in the starting lineup, to learn on the job.
The kid proved to be a quick learner. He attacked the game with a ferocity that had opponents, spectators, and even his own teammates shaking their heads in disbelief. He didn't just get the job done - he dominated. Opponents had no answer for him, and by January 12th, the Suns' record was 24-14, 3rd best in the Western Conference.
Then the team started to stumble, slipping to 9th place. Maybe it was injuries:
Jake Tsakalidis was forced out of the lineup with back surgery, Penny Hardaway was forced out of the lineup with thumb surgery, and Stoudemire suffered a turf toe injury that, though it didn't keep him from playing, did bring him down to earth and cause him to start playing like a mortal human being. Maybe it was an overacheiving team coming back down to Earth. Maybe it was Stoudemire hitting the rookie wall. Maybe it was
Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion hitting the guys-who-play-40-minutes-a-night wall. Maybe it was just the inconsistency that so commonly plagues young teams.
The team recovered in time to make the playoffs, and faced #1 seed San Antonio in the first round. They entered the series with a great deal of confidence. They defended Tim Duncan with aggressive double teams from every direction, and were able to recover in time to contest shots from the supporting cast. The defense worked, and the Suns held the Spurs under 100 points in every game in the series. They managed to split the first two games in San Antonio, but in Game 3, Marbury aggravated a shoulder stinger that he had suffered about a month earlier, and after that was never the same in the series. The Suns went on to lose the series in six games.
A 44-38 record and first-round playoff loss may not seem like hallmarks of a team to fear, but the Suns are excited about the future. They have a very young team that promises to improve dramatically - especially Stoudemire. And despite a mediocre-looking 44-38 record, the Suns demonstrated an ability compete with the best teams in the league. Their record against playoff teams was 24-20, and actually better than their 20-18 record against lottery teams. They tied or won their season series against each of the top three seeds in each conference. They feel that they are ready to take that next step and establish themselves as one of the elite teams in the league.
II. Draft History
- Malcom Mackey (27th)
- Mark Buford (49th)
- Byron Wilson (54th)
- Wesley Person (23rd)
- Antonio Lang (29th)
- Charles Claxton (50th)
- Anthony Goldwire (52nd)
- Michael Finley (21st)
- Mario Bennett (27th)
- Chris Carr (56th)
- Steve Nash (15th)
- Russ Millard (39th)
- Ben Davis (43rd)
- Pat Garrity (selected 18th by Milwaukee; sent to Phoenix in draft-day deal with Martin Muursepp, Bubba Wells, and Dallas's unconditional first-round pick in the 1999 draft, for Steve Nash)
- Toby Bailey (selected 45th by L.A. Lakers; sent to Phoenix in draft-day deal for future considerations)
- Amare Stoudemire (9th)
- Casey Jacobsen (22nd)
Perhaps no other team in the NBA has a better track record of finding good players with late picks than the Phoenix Suns. Recent standouts include the selection of Wesley Person with the 23rd pick in 1994, Michael Finley with the 21st pick in 1995, Steve Nash with the 15th pick in 1996, Stephen Jackson with the 42nd pick in 1997, Shawn Marion with the 9th pick in 1999, and Amare Stoudemire with the 9th pick in 2002. Even with 20-20 hindsight, few of the Suns' recent picks could clearly be improved on.
The one disconcerting thing about the Suns' recent draft history is the number of first-round picks that they did not have, due to regrettable trades for Hot Rod Williams, Antonio McDyess, Penny Hardaway, and a certain Australian doofus who is so painful to remember that I refuse to type his name. The Suns gave up seven first-round picks in those four trades.
In 2001, the Suns lost their director of scouting, Dick Percudani, to cancer. Many Suns followers wondered how this would impact the quality of the team's draft selections going forward. The early returns are favorable, as the team selected the 2002-03 got milk? Rookie of the Year with the 9th selection in the 2002 draft, and Casey Jacobsen with the 22nd pick. The Suns could conceivably have done better with the 22nd pick, as Tayshaun Prince, Nenad Krstic, and Carlos Boozer were available; nonetheless, Jacobsen appears to be the kind of quality contributor that a team would be happy to find with a late first-round pick.
III. Management and Coaching
General Manager Bryan Colangelo has a history of making bold moves, with mixed results.
Many of his more regrettable deals are listed in Section II:
- He traded Dan Majerle and a first-round pick for Hot Rod Williams. Williams made moderate contributions in three injury-plagued seasons with the Suns.
- He traded Wesley Person, Tony Dumas, two future first-round picks, and two future second-round picks, for Antonio McDyess. McDyess played for one season with the Suns, then signed with his former team, the Denver Nuggets, as an unrestricted free agent.
- He traded Pat Garrity, Danny Manning, and two future first-round picks in a sign-and-trade deal for Penny Hardaway, who was signed to a seven-year, $86 million contract. Due to injuries and to changes in the team's direction, Hardaway has not been able to contribute at the level expected of a player with such an exorbitant salary, and the contract has become an albatross.
- He traded Mark Bryant and a first-round pick to Chicago for, um, nothing.
In 2001-02, a popular joke was that Colangelo deserved the Executive of the Year award because that season he had managed to rebuild not one, but three teams. He traded Jason Kidd to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury, traded Cliff Robinson to Detroit for John Wallace and Jud Buechler, and traded Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk to Boston for Joe Johnson, Milt Palacio, Randy Brown, and a future first-round pick. New Jersey, Detroit, and Boston earned the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference; New Jersey and Boston met in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Detroit lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
However, despite the joke, those 2001-02 deals actually worked out well for Phoenix. Marbury made the All-Star team in his second with the Suns. Buechler was later traded, along with Vinny Del Negro, for Bo Outlaw and a first-round pick. Johnson has shown impressive potential, and the draft pick from that trade netted Casey Jacobsen.
(Lest it be said that Bryan Colangelo can only build teams in the pathetic Eastern Conference, it should be noted that he single-handedly built the Dallas Mavericks. He traded Michael Finley and Steve Nash to Dallas; the Nash deal was a three-way deal with Milwaukee that also brought Nowitzki to Dallas. So the other 28 general managers in the league should heed this advice: when Bryan Colangelo calls and wants to make a deal, do it! You will be rewarded. Note also that if you double-cross him, as Denver did five years ago with McDyess, you will be cursed.)
Frank Johnson is the latest in a series of former guards to be an assistant coach for the Suns before being promoted to head coach. His predecessors are Paul Westphal, Danny Ainge, and Scott Skiles. Johnson was an assistant coach under Skiles, and became the head coach when Skiles and the team parted ways in February of 2002. Johnson has the support of his players, and has cultivated a very positive chemistry on the team. There are questions about his mastery of the X's and O's and his ability to make adjustments at game time, but a capable staff of assistant coaches compensates somewhat for these apparent deficiencies. Overall, he did a good job of guiding the team through the surprisingly brief rebuilding process. Now, does he have what it takes to coach the team to the next level?
A. Point Guards
Stephon Marbury, 6'2", 205 lbs., DOB: 2/20/77, Georgia Tech
Randy Brown, 6'2", 190 lbs., DOB: 5/22/68, New Mexico State
The starting point guard is Stephon Marbury, who arrived prior to the 2001-02 season in a much-criticized trade that sent Jason Kidd to New Jersey. The criticism intensified when Marbury struggled in first season with the Suns, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1987-88 season.
However, Marbury has won over most of the critics. He made the All-Star team in his second season with the Suns. Despite arriving with a reputation as a selfish player, he has shown confidence in his teammates in Phoenix and matured into an inspiring leader for the young team. He has played much better defense than expected. And, of course, he is an explosive scorer who is unguardable when he gets into a rhythm, and has an uncanny knack for getting into a rhythm in the fourth quarter. He finished 5th in the Nestle Crunch Time Stat for the 2002-03 season. (Teammates Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire also finished in the top ten.) He also has a knack for playing well in big games.
Marbury has had some injury problems, although, remarkably, he has not missed a single game to injury since coming to Phoenix in the trade. (He has played 163 of a possible 164 regular-season games, missing one game due to a suspension for DWI.) He had surgery in May 2002 to remove bone spurs from his ankles, but was told prior to the season that he would require another operation. Another operation at that time would have caused him to miss much of the season, and he was advised that delaying the surgery would not cause permanent injury - but would cause him pain. Marbury elected to defer the surgery until after the season, and play through the pain. He had the followup operation in May 2003, and it reportedly went well. Marbury also suffered a shoulder stinger late in the regular season and aggravated it during the playoffs. Despite the injury problems, Marbury averaged a whopping 40 minutes per game; the team would like to be able to reduce the need for him to play so many minutes.
When Marbury was not on the floor, the Suns mostly went with Penny Hardaway or Joe Johnson as the backup point guard, although both are better suited to playing shooting guard. Hardaway, no longer the athlete he was before many injuries, struggles to keep up with quicker point guards. Also, a thumb injury rendered him particularly turnover-prone this past season. Johnson doesn't seem to have the know-how and poise to run the team from the point guard position.
The Suns occassionally used journeyman Randy Brown at point guard. He is an unrestricted free agent, and the team is not expected to offer him another contract.
B. Shooting Guards
Penny Hardaway, 6'7", 215 lbs., DOB: 7/18/71, Memphis
Joe Johnson, 6'7", 235 lbs., DOB: 6/29/81, Arkansas
Casey Jacobsen, 6'6", 215 lbs., DOB: 3/19/81, Stanford
The starting shooting guard is Penny Hardaway. He is no longer the player who made the All-NBA First Team twice before injuries robbed him of his athleticism, but he is still a skilled player who understands the game. He is the veteran presence on an otherwise young team, and serves as a stabilizing factor when things start to get out of control. Hardaway struggled with injuries again in 2002-03, an all-too-familiar story. The Suns were 34-24 in the 58 games that Hardaway played, but only 10-14 when Hardaway was out of the lineup.
The primary backup is Joe Johnson. Johnson is a young man with great athleticism and skills, but lacks confidence and tends to disappear for long stretches. Every now and then, he starts to believe in himself, his whole posture changes, and he dominates a game on both ends of the floor. Then he goes home, looks in the mirror, remembers that he's Joe Johnson, and comes out timid in the next game. Some observers believe that, if he can ever learn to believe in himself half as much as the people around him do, then he can become an All-Star. Others doubt that this will ever happen.
Casey Jacobsen also provides depth at this position. At Stanford, Jacobsen was one of the best shooters in the nation; he shot .427 from three-point range during his three years at Stanford, and frequently hit from NBA three-point range. As a rookie in the NBA, however, his perimeter shooting was unreliable. Even his free throw shooting suffered; a .791 shooter over his final two seasons at Stanford, he shot only .686 his first season in the NBA, and only .619 over the second half of the season. On the upside, he always plays hard, and should be a quality contributor once he adjusts to the NBA game.
C. Small Forwards
Shawn Marion, 6'7", 215 lbs., DOB: 5/7/78, UNLV
Dan Langhi, 6'11", 220 lbs., DOB: 11/28/77, Vanderbilt
The starting small forward is Shawn Marion. The Matrix. The player so good that the Wachowski brothers made two sequels just to capitalize on his popularity. Okay, maybe not, but he is damn good. He's a high-flyer with a terrific all-around game; there is little that he can not do well.
Marion's statics are impressive in just about every category. He was 17th in the NBA in scoring, at 21.2 points per game. He was 8th in the league in rebounding, at 9.5 per game, making him the only player under 6'9" in the top 20. He was 3rd in the league in steals, at 2.28 per game. He was 26th in the league in blocks, at 1.17 per game, and the shortest player to rank so high. He hit 141 three-point shots on .387 shooting; no other player in the Western Conference hit as many three-point shots and shot as high a percentage from three-point range.
Marion was selected by the Western Conference coaches as a reserve for the All-Star game in 2003. During the game, he received perhaps the ultimate honor: he was given the assignment of guarding Michael Jordan one-on-one down the stretch in regulation and the first overtime period. Everybody remembers the absurd high-arcing fadeaway that Jordan hit; however, Marion did force Jordan to miss other potential game-winners at the end of regulation and the the first overtime, including one that he blocked.
To back up Marion, the Suns often used Hardaway or Johnson at small forward. Sometimes they used Dan Langhi, an unrestricted free agent who is not expected to be back with the Suns next season. Mostly, however, they just used Marion. His 3,373 minutes during the regular season ranked third in the league, trailing only Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant.
D. Power Forwards
Amare Stoudemire, 6'10", 245 lbs., DOB: 11/16/82, Cypress Creek High School
Bo Outlaw, 6'8", 220 lbs., DOB: 4/13/71, Houston
Tom Gugliotta, 6'10", 250 lbs., DOB: 12/19/69, North Carolina State
The starting power forward is Amare Stoudemire, whom the Suns selected with the 9th overall pick in the 2002 draft, and who became the youngest player ever to win the Rookie of the Year award. (This distinction is not likely to last very long, as LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Pavel Podkolzine, and Chris Bosh are all younger than Stoudemire by more than a year.)
Stoudemire is raw, but has a good mind for the game, and learns quickly. He is freakishly athletic, even by NBA standards, and has tremendous intensity and confidence. Despite possessing a limited arsenal of offensive moves, he still managed to average 13.5 points per game, largely on putbacks and free throws. He shows flashes of excellent ball-handling and passing skills, although he didn't rely on them very often as a rookie. He is likely to become not just an All-Star, but a superstar. Incredibly, playing in the forward-laden West (with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber, Karl Malone, Rasheed Wallace, Elton Brand, and, of course, Shawn Marion), Stoudemire was actually making a case to become the first player ever to play for a high school team one year and an NBA All-Star Team the following year, before a turf toe injury slowed him down and revealed that he is, after all, mortal.
Backing him up is Bo Outlaw, a crowd favorite for his constant hustle and his frenetic guard-everybody-on-the-floor style of defense. At 6'8" and 220 lbs., he is physically outmatched by many opposing power forwards, especially in the Western Conference. On offense, he is reluctant to shoot and is a terrible free throw shooter.
Also at power forward is relic Tom Gugliotta. "Googs" was an All-Star once upon a time, but injuries have severely limited him over the past several seasons, and the emergence of Stoudemire has pushed him out of the regular rotation. He is still a creative offensive player, skilled at passing, moving off the ball, and shooting jumpers from about 18 feet. Defensively, his physical limitations have left him helpless against the top Western Conference power forwards.
Jake Tsakalidis, 7'2", 290 lbs., DOB: 6/10/79, Greece
Jake Voskuhl, 6'11", 245 lbs., DOB: 11/1/77, Connecticut
Scott Williams, 6'10", 260 lbs., DOB: 3/21/68, North Carolina
The starting center, sometimes, is the enigmatic Jake Tsakalidis, a.k.a. "Big Jake," entering his fourth season in the NBA. Big Jake may be the best center the Suns have had since Alvan Adams retired. In other words, he may be better than William Bedford, Joe Barry Carrol, John Coker, Chris Dudley, Tim Kempton, Joe Kleine, Andrew Lang, Horacio Llamas, Oliver Miller, Stefano Rusconi, Daniel Santiago, Danny Schayes, Jake Voskuhl, Mark West, Hot Rod Williams, and Scott Williams.
Big Jake is, well, big. He likes to body up against opposing big men, and has had some impressive defensive outings against Shaquille O'Neal. Against quicker centers, he sometimes looks lost. Offensively, he is raw, but by the end of his second season he had started to develop a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Marbury.
Big Jake has had various injury problems throughout his career. He began his third season experiencing back pain and not playing as well as he had been at the end of the prior season. Eventually, he had back surgery and went on the injured list for an extended stay. When he returned to the active roster with a month remaining in the season, he looked healthy and effective when he played, but received little playing time. In the playoffs, he was not used at all in a six-game loss to San Antonio.
The first backup is Jake Voskuhl, a.k.a. "Little Jake." (When you play center in the NBA, 6-11 and 245 qualifies as "Little." It's certainly little compared to the team's other Jake.) Defensively, he's a good one-on-one defender against players who don't overmatch him physically. Unfortunately, he's small for an NBA center and not exceptionally athletic, so he's often overmatched physically. He sees the floor well, and is good at fronting defenses, rotating in and out of a double-team, etc. Offensively, he rarely touches the ball more than two feet from the hoop, but, when his defender is distracted, he loves to go to the rim for an alley-oop or an offensive rebound. He also loves to set picks for his teammates on the perimeter, but is often not quite in synch with them; if there were a statistic for offensive fouls due to moving picks, Voskuhl might have set a record last season. Overall, he's a great guy to have off the bench.
Also on the roster is veteran journeyman Scott Williams. He's a serviceable backup center, and very popular for his friendly personality and positive attitude. He may play one more season, or may retire. If he retires as a player, he is expected to remain with the Suns in some capacity, such as community relations and/or player development.
The Suns occassionally used Bo Outlaw, Amare Stoudemire, or Tom Gugliotta at center in "small ball" lineups.
V. Team Needs and Possible Offseason Moves
The core of the team is Marbury, Marion, and Stoudemire. The starting point guard, small forward, and power forward are set for many years to come. However, the Suns very much need to add depth at point guard and small forward - especially point guard - in order to reduce the burden on Marbury and Marion to play so many minutes.
At shooting guard, the Suns have quality and depth with Hardaway, Johnson, and Jacobsen. However, Hardaway has three years and nearly $44 million remaining on his contract, and the Suns are not thrilled with the prospect of paying that much for a player whose best years are behind him, so he is on the trading block. If the Suns do trade Hardaway, they may look to acquire another veteran shooting guard to shore up this position.
At center, the question is whether the Suns have confidence in Tsakalidis as their starting center. If not, they need to acquire a starting center. (They are not likely to do so with the #17 pick in the draft, however.) If they do have confidence in Tsakalidis as the starter, Voskuhl and Williams provide adequate depth at the position.
Some scoring punch off of the bench is desirable. Currently, Johnson is the only significant scoring threat the Suns have coming off of the bench, but he is not consistent. The Suns will probably seek to add a scorer to the bench; they may address this in the draft.
The scoring threats currently on the team are at their best when attacking the rim. The team lacks a true spread-the-floor shooter. The team's best three-point shooter is Marion (.387), but he is woefully underutilized when he sets up camp behind the three-point line. Jacobsen may be able to perform this role, but he shot a disappointing .315 from three-point range as a rookie, and it's difficult to find minutes for him because he plays the same position as Hardaway and Johnson. This is an area that the Suns may seek to address during the offseason.
One other factor to consider going forward is that, in 2004, there will be an expansion draft for the new franchise in Charlotte. Assuming this is done in a manner similar to past expansion drafts, each team will be able to protect eight players from the draft. The Suns will want to protect Marbury, Johnson, Marion, Stoudemire, Big Jake, Little Jake, and C-Jake. That's seven players, and the player selected with their first-round draft pick will probably be an eighth. Adding more young talent (besides the draft pick) would likely mean having to expose to the expansion draft a player whom they would prefer to protect, so there are diminishing returns in this regard.
VI. My Selection
Zarko Cabarkapa, SF, 6'11", 220 lbs., Yugoslavia
This is a player who addresses several needs for this team. He can back up Shawn Marion at small forward, help out some at power forward, and in a pinch can even provide depth at center as insurance against injury. His passing and shooting skills make him a good compliment to the creative offensive skills of teammates like Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire, and Penny Hardaway. He provides a different look than current Suns players, as he is much taller (and longer, with a 7'2" wingspan) than any of the Suns' small forwards, and he is a better perimeter shooter than any of the Suns' big men (with the possible exception of Tom Gugliotta).
Defensively, he can contribute an occasional steal or blocked shot, which should fit will into the Suns' help-oriented defense. He's not a great lock-down one-on-one defensive player, but his ability to play multiple positions will give the team the flexibility to find favorable matchups for him.
VII. Other Players Considered
Nick Collison, PF, 6'9", 250 lbs., Kansas
Collison is a very good player for the 17th pick in the draft. Somebody is going to get a steal with him. He is a solid low-post scorer, something the Suns lack outside of Stoudemire. He has shown an ability and willingness to perform in a complementary role, subjugating his own game for the sake of his teammates', as he played in Drew Gooden's shadow at Kansas before stepping up to a starring role when Gooden moved on to the NBA. It was a difficult decision to pass on him.
However, Collison has only one position in the NBA, and that happens to be the position played by Stoudemire - not to mention Outlaw and Gugliotta. Drafting him would give the Suns a serious logjam at the position, and therefore prevent Collison from contributing as much as a player of his ability ought to be able.
Zaur Pachulia, PF/C, 6'10", 240 lbs., Republic of Georgia
Pachulia is a prospect who might be able to provide depth at both the power forward and center positions. He may be a project, though.
Viktor Khryapa, SF, 6'9", 225 lbs., Russia
Khryapa is a hard worker with a good jump shot and open-court skills. However, there are questions about his ability to defend small forwards or to get off his shot in the NBA.
David West, SF/PF, 6'8", 232 lbs., Xavier
West is athletic and competitive, and able to provide depth at two positions where the Suns need some depth. However, there is question about how well he can play either of those positions. Some observers feel he may prove to be a tweener in the NBA, undersized for a power forward, but lacking the range or handles to play small forward.
Sofoklis Schortsanitis, PF/C, 6'10", 287 lbs., Greece
The 18-year-old Schortsanitis, nicknamed "Baby Shaq," is strong as an ox, and very competitive. The Suns struck gold last year when they drafted a teenage big man with freakish athleticism, and it's tempting to see whether lightning will strike twice. He's a project, but may prove to be worth the wait.
Leandrinho Barbosa, PG, 6'4", 190 lbs., Brazil
Barbosa is appealing for his athleticism, aggressiveness, height (for a point guard), and wingspan. He has received positive reviews for his floor vision, ball handling, defense, and shooting. All in all, he seems to be as complete a package as one could hope for in a 20-year-old point guard. He would make a very nice backup for Marbury.
VIII. Likely Suns Selection
The Suns are not in the habit of announcing their likely picks well before the draft. When they do, it's often a smokescreen.
Last season, in the weeks leading up to the draft, the one prospect the Suns trumpeted more than any other was Jared Jeffries. I don't know whether they fooled anybody this side of David Aldridge, but it's clear that the organization's interest in Jeffries was never genuine. If they had been entirely forthcoming about how much they coveted Stoudemire, it is quite possible that Stoudemire might not have been passed on by eight teams drafting ahead of the Suns.
That being said, the rumor mill says that the Suns are very high on Cabarkapa. They also seem to like Khryapa and Malick Badiane, and are certainly bold enough to take a risk on somebody like Schortsanitis. Collison is very appealing if the team trades Outlaw and/or Gugliotta. Reece Gaines is a possibility if Hardaway is traded.
This report prepared by Tony Minkoff (adminkoff at cox dot net), with assistance from the community of Suns fans at http://www.phxsuns.net.