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Hoping past is indication of future
by Steven Koek / August 26, 2002

“When the season began, no one predicted the Suns would end up with the fourth best record in the NBA and give the defending World Champion Lakers a serious run for the Pacific Division title.”

-Phoenix Suns Media Guide – 1988-89 Season Review

No one is predicting the Phoenix Suns will be making a run at the three-time defending World Champion Lakers and their hold on the Pacific Division title in the upcoming season either. Stranger things have happened, however, and there are comparisons to be made.

The 1988-89 season brought the Suns their first of 13 straight playoff appearances. They won 55 games, advanced to the Conference Finals (where they were swept by the Lakers) and collected four major post-season awards, a new league high. Attendance records were set and the foundation was laid for more than a decade of playoff basketball in the Valley of the Sun(s).

The streak was halted by last season’s 36-46 club, enduring injuries, a mid-season coaching change, a major mid-season trade and more losses than the team had collected since the 1987-88 season, the year before the team’s playoff appearance streak began.

The 1988-89 Suns welcomed the return of Cotton Fitzsimmons back to the head coaching ranks. While 2002-03 version has a returning head coach in Frank Johnson, this fall will mark his first full season in the head coach’s chair. Like Fitzsimmons’ club of 14 years ago, Johnson has been supplied with a new set of assistant coaches whose influence has already been seen in the team’s rookie summer camp and summer league play in Long Beach and Salt Lake City.

The Suns playmaker on the ’88-’89 team was point guard Kevin Johnson, acquired in mid-season the year before in a surprising trade from Cleveland. KJ became a fan favorite on his way to earning second-team All-NBA honors, in addition to the league’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. Now the Suns are looking to Stephon Marbury to fill those shoes after acquiring the point guard in a controversial trade from the Nets last year.

Marbury was solid in his first year in Phoenix (as KJ was in his) but a nagging ankle injury and player and coaching movement prevented him from showcasing his full talent as a floor leader. “Starbury” has had surgery to repair the ankle and has been seen at America West Arena throughout the summer working diligently to get himself in to the kind of shape it will take to lead this team back to the playoffs. He does not have KJ’s squeaky-clean image, but Suns fans will not care as long as Marbury can keep his name off the police blotter and on the leagues assist leaders list.

The summer of ’88 saw the Suns draft a sharp shooting, defensive specialist in Dan Majerle. This summer, Casey Jacobsen was drafted with the 22nd pick out of Stanford to replace the affable Majerle who returned to and retired from the Suns last season. The steal of this year’s draft, however, may be Amare Stoudemire, whom the Suns drafted out of high school with the ninth pick in this summer’s draft. Stoudemire and Jacobsen have looked both impressive and in need of seasoning during the team’s summer activities. Both, it appears, will play big parts in the Suns drive towards a return to playoff status.

The style of play will prove to be a major difference in the two teams separated by 14 years. While the Suns of old effectively employed a halfcourt pick-and-roll game with KJ and Tom Chambers, the Suns of 2002-03 will be a running team utilizing the athleticism of Marbury, rising star forward Shawn Marion, Stoudemire, and second-year guard Joe Johnson.

The Suns should be projected as a low seed playoff or draft lottery team this season. There is little reason to think that they can climb much higher as they adjust to a new coaching staff, rookie growing pains and the always tough and improving Pacific Division.

Playoff appearances are based on wins and loses, not August projections, however. This years Suns have only to look to their team’s past to be convinced of that.

Suns then and now:

1988-89   2002-2003 (projected)
Kevin Johnson G Stephon Marbury
Jeff Hornacek G Joe Johnson
Mark West C Jake Tsakalidis
Tom Chambers F Amare Stoudemire
Armon Gilliam F
Shawn Marion

Steven Koek is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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