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Phoenix following formula of champion '71 Bucks
by Dennis Hans / January 6, 2005

Both teams are coached by a slick point guard who had a long, illustrious playing career and is now in his third year as an NBA skipper. Both teams have a young, unstoppable scoring machine at center. Both teams added in the offseason a smart, veteran point guard who provides leadership and sets up teammates for lots of easy buckets. Both teams love to run, and they lead the league in scoring and field-goal efficiency.

If you recognize the current Phoenix Suns as one of those teams, congratulations. Though the opening paragraph is in the present tense, the other team is a blast from the past – the 1970-71 world champion Milwaukee Bucks. Given the tendency of history to repeat itself in 34-year cycles, we hereby declare that the Suns are a lock for the 2005 NBA crown.

Let’s begin our comparison with the floor leaders and how they have impacted their respective teams.

Prior to their championship season, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired the best point guard in the NBA, 31-year-old Oscar Robertson, a perennial first-team all-pro who didn’t mesh with the Cincinnati Royals new coach for the 1969-70 season, a former Celtic named Bob Cousy.

Thirty-four years later the Suns followed the Bucks lead, signing 30-year-old playmaker Steve Nash as a free agent away from the Dallas Mavericks, coached by yet another former Celtic, Don Nelson.

It was a new lease on life for Robertson, who was happy to sacrifice points to keep the Bucks’ young center happy. As a rookie, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had averaged 28.8 points and shot .518 from the field. With Robertson, the points rose to 31.7 and the percentage skyrocketed to .577.

The Big O made every Buck better, and the team became the first in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the floor. The Bucks drained field goal attempts at a .509 clip, leaving second-best L.A. (.476) in the dust.

Nash has had a remarkably similar effect on the Suns, starting with their own youthful, go-to center, Amare Stoudemire. Last season, Stoudemire scored at a 20.6 per-game clip on respectable .475 shooting. This season, with Nash at the helm, he’s at 26.4 on phenomenal .591 shooting.

The Suns lead the league in “adjusted field goal percentage” (AFG), which is the best measure of FG efficiency in the Trey Era. AFG takes into account that a sunken trey generates 50 percent more points than a sunken deuce, so every sunken trey counts as 1.5 field goals. (If you shoot 4 for 10, with two deuces and two treys, your regular FG percentage would be .400. Your AFG would be .500, because you made the equivalent of five deuces.)

The Suns AFG is a remarkably efficient .533, well ahead of second-best Miami at .518. (The Suns are second to Miami in standard FG percentage, .479 to .482.)

The scoring efficiency, uptempo style and crisp ball movement are glowing reflections on the Bucks’ and Suns’ respective coaches.

Larry Costello was a six-time NBA all-star who in the early 1960s formed, with Hal Greer, one of the league’s best backcourts. The NBA was a predominately white league when Costello was in his prime (roughly 1957-64), and he was one of the first players to recognize a good shot from an atrocious shot in those gun-happy years. He finished up his career as a reserve on two fast, efficient and high-scoring Sixer teams, which won the 1967 title but blew a 3-1 lead in the 1968 Eastern Conference Finals to player-coach Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics.

Mike D’Antoni, an NBA benchwarmer early in his pro career, wisely moved to where the playing time was: Italy, where he became a legend. He was raised on fastbreaking and ball movement by his dad, an outstanding high-school coach in West Virginia. Among his brief NBA stops was San Antonio, where he absorbed more of the same philosophy under Doug Moe and alongside George Gervin. I don’t know much about the Italian league
of the 1980s, but it’s reasonable to presume that D’Antoni didn’t become a superstar – and the idol of Kobe Bryant’s youth – by playing a rough-and-tumble slow-down game. Now he’s in Phoenix, bringing the same emphasis on speed, ball movement and shot selection that Costello brought to the Bucks.

Those Bucks led the league in scoring, at 118.4 per game. Today’s Suns lead the league too, albeit with a more modest average of 109.3 per game.

Both teams sport double-digit point differentials, as the Bucks scored 12.2 points more per game than the opposition while the Suns are at +10.4.

Given a choice between quickness and skills or height and bulk, Costello and D’Antoni will take the former most every time. That’s why neither hesitated to start at power forward a guy that most coaches would say simply cannot play that position. Listed at 6-5 195, Greg Smith was even more undersized than Suns’ electrifying Shawn Marion. Heck, Smith was smaller than the Bucks’ nominal “small forward,” silky-smooth Bobby Dandridge. But Smith ran the floor and was a fine complementary player.

Two of the criticisms of today’s Suns is (1) their starters log too many minutes, and (2) they’re called on to supply way too high a percentage of the team’s points. But here again, the role-model Bucks suggest these concerns are misplaced.

The Bucks’ starters produced 97 points a night – 82 percent of the team’s total. The Phoenix Five produces nearly identical numbers – 91.8 points, or 84 percent of the Suns’ total.

As for minutes, the Bucks’ starters played pretty much what the Phoenix Five play today – despite going at a faster pace. (The Bucks averaged 95 field-goal attempts per game; that’s 10 more than the “run-and-gun” Suns.) Young Kareem averaged 40 minutes, aging Oscar 39.4. Smith played 29.6 minutes, Dandridge 36.2 and sharp-shooting guard Jon McGlocklin 35.3. The five starters missed a total of four games.

The Phoenix Five have been even more durable; so far, none has missed a start. D’Antoni has the good sense not to burn out his starters in practice, so they should have a good shot at sustaining their energy at their current level of minutes, which through 32 games is Marion 39.4, Joe Johnson 39.1, Stoudemire 36.2, Quentin Richardson 37.3, and Nash 34.7.

The Suns merely need to keep on doing what they’re doing, then waltz through the playoffs just like the Bucks, who went 12-2 in the 1971 postseason. The Suns might also, as a courtesy, drop thank-you notes to Costello, Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar for providing their winning blueprint.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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