“It was great playing with these guys. To see us go out here and do what we did was amazing. I got no words for it now. I’m proud to be a part of this.”
Those are Shawn Marion’s words about the fast paced Suns teams that ran through the Western Conference in the mid-2000’s. Though they were led by their virtuoso point guard Steve Nash, Marion was the true embodiment of the team. He was a versatile player who could do anything on the court. In accord with their fast paced offense, he ran like a gazelle, and played above the rim. At his peak, the Suns won 177 games from in three seasons from 2004-2007 and averaged 109.7 points per game.
The Suns’ offensive prowess and fast paced attack made them the most watchable team during that time; a team whose play went beyond just winning games. Though they never won a championship, they’ll always be remembered for the sheer entertainment factor they provided. Their legacy does not hinge on never having won a championship. We will remember the Seven Seconds or Less Suns for what they were – fast, carefree, and wildly fun to watch.
When the Suns signed Steve Nash before the 2004-2005 season, they unwittingly ushered themselves into a new era of basketball. Along with coach Mike D’Antoni, the Suns’ offense was thrust into high gear, and they scored 16.2 more points per game than they had the previous season (going from 94.2 to 110.4). With this jump in scoring came a 33 win jump (29 to 62), and a stark culture change. They became the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, a name derived from their style of play. Under D’Antoni’s offense, the Suns ran and ran, and then ran some more. They got open layups and threes, and did not worry about defense. Basketball is about scoring more than your opponent, and the Suns did a lot of that, finishing first in the West in 2005.
The 2005 Suns were the perfect team to play this up-tempo style. They only went 8 deep, but everyone was tailor-made to the system. Beyond Nash, they had Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Leandro Barbosa, Jimmy Jackson and Steven Hunter.
The Four-Headed Monster of Nash-Johnson-Marion-Stoudemire looked primed to run the West. Each player had his own niche, and had bought into D’Antoni’s system of run-n-gun basketball.
If you could hop into the lab and create an NBA center for this Suns team, he would look a lot like Amare Stoudemire. The 22-year old was a 6’10, 230 pound ball of muscle who ran like a guard. No center in the league could stick with him on the pick and roll, and he rolled his way right to 26 points per game on a scalding 56% shooting.
On this Suns team, Shawn Marion was their Swiss Army Knife. He put up a 19.4-11.3, averaged 2 steals, and even made 114 threes. In addition, his raw athleticism made him a threat once the Suns got out in the open floor. He even played defense well, as his mixture of speed and strength allowed him to stick to 3’s and 4’s alike. The man was a blur on the court, as his star point guard would attest to. “No player on this team could even run a 4.5 [40 yard dash],” Nash proclaimed during a practice in 2006. Then, after a brief pause, he corrected himself. “Except Shawn. He’s the one guy who would worry me.” Marion was a lot more busy worrying opponents, who always had to mark him wherever he traveled on the court, whether it be to the rim or the corner.
In 2005, little known Joe Johnson was the most consistent player on the Suns. He started all 82 games, and led the team in minutes played. Despite being just 23, he had a veteran’s presence on the court. He knew exactly where to stand on the break, and this allowed him to shoot an absurd 47.8% from 3 point range.
Finally, there was Nash. However justifiable, he was the 2005 MVP. He guided the Suns to first place in the West as the driver of the Formula 1 car that was the Suns’ offense. Whatever his shortcomings on defense, he was irreplaceable on offense. No other point guard could lead the fast break like Nash, who threw pinpoint passes, and knew exactly when to pull up for 3. He had 15.5 points, a league-leading 11.5 assists, and even shot 50%. Under his leadership, the Suns cruised to a Western Conference Finals date with the Spurs.
In retrospect, the Suns never stood a chance against the Spurs, who would crush them 4-1 before going on to win the title. The Suns had lost Joe Johnson to a fractured eye socket he suffered in the Western Conference Semis. They were overmatched by a veteran Spurs team who were able to play up tempo, but also slow the game down. The Spurs won games 121-114, and also 102-92. They were an experienced team who could adapt to different styles, and the Suns bowed out in 5. But they headed into the next season with a core that looked poised to round into a championship contender.
The Suns’ 2005 offseason was as disastrous as they come, both short and long term. First, their relationship with Joe Johnson became so toxic that he asked the Suns to not match the Hawks’ 5 year-$70 million offer–leading to the trade for Boris Diaw and two future first round picks. They had just come a series away from a championship, and had the perfect swingman who could play 1-3, had all star potential, and was just 24. Blowing up a bridge with Johnson, then only getting a backup forward and two lottery-protected first rounders was nothing short of catastrophic. Putting it in the context of today’s NBA, imagine if the Wizards made the conference finals next year, insulted Bradley Beal all year so that he asked to leave, then traded him for Dwight Powell and two low-end first rounders. Simply unfathomable.
Secondly, the Suns had traded away their 7th pick in the 2004 draft (Luol Deng, also could’ve been Andre Iguodala), for a 2004 second round pick and 3 million in cash so that they could sign Quentin Richardson that offseason, who they then traded away (along with their 2005 first round pick) to the Knicks for Kurt Thomas. Whew!
That was very confusing, but it breaks down to this. They gave away Deng or Iggy so they could overpay another Richardson, who is worse than Deng or Iggy, and then they realized their mistake and dumped Richardson along with their 2005 first rounder. So they gave away two first rounders and Quentin Richardson for Kurt Thomas.
It’s really impossible to clearly explain the Suns’ bipolar 2005 summer of transactions. They lost a good deal of talent, but their biggest blow was yet to come. In training camp before the season, Amare Stoudemire went down. He would be lost for nearly all of the season to a knee injury, and had to undergo microfracture surgery. When the season tipped off, any optimism for improvement had vanished. The Suns looked like a lost team.
With Amare’s dire prognosis, the Phoenix coaches knew that it was on Marion to step up. “Shawn’s just gotta be a monster,” D’Antoni said before the season. “He has to get out there and get his shots. We have to get three-point shooting from our four spot. He’s gotta knock ‘em down.”
I doubt even D’Antoni could’ve predicted the season Marion would have. He played 40 minutes a night guarding both forward spots, and anchoring the offense. He averaged 21.8-11.8 on 53% shooting, all career highs. He made his 3rd All-Star team, and even garnered some MVP votes. If Nash was the driver of the Suns, Marion was their engine. In Jack McCallum’s Seven Seconds or Less book, he spoke about Marion’s significance. “When Shawn Marion smiles,” he said, “The Suns smile with him.”
Along with Marion’s leap to superstardom, the Suns also got a breakout season from Boris Diaw (the 2006 Most Improved Player), and improved play from then-youngsters Leandro Barbosa and James Jones. They cruised to a 54 win season despite losing two of their top 4 from the previous season.
After reaching the conference finals for the second straight season, the Suns met the 60 win Dallas Mavericks. The first four games were extremely tight, with the teams separated by just one point in total scoring. It was tied 2-2 heading into a pivotal Game 5, and the team that had been underdogs all season long finally began to swell with confidence.
“It’s ours,” Suns staff member Todd Quinter said at halftime. “I can feel it.”
The Suns ran their way to a 77-70 lead late in the third quarter, leading the shell-shocked Mavs to take a timeout. This was the turning point in the series, but not in favor of the Suns. The Mavs stormed out of their huddle, and almost immediately tied the game at 77. Before long, they had extended their lead, and had won the game 117-101. They finished the final 15 minutes on a 47-24 run, and the wounded Suns limped to a must-win Game 6.
When their storybook season came to a sobering end in Game 6, the Suns were lost for words. But there was still optimism for the next season, and the return of Amare. Getting their best offensive weapon back made them prohibitive favorites in the West, and they looked to finally turn their potential into a championship.
Well, it wouldn’t be a Phoenix Suns offseason without some crucial, franchise-crippling mistakes. Once again, they decided to throw away first round picks. For financial reasons, they traded the 21st pick (Rajon Rondo) to Boston in order to dump Brian Grant’s contract. Then, they sold the 27th pick (Sergio Rodriguez) to Portland.
So they gave away their first rounders, but at least it was for luxury tax purposes, right? Wrong. The Suns gave Marcus Banks a 5 year-$24 million deal that same offseason. Marcus Banks! Are you kidding me? This was just another installment in the Suns’ series of perplexing transactions. Even still, the short-term future was bright as the regular season began.
For the first few games of 2007, the Suns looked nothing like the carefree teams of old. They struggled to find an offensive rhythm at the beginning, and could not incorporate Amare into the seamless offense they had found in 2006. At 3-6, the Suns looked lost and unhappy. Yet once again, Nash and D’Antoni managed to make adjustments and right the ship. The Suns ripped off a 47-8 stretch that included a 17 game winning streak. After scoring just 14.1 ppg in the first 9 games, Amare averaged 21.9 ppg over their scorching 55 game run.
They finished 61-21, their second 60 win season in three years. Unsurprisingly, they also led the league in scoring for the third straight season. Entering the playoffs there were great hopes for the Suns, and their championship chances took a great leap forward when the top-seeded Mavericks were shocked by the upstart Warriors. Everything seemed to be breaking right for the Suns, who quickly dispatched their first round opponent in 5 games, setting up another date with the Spurs.
The 2007 Western Conference Semifinals might as well have been the NBA Finals. The winner would go on to face (and presumably beat) the 4th seeded Jazz or 8th seeded Warriors, before beating whatever team came out of the dumpster fire that was the 2007 Eastern Conference. The Suns were once again on the cusp of greatness, but once again it was the Spurs in their way.
In the first 3 games, the intensity of the series was clear. Injuries piled up, seemingly all sustained by Steve Nash. He suffered a brutal cut to the eye in Game 1, and was also kneed in the groin by Bruce Bown in Game 3. But everything came to a head late in Game 4. The Suns were leading 100-97 with 20 seconds left, and the Spurs needed to intentionally foul.
Rather than a simple intentional foul, Robert Horry decided to violently hip-check Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. The Suns naturally came to Nash’s aid, but in this fracas Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench.
By leaving the bench, Stoudemire and Diaw violated a ridiculous NBA rule that has since been amended. The Suns went on to win Game 4, tying the series 2-2. But Stoudemire and Diaw were suspended for the pivotal Game 5.
That’s right, for leaving the bench to make sure their star point guard wasn’t hurt, two of the Suns’ top 4 players were suspended. They had no violent intentions, and didn’t even move near Horry. The NBA decided that Stoudemire and Diaw’s act was as heinous as Horry’s, and suspended all three for Game 5.
Incredibly, the Suns almost managed to win Game 5. Behind a Herculean effort from Marion (24-17), they had the game tied with just 48 seconds left. But these were the situations where teams like the Spurs separate themselves from teams like the Suns.
The Spurs simply made shots down the stretch, and won 88-85. However, I think most people would agree that having Stoudemire and Diaw would have pushed the Suns to victory in Game 5, and quite possibly the series.
Despite having both back for Game 6, the Suns played a lackluster game, losing 114-106. After the game, even Nash was at a loss for words. "I don't know what to say," he said. "It would be wasted words. It's very difficult for us to finish the season like this."
The Suns just couldn’t catch a break during this 3 year stretch of dominance. They went 177-69 in the regular season, but just 25-21 in the playoffs. Nearly every front office decision backfired, and even when the team overachieved on its way to 60 wins, they were screwed by one of the most indefensible decisions in NBA history.
The Seven Seconds or Less era came to an end when Shawn Marion was traded before the 2008 trade deadline. By trading Marion for Shaq, the Suns threw away their run-n-gun identity. They still won 55 games but were once again sent packing by the Spurs, this time in the 1st round. If you’re scoring at home, that made it three times in four years that the Spurs ended the Sun’s season.
Unfortunately, the Suns’ legacy will be that of wasted potential, and what might have been. If you look at all their moves from 2004 to 2007, you'd have to call the Seven Seconds or Less Suns one of the squandered opportunities in recent sports history.
Even if the Suns failed (and as much as we hate to admit it, they did), their legacy is more significant than any of the teams who beat them during this era. Their style of offense spawned a series of imitators, and even an NBA Champion. And years later, their replays are still entertaining as hell.
For Marion, he showed how the Suns rose and fell with him. Even though Nash and Stoudemire stayed together through 2010, the team just wasn’t the same. They needed their versatile forward to truly be the Suns of old, when their breakneck pace ran opponents ragged.
Marion turned out to be the key cog that kept the Suns machine running, and when he left, they broke down. But he was a star, he is a future Hall of Famer, and we’ll always have 2006.