Phoenix Suns: Just how good was the 1993 team?

BRIAN BAHR/AFP via Getty Images
BRIAN BAHR/AFP via Getty Images /

The 1993 Phoenix Suns are usually forgotten as victims of Michael Jordan and his Bulls during that year’s Finals. But they were so much more than that.

The list of teams (and Hall of Fame players) that Michael Jordan and his 1990s Chicago Bulls kept in championship dormancy is nearly endless. Heck, it’s more than plausible that the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets teams of the decade wouldn’t have come close to a two-peat had Jordan not prematurely hung up his namesake shoes for the baseball diamond following the ’93 campaign.

If you could pinpoint one overarching theme that ESPN’s The Last Dance revealed to basketball fans, it would likely be Jordan’s insatiable competitive nature and desire to be great.

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He stopped at nothing when it came to winning, and thoroughly enjoyed methodically mowing down those obstacles that stood in his way en route to his several title rings.

But based on his own revelations throughout the 10-part documentary, the aspect of preventing others from reaching the mountaintop was just as enjoyable for Jordan as getting there in his own right.

He took great pride in disheveling the championship hopes and dreams of some of the NBA’s best, and the breadth of his “personal” vendettas towards those he competed against only grew in scope with increased talent levels amongst his opponents.

Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal – these are just a few of the legendary names he prevented from reaching the pinnacles of achievement they so desperately strove for on a nightly basis.

But there may not have been a more potent collective unit that he effectively squashed into playoff nothingness than the squad he put the least effort into doing so against: the 1993 Phoenix Suns.

This group was not one to overlook by any means though, which speaks tremendous volumes to Jordan’s greatness as a player. And had it not been for the singular juggernaut known as “His Airness”, they may have had the transformative formula to emerge as a timeless dynastic entity of their own.

They were complete in every facet.

A 62-20 regular season marked them as the association’s best club record-wise in the regular season, and they were able to breeze through the Western Conference playoff gauntlet with relative ease, dropping just one home bout in seven total matchups during both that year’s semi and final rounds.

Everything changed in 1993 for the Phoenix Suns

Their 1993 playoff performance showcased a stark improvement over a premature second-round exit the year prior, in which a 53-29 Phoenix Suns troupe was thoroughly manhandled by Clyde Drexler and the eventual conference champion Portland Trail Blazers.

The team’s on-paper performance was far from the only thing that underwent an extreme makeover following the 1992 campaign though.

1993 saw significant changes to almost every level of their regime, top to bottom.

Rookie head coach Paul Westphal took over the coaching reigns from revered (in both name and coaching prowess) headman Cotton Fitzsimmons, who took home the league’s Coach of the Year award in 1989 during his second stint as the team’s sideline aficionado (he first coached there from 1970-72).

Westphal, who became the franchise’s fifth all-time leading scorer as a player, was instrumental in implementing a diversified offensive attack that strayed away from traditional post-and-kick styled onslaughts that virtually dominated the 80’s. He emphasized run-and-gun quick strikes but was entirely unorthodox in the way that he divvied ball-handling responsibilities amongst several different weapons he deemed as capable playmakers.

And none were more potent nor intimidating while barreling down on defenses with a full head of steam than the “Round mound of rebound” himself, Sir Charles Barkley.

Westphal made tremendous waves within his first few expeditions at the helm of the Phoenix Suns by playing a huge role in the acquisition of Barkley, who had already established himself as a consistent All-Star threat, from the Philadelphia 76ers for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry, the latter two whom only suited up in a combined five games for the Sixers.

Barkley held a widely known reputation as one who was hardly shy when it came to intense combat in between the lines of play (and sometimes outside of them) and that grittiness had an immense ripple effect as soon as he touched down in Arizona.

Charles Barkley and the star-studded Suns

A king needs his knights in shining armor though, and along with Barkley came freshly-christened weaponry in the form of a few new faces, including former Boston Celtics champion Danny Ainge and backup point guard Frank Johnson from the free agent market.

The addition of the newly renovated American West (later renamed Talking Stick) Arena, along with fiery new uniform digs and the legendary “Streaking Sun” logo vaulted their attendance to 5th in the NBA from 17th, and Barkley and company were responsible for an offense that skyrocketed to the No. 1 spot in terms of offensive rating.

He was the (literal) mammoth-sized focal point that solidified their assault, but they were moot without the essential centerpieces that filled out the roster.

Ainge’s veteran presence and title experience was invaluable, while Frank Johnson filled the backup point guard slot they so desperately needed – adding scoring and facilitating to boot. His starter Kevin (who shares no familial relation) had elevated into one of the best one guards in the league, and while he missed 33 games due to injury, the Uber-athletic springboard jumper who usually hovered around 20 points per game still managed to post 16.1, while dishing out 7.8 assists a contest.

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Their shooting guard, Dan Majerle had blossomed into an All-Star in his fourth year out of Central Michigan University and was second on the squad in scoring at 16.9 points per game. He was ahead of his time in terms of 3-and-D capabilities, and finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year tabbing after averaging 1.7 steals a night through 82 starts, while tying Reggie Miller for the league lead in 3-pointers made with 167.

Tom Chambers, who had long been used to carrying the offensive load effortlessly digressed into a solid locker room glue force, and still showed occasional flashes of the smooth-shooting touch that netted him four All-Star appearances during his prime, while young guns Cedric Cellabos and Richard Dumas added thunderous punches to their onslaught that created a perfect storm of young and old to counteract.

Chambers (12.2 points per game) was one of two Phoenix Suns to finish in the top five of Sixth Man of the Year voting (he was fifth; Majerle placed second), while Cellabos led the league in field goal percentage (57.6) and Dumas (15.8 points per game) was an NBA All-Second Team awardee.

And the achievements didn’t stop there. General manager Jerry Colangelo was named Executive of the Year, while Westphal led the West All-Stars to a 135-130 victory over the East in that year’s All-Star game – the same game in which Barkley received a starter’s nod thanks to fan votes.

As far as Sir Charles – his mantlepiece got the greatest hardware of them all: the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy, after double-double averages of 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds.

The Chicago Bulls were just too much

But yet the team is just another extension of the comprehensive list of victims that fell at the hands of the great Michael Jordan. Blown away like an Arizona sandstorm by the Windy City’s finest.

Their Finals matchup with the Bulls was one of the more historic in league history – a back-and-forth slugfest rife with big shots, hard fouls and dogged marathons. It even included a triple-overtime thriller in Game 3, which the Suns came away from victorious 129-121.

Chicago took the first two games of the series at home with Jordan posting 36.5 through the tilts, and won Game 4 in Phoenix before the Suns came storming back for possession of a Game 5 win, 108-98.

Game 6 was the heart-breaker.

The Bulls began the matchup with a barnstorming effort, taking control of a double-digit lead early before the Phoenix Suns methodically clawed their way back into contention in the fourth, entering the final two minutes with a 98-94 advantage. Jordan brought his team within two after converting a dicey layup, and after Phoenix missed their next shot, the unlikeliest of heroes – John Paxson sent the arena into a painstakingly eerie silence after hitting the biggest 3-point shot of his career off a timely dish from Horace Grant.

Paxson’s shot was long remembered afterward as one of the most clutch in his team’s history. Those on the receiving end of it, however, became one with the stadium that night: silent forlorn recluses left with agonizing visions of what could’ve been.

So, just how good was the ’93 Phoenix Suns team?

Well, they were perhaps one surprise John Paxson shot away from dismantling the Bulls dynasty – and embarking upon a new one of their own.

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