Like the legendary bird that is their city's namesake, the Phoenix Suns have
risen from the ashes and achieved new life in the NBA. The old Phoenix was
unintimidating on defense, unaggressive on the boards and often unassuming in
the playoffs. The new Suns have a different personality, which is why they're
leading the defending champion Lakers in the Pacific Division and have the
second-best record in the NBA.
After splitting a
pair of road games and losing to Portland in Phoenix last week, the Suns were
two games up on Los Angeles and their 25-8 overall mark was surpassed only by
that of Atlantic Division leader Philadelphia. But the 76ers' quick start was
expected. After all, during the off-season, they didn't trade away Julius
Erving, or move him from forward to guard, or install their third-string center
at Dr. J's forward spot. The Suns made moves comparable to all three of the
above. In the annals of NBA overhauls, the Suns' has to be one of the most
It all started one
day last summer when Coach John MacLeod was jogging along Camelback Road in
Phoenix, contemplating the past and planning for the future. The Suns, he
reasoned, were relying too much on finesse. The solution, he decided, was to
move slender Walter Davis, an All-Star forward, to the backcourt and put
someone with more muscle in his place. That would help the rebounding and make
it easier to accommodate Paul Westphal, who was asking to be traded because he
felt MacLeod's share-the-wealth system didn't give him enough playing time.
Westphal was more
than just an All-NBA guard. He was perhaps the best and most popular player in
the 13-season history of the franchise. Still, MacLeod and General Manager
Jerry Colangelo had no reservations about trading Westphal to Seattle for
Dennis Johnson, though were this an episode of Shogun, it would've seemed as if
they were out to commit seppuku. After training camp opened, the final
adjustment was made, MacLeod inserting Jeff Cook at the vacant forward spot.
Jeff Who? Jeff Cook, the former Washington Lumberjack and MVP of the Western
Basketball Association. Oh, that Jeff Cook.
Johnson has broken
in smoothly at Phoenix despite the tough task of stepping into Westphal's
gilded sneakers. D.J. was the NBA playoff MVP in 1979, but his inconsistent
shooting was blamed for the Sonics' third-round 4-1 playoff loss to Los Angeles
last spring. Suddenly members of the Seattle organization were criticizing him
not only for his 44% career shooting percentage but for becoming a loner, too.
"I was really scared when I got here," he told SI's Roy S. Johnson last
week. " Jerry Colangelo called me in and said that some people wouldn't like
me because I was traded for Paul, whose name is right up there with the Sun
god. When I came out to play an exhibition against the Olympic team, it was my
first time in uniform and I was nervous. I was introduced last. And, boy, I got
a four-or five-minute ovation and that made me feel a a whole lot
Johnson is an
acknowledged master of hard-nosed defense, and that talent, more than anything
else, has defined the new Suns. Phoenix has bolted from eighth to second in
team defense by yielding five fewer points a game. "D.J. is deadly on
D," says Chicago Guard Reggie Theus. "I guess after he became known as
an all-league defensive player, he got a license to kill." At week's end
Johnson was scoring 17.7 points per game, 4.2 fewer than Westphal's 1979
average, but the Suns feel he has more than made up for that with his
rebounding (4.2 a game), play making (3.5 assists a game) and tenacious
"I had no
hesitation about the changing of the guards," says Suns Forward Truck
Robinson. "I hated to see Paul go. We were close and he's a great player.
But what we needed was someone to neutralize the other high-scoring guards in
the league. Shooters like Lloyd Free used to kill us. Now, they've had to work
a lot harder to get their points." As for Johnson's bad-guy reputation,
Davis says, "I can't believe all the things that were said about him. He's
the nicest player I've ever known."
is my goal," Johnson says. "Then I'll have two championship rings, one
from Seattle [won in '79] and another from Phoenix. Some players don't even get
one. I'll be able to go back up to Seattle and say, 'See, look what we've
done.' That would be nice."
adjustment to the backcourt may make that possible. He wasn't happy about being
shifted to guard; he considered it an affront to his proven skills—he has a
23.1-point career average—though some others, San Antonio's George Gervin in
particular, had made the same move pay off.
The Suns got
several of their early victories almost despite Davis. While learning his new
position, he lost his shooting touch. The third sharpest career shooter (54.9%)
in NBA history entering this season—behind Artis Gilmore (55.9%) and Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar (55.5%)—Davis shot only 47% through the Suns' opening 13 games.
But he started regaining his touch two weeks ago, and he's now scoring 17.4
points per game, while shooting 53.1%.