SI Vault
Jack McCallum
December 22, 1980
A trade and lineup changes switching a forward to guard and a center to forward have turned the Suns into aggressors who are truckin' to the top
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December 22, 1980

Phoenix Goes On The Attack

A trade and lineup changes switching a forward to guard and a center to forward have turned the Suns into aggressors who are truckin' to the top

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How appropriate. 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 dramatic—and successful.

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 better."

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 defense.

"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."

"Winning here 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."

Davis' gradual 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%.

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