On a very special edition of SB Nation's NBA Theme Day, the rag tag affiliation of blogs has been asked to write about the most hyped player to come into their respective franchises and how that worked out overall for them. In this sense, "hype" is defined as a player who came in with major expectations - so with all due respect to Public Enemy it's irrelevant whether the hype was to be believed or not.
Since its history related, former overlord Seth and current overlord Dave got together and subcontracted the duties out to yours truly while simultaneously hoping I'd write about somebody they'd heard of.
Well friends, this one is actually pretty easy. Unlike a lot of teams, the Suns have rarely had a Top 5 pick. In fact, Alex Len marks just the 7th guy the Suns have picked in the Top 5 in their 46 seasons and only the 2nd since 1978.
So unless you feel like claiming that Armen Gilliam is the most hyped Suns player or you feel the Valley was in a tizzy (just think about teenage girls fainting at Beatles concerts at Shea Stadium) when Corky Calhoun went 4th overall in 1972 then we're left with trades and free agents.
If you're like me it's pretty clear who the most hyped Phoenix Sun is (and perhaps will ever be) but some of you are 11 years old so I'll lead off by showing you who just missed the cut:
Connie Hawkins (1969) - most younger Suns fans are unaware of The Hawk other than the fact that he's in the Ring of Honor but he's got a fascinating back story. Hawkins was part of a point-shaving investigation in his days at Iowa - one that resulted in his expulsion from school and blacklisting from the NBA. That was a punishment for a crime for which he wasn't even indicted - that's 1960's justice for you. During his NBA exile, Hawk played for the Globetrotters and also was the MVP of the 1967-68 ABA regular season and playoffs. Hawkins then opted to sue the NBA and the league settled in 1969 - permitting him entry into the league. A year after losing a coin flip for some tall dude from UCLA - the Suns won a coin flip for Hawkins and the ABA MVP was theirs.
Truck Robinson (1979) - as pretty much any Suns fan knows, the franchise has had an almost constant reputation for being soft. This was an issue they attempted to amend in 1979 when they dealt for fire-breathing power forward Truck Robinson. Other than having the most apt and awesome power forward name of all-time, Robinson was an All-Star who was coming off a season in which he went for 22.7 points and 15.7 rebounds - leading the league in the latter category. Adding him to a 50-win core of Paul Westphal, Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, and Don Buse was seen as a move to potentially add the missing piece for a title contender - a goal which they came pretty close to - dropping the 1979 Conference Finals to the Sonics in 7 games.
Tom Chambers (1988) - Chambers was the 1987 All-Star MVP and a consistent 20 point per game scorer when he became the NBA's first free agent in 1988. Larry Nance had been dealt the previous season so Chambers was set to fill the high-flying power forward role he vacated. Chambers was intended to be the big gun alongside a 2nd year Kevin Johnson and rookie Dan Majerle. He did however render 2nd year PF Armen Gilliam redundant as Chambers was a better fit for Cotton Fitzsimmons' up-tempo offense. With Chambers the Suns leapt from 28 wins to 55.
Jason Kidd (1996) - 23 year-old, 6 foot 4 point guards with a vast array of talent and one All-Star berth to their credit already don't frequently come on the market - but they did for the Suns in late 1996. Fortunately Kidd was a malcontent and wanted out of Dallas and the Suns had a package sexy enough to pry him away. Unfortunately Michael Finley was part of this package and that made a young Scott Howard a very sad pessimist. For this reason I did not accept Jason Kidd and will no longer speak of him. I will however take this opportunity to link his Guy Fieri colored hair.
Penny Hardaway (1999) - It was called Backcourt 2000, maybe you heard of it. In the summer before the 1999-2000 season, the Suns acquired Hardaway - a 4-time All-Star, 1-time All-NBA 3rd team, and TWO-TIME All-NBA 1st teamer who was just 28 years old. Given how decorated a player he was and that he was still theoretically in his prime hopes were high that pairing Penny with Jason Kidd would give the Suns one of the most dangerous backcourts in league history. Unfortunately Hardaway's best years were behind him and injuries were in front of him as he never started more than 60 games in a season with the Suns and never made another All-Star team. Penny would be a serious contender for this position had not already shown signs of slippage in his two seasons prior to coming to Phoenix.
Steve Nash (2004) - understandably very few of you have heard of this point guard out of Canada but Nash was drafted by the Suns in 1996 until being dealt to the Mavericks in 1998. While in Dallas, Nash blossomed into a two-time All-Star point guard. In the summer of 2004, Mark Cuban chose not to hedge his bets on a 30 year-old with back problems, leaving Nash to accept the Suns 6-year, $65 million dollar offer. Obviously things turned out quite smashingly for the Suns and Nash but when they hooked up one was a 29-win basketball team and the other was a wee point guard most thought the Suns overpaid for.
So who was the most hyped Phoenix Suns player you ask?
Well, it's Charles Barkley and frankly it isn't close.
Barkley was a stud in college (1984 SEC Player of the Year at Auburn) and was selected 5th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the loaded 1984 NBA Draft. He made the All-Rookie Team in his first season but didn't win Rookie of the Year because of some bums named Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Thus beginning a lifetime of being blocked by Jordan and Olajuwon.
In his second season, Barkley threw up a 20/12 season and was named All-NBA 2nd team. That kicked off a 10 year stretch of career in which Barkley was either 1st or 2nd team All-NBA every season. For reference sake - ah screw it - that's just ridiculous.
In the 6 seasons which followed his sophomore season, Barkley never averaged less than 23 points per game (capping out at 28.3) and never averaged less than 10.1 rebounds per game (capping at 14.6). He was a walking, talking, mouthy as hell double-double machine. The scoring was done in a surgically efficient manner as the advanced stats folks will appreciate that he led the NBA in True Shooting Percentage 4 consecutive years from 1987-87 through 1989-90.
Why He Was Available:
In Barkley's rookie year he played a supporting role on a team with a prime-era Moses Malone and aging Julius Erving. With that nucleus, Philly was able to make the Eastern Conference Finals before being worked by Boston in 5 games.
In the 7 seasons that followed, Barkley would never again lead a Sixers team to that point.
It certainly wasn't entirely his fault as the Sixers kept Moses Malone for just one more year before deciding to trade him to Washington for the 2nd best guy named Cliff Robinson in NBA history [http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/r/robincl01.html] AND Jeff Ruland - who looks like a monster. Not a basketball player monster, not a Monstar, just an actual frightening monster who would haunt the dreams of children.
Barkley was left to battle with an even older version of Julius Erving, who would retire at the end of the '86-87 season and a cast of other mediocre players. For the remainder of his Philadelphia stay, Barkley's best teammates were guys like other Cliff Robinson, Mike Gminski, Maurice Cheeks, Ron Anderson, Hersey Hawkins, Johnny Dawkins, Rick Mahorn, and the almost always hilarious Manute Bol.
In his last season in Philadelphia - Barkley's 76ers posted a 35-47 record (their worst since 1974-75) and missed the playoffs. This was one of three reasons that this entertaining article from the New York Times News Service in 1992 suggests Barkley was available.
The other two?
-- Barkley`s playing style did not mesh with the passing-game offense that will be adapted by the 76ers new coach, Doug Moe.
-- Barkley`s outspokenness and behavior were a constant concern.
So apparently they traded him because (a) he couldn't guide a team that started Charles Shackleford 62 times to the playoffs, (b) he couldn't "mesh" with a coach that lasted all of 56 games in Philadelphia, and (c) he was a dick. The first two are pure comedy and the third one is pretty true but hey - sometimes you've got to spit on a pre-teen girl during a basketball game.
On June 17, 1992 (and I agree with Jim in this article if you're a Suns fan you know where you were) the Suns dealt current head coach and then one-time All-Star Jeff Hornacek, mediocre center Andrew Lang, and passable power forward Tim Perry to the 76ers for Barkley - a four-time All-NBA 1st team selection.
It was pretty much a perfect marriage from the start. For the 4 years preceding Barkley's acquisition the Suns averaged a little over 54 wins a season and made two Western Conference Finals appearances. I could go into detail about what was missing with those teams but I think Lionel Hollins said it best when walking off the floor with Cotton Fitzsimmons after a disappointing playoff series loss to the Blazers:
"We need to go out and get us a Charles Barkley"
And instead of getting a cheap imitation (ahem Xavier McDaniel) they got the real McCoy.
Say what you will about the Seven Seconds or Less Era but for my money basketball was never hotter than it was in the summer of 1992. As referenced above, the Suns were already a 50-win playoff team, they didn't give up much to get Barkley (sorry Coach Hornacek....love you though), and they were set to move into palatial America West Arena with pretty new uniforms for the upcoming season. So you take all three of those things and add a bonafide high-end superstar, one who had just lead the most famous basketball team of all-time in scoring at the Barcelona Olympics, to the mix. The hype was as the kids call it - off the chain.
This was a team which already had a puncher's chance to win the title - adding one of the 5 best players in the NBA while he was under 30. Guys like that do not get traded. Even with the Bulls angling for a three-peat, the Suns were seen as a top level contender for the throne.
Cotton Fitzsimmons probably described the expectation level for what Barkley was expected to bring to the Valley when he took Sir Charles on a tour of America West Arena, gestured to the bannerless ceiling and said:
"Charles, you can help decorate the place"
How It Went:
You probably picked up on the fact that the Suns still don't have an NBA championship but beyond that Barkley pretty much lived up to the hype entirely.
In his first season in Phoenix (otherwise known as my favorite basketball season ever), the Suns went a (now tied for) franchise best 62-20 and made just their second NBA Finals appearance.
For his part, Barkley averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while taking home NBA MVP honors.
Despite God's wishes the Suns fell two wins short of the title.
In the next two seasons Phoenix would win 56 and 59 games respectively before bowing out to eventual champion Houston in 7 games - both times after blowing two-game series leads. If you didn't experience it firsthand let me just tell you - those were some heart breaking seasons. I hate you forever Houston Rockets.
1995-96 saw the Suns take a blow torch to a contender by trading franchise mainstay Dan Majerle to the Cavs for Hot Rod Williams. Because any time you can get a 32 year-old center coming off a season in which he averaged less than 7 rebounds - you absolutely have to strike. Hot Rod was bad, KJ and Danny Manning were banged up, and Michael Finley was too young, leading to a mediocre 41-41 record for the Suns and a disinterested Barkley.
That off-season saw Barkley muscle his way out of Phoenix as he was dealt to the hated Rockets for a poo-poo platter of Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant. Naturally Chucky Brown narrowly missed the cut for being the most hyped Phoenix Sun.
Thus closed the most exciting era in Phoenix Suns history (I won't debate this). Barkley wasn't always perfect (or close to it) but the energy he brought to the city was something that will forever be impossible to forget and unlikely to duplicate.
Maybe next year we'll be able to revisit this conversation with the enormous hype that will no doubt attach to Phoenix Suns rookie forward Andrew Wiggins.