In 1994 the Phoenix Suns added an All-Star player in his prime, on the cheap. What followed were 5 years of exciting ups and downs that should be remembered by Suns fans.
What would you say if the Phoenix Suns signed a 28 year-old All-Star forward to a 1 year, $1 million dollar contract? Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, huh?
And what if said All-Star forward was added to a core that included multiple other All-Stars on a 56-win team? Well Suns fans, this is an actual thing that happened in the 1994 offseason.
But Danny Manning's story doesn't begin there and it certainly didn't end there.
Blue Chip Beginnings
As a college senior, Manning lead the Kansas Jayhawks - all the way from a 6 seed - to a national championship with a win over an Oklahoma team featuring future NBA players like Mookie Blaylock, Harvey Grant, and Stacey King.
Manning's teammates? Well, the 1988 Jayhawks are nicknamed "Danny and the Miracles" so feel free to draw your own conclusions as to their skills.
In the title game, Manning scored 31 points and grabbed 18 rebounds and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for his trouble.
Months later, Manning was the 1st pick in the 1988 NBA Draft - unfortunately that made him a Los Angeles Clipper.
For those of you who have only known the Clippers in the Chris Paul era - these were not those Clippers. These Clippers were a dumpster fire of Donald Sterling's making, a franchise which hadn't cleared 37 wins in a decade and turned incompetent management into a fine art.
The Clipper curse struck just 26 games into his rookie season as Manning tore his ACL and saw his debut season end prematurely.
Ever the resilient type, Manning was able to recover from his injury and play no fewer than 71 games over his next 4 NBA seasons. Reunited with his college head coach Larry Brown, midway through the 1991-92 season, the Clippers even rose to the ranks of respectability and made the playoffs in back to back seasons.
In the 1992-93 season, Manning finally broke out, averaging a career high 22.8 points per game (50.9% shooting) to go with 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.3 blocks while making his first career All-Star game.
But as was typically the case for the Clippers, all wasn't well for long. Brown and Manning didn't seem to get along quite as well as they had back in the college days and Brown apparently looked to trade Manning during the 1992-93 season.
In any event, Brown resigned at the end of the season and depending on who you believe (it should never be Donald Sterling) there was talk of a long-term extension which did not come to fruition.
Manning himself was close on a long-term extension of his own in the 1993 offseason but turned it down in lieu of signing a 1-year $3.5 million dollar qualifying offer that would make him a free agent in 1994.
As the 1993-94 season played out, the Clippers - now under the direction of career "generic coach guy" Bob Weiss - dipped back in the standings. Manning however continued playing his smooth, versatile game and made his 2nd consecutive All-Star game.
Near midseason, Manning - his unrestricted free agency closing in - made it clear to the Clippers that he would not be returning to their organization. This resulted a trade with the Atlanta Hawks which brought Dominique Wilkins and a 1st round pick back to Los Angeles for Manning.
Generally the type to defer on the court, Manning was the Hawks 3rd leading scorer in the remaining 26 games of the regular season. In the 1994 playoffs, Manning returned to the role of go-to scorer and helped lead the Hawks to the Eastern Conference semifinals where they fell to the Pacers in 6 games.
*Note: I own a Danny Manning Atlanta Hawks jersey. It is my pride, joy, and all-time greatest outlet mall purchase. I wore it for an entire day earlier this summer in Las Vegas.
Now an unrestricted free agent - the 28 year-old had a bevy of franchises willing to pay handsomely for his services. The most lucrative offer came from the incumbent Hawks who offered Manning a 5 year, $35 million dollar contract to remain the centerpiece in Atlanta.
But while the Hawks were a pretty good team, a flashier and more title-ready suitor was preparing a long shot offer.
As has been covered in thousands of other places, the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns were one of - if not THE - best squads in franchise history. Behind NBA MVP Charles Barkley, All-Stars Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle - along with role players like Danny Ainge, Cedric Ceballos, Richard Dumas, Mark West, and Oliver Miller - the Suns won 62 games and fell to the Chicago Bulls in 6 games in the NBA Finals.
In the 1993-94 season, the Suns added additional veteran talent like AC Green and Joe Kleine (ok we'll write it as "talent" for Kleine) but were unable to get by Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets - losing in 7 games in a Western Conference Semifinals epic.
With a cranky Charles Barkley constantly threatening to retire, the Suns were very clearly in win-now mode, and willing to pull out all the stops to improve the roster and win the first title in franchise history.
Even after dealing center Mark West to Detroit in order to clear salary, the Suns had just $1 million dollars available to pursue a guy who had an offer which was equal parts more lucrative and offered more security.
Despite all that - Danny Manning wanted to win a championship and the Suns gave him the best chance to achieve that goal. In his own words prior to a December 1994 game against New Jersey:
"Oh, there were plenty of times when I thought, 'I need to sign a long-term deal in case something happens,"...."I just decided the Clippers weren't a good situation for me. Now Atlanta, that was a good situation. This one was just better. So I made my decision to do whatever had to be done to get here. I took a lot less money and risk signing a one-year contract. And I'm fine with that."
And in the words of his agent Ron Grinker:
"It is not about money," said his agent, Ron Grinker. "It never has been and never will be with Danny. It is about winning."
In the eyes of most around the league it was fairly clear that the 1 year deal was signed with a bit of a wink & nod that Manning would be richly compensated when the season concluded. Under the league's salary cap rules at the time, you could sign your own free agents while exceeding the salary cap. Pat Riley had this to say at the time regarding the Manning situation:
"I'm sure there is an understanding telepathic or whatever it might be that those players will be taken care of in the future."
Continuing the theme of players in their prime taking less money to play in Phoenix, the Suns were also able to lure Wayman Tisdale to Phoenix for the low, low price of $850,000.
Regardless of what Pat Riley thought about telepathic understandings - the 1994-95 Phoenix Suns were stacked.
Meshing with the Suns
Given his lack of need for the ball, passing talent which would have been good for a man 8 inches shorter than him, and generally team-oriented demeanor, Manning had no concerns about fitting in with the Suns.
"I don't worry about on the court," Manning says. "Because when I get on the court, I'm versatile enough, I'm unselfish enough, I'm going to get along with my teammates and I'm going to hopefully make them better. That's what I like to do when I step out on the court.
Charles Barkley agreed, I think...in the most Charles Barkley way possible:
"We don't have any superstars," Charles Barkley says, "except me. . . .I don't worry about it. I just do my thing and hope they can catch up."
The Suns mercurial superstar was sidelined for 11 of the first 12 games of the season with an abdominal injury he suffered during the preseason which put Manning in the starting lineup. Without Barkley the Suns managed to go 8-3 with Manning serving as the primary scoring option most nights.
Within a week of Barkley's return to the lineup, Manning was sent to the bench where he would remain for the majority of the season.
Unsurprisingly, the Suns were at their best with a skilled big like Manning on their bench. In Manning's 27 games off the Phoenix bench, the team posted a ridiculous 23-4 record. In those 4 losses, the Suns were without KJ twice, and Barkley once.
That's right - a team with in their prime versions of Charley Barkley, Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, and Danny Manning was pretty good at winning basketball games. I'll stop for a second while you catch your breath.
Y'all good? OK back to the story.
As a reserve, Manning averaged 16.7 points (on 55.8% shooting), 5.6 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 32 minutes per night. For the season, he was the team's 2nd leading scorer at nearly 18 points per game.
Just when everything appeared to be going well - the Suns were sitting with a 36-10 record and on top of the Western Conference - Manning landed on Joe Kleine's foot in a February 6th practice and tore his ACL for a 2nd time.
His 1994-95 season was over.
Paul Westphal captured the impact of Manning's loss quite poignantly:
"He took a risk and it jumped up and bit him," said coach Paul Westphal. "You can't minimize his loss. He's one of the best players in the league. He's so versatile, it's like having two players."
Without Manning, the Suns fell again to the Rockets, again in 7 games, and fell short of their title potential. Obviously the situation was a frustrating one for Manning:
"It was tough to watch because I felt I could have made some type of contribution," Manning said. "I may not have been the difference or changed the outcome, but I feel I could have made some type of contribution."
With Manning suffering a torn ACL on a 1 year contract, both the Suns and their injured player were facing a potentially awkward situation.
Jerry Colangelo nipped that in the bud immediately after Manning suffered his injury:
"[Manning] made a severe sacrifice at a great risk,' said Colangelo. "And that won't be forgotten."
I can't imagine the Civil War that would have developed on Suns blogs had this situation occurred in 2015 but in October of 1995, the Suns and Manning agreed on a 6 year, $40 million dollar contract with an option for a 7th year.
With rehab going well, both parties were pleased with the deal that was struck:
"There was never an issue as to if he would sign, only when and what the terms would be," Colangelo said. "There is a point in rehabilitation where you either come back or you don't. He passed that point a long time ago. We don't anticipate any problems."
"Maybe in some people's eyes I was taking a risk," he said. "But this is where I wanted to be."
Return From Injury and Beyond
Nearly a year to the day after he tore his ACL, Danny Manning returned to the Suns lineup in a 22 point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Excuse me, that would be Dan Majerle and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Unfortunately for Manning and the Suns, the team he re-joined was a far cry from the one he left. Majerle had been dealt to Cleveland for Hot Rod Williams (for reasons I will never understand....like seriously Jerry....why?), Danny Ainge had retired, and Kevin Johnson continued to struggle with injuries. A slow start to the season cost coach Paul Westphal his job after 33 games as he was replaced with former Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
Manning played 33 games the rest of the way, helping the Suns to a 20-13 record - enough to get them into the 1996 playoffs where they lost to the Spurs in 4 games.
If the 1995 offseason was a change to the Suns roster, the 1996 offseason was a detonation. With the Suns window of contention slammed shut, Charles Barkley wanted to be traded and he got his wish when he was dealt to the Rockets in August of 1996 for Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Mark Bryant, and Chucky Brown.
Saying the 1996-97 Suns started slow would be an understatement as they began the year 0-13, Cotton Fitzsimmons resigned, and Danny Ainge took over as coach.
To keep the revolving door of change wide open, the recently acquired Cassell (along with prize youngster Michael Finley) was jettisoned midway through the year in a blockbuster trade that brought Jason Kidd to Phoenix while the ever classy Horry was traded to the Lakers after chucking a towel in Danny Ainge's face - never to be heard from again.
A core of KJ, Jason Kidd, Rex Chapman, Wes Person, and a healthy Danny Manning was enough to right the ship and get the Suns back to the playoffs where they memorably lost to the Sonics in 5 games (gratuitous Rex Chapman shot video).
For his part, Manning played in 77 games during the 1996-97 season - averaging 13.5 points per game (on 53.6% shooting) to go with 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and a steal/block per game.
The next season, the Suns remade their team around Jason Kidd and Antonio McDyess and that duo, when paired with Chapman, Manning, and the recently added Cliff Robinson - gave the Suns enough firepower to win 56 games.
Phoenix was eliminated by Tim Duncan's Spurs in 4 games but Danny Manning was named the 1997-98 Sixth Man of the Year. His numbers were basically identical to his previous season, and it was enough to edge out some dude named Kobe Bryant for the award.
The lockout shortened 1998-99 season was the last for Danny Manning in a Suns uniform. Although his overall numbers took a dip, Manning managed to play in all 50 of the team's games along with the 3 playoffs games (a sweep at the hands of the Blazers).
That offseason, Manning was dealt to the Orlando Magic in the trade that ushered in the Backcourt 2000 era (Manning went on to play 4 more years in the league for Milwaukee, Utah, Dallas and Detroit). But they had their own story.
This story is about Danny Manning - a star player who came to Phoenix in his prime and put aside potential personal gain for a shot at a championship. The kind of unique talent who could have delivered Phoenix the 1995 NBA Championship had he remained healthy. A guy that worked his ass off to make it back from a 2nd ACL tear and carved out a role as a big contributing player on several other Suns playoff teams.
If you ask me (and you're reading this, so you kinda did) Manning is a Phoenix Sun whose contributions and importance go all too often forgotten.