Will the Suns rise again in the West?

Originally Published: April 29, 2004
By Chad Ford | NBA Insider
Considering the regularity with which the sun rises and sets every day, why is it most observers are always a day behind when it comes to getting a handle on the Phoenix Suns?

In 2002, the conventional wisdom was the Suns would be the worst team in West. They had traded away star Jason Kidd for the erratic Stephon Marbury, drafted a high school kid, Amare Stoudemire, to play power forward and had a gimpy, washed up Penny Hardaway playing small forward. Their starting group of power forwards -- Jake Voskuhl and Scott Williams -- induced snickers. An emerging Shawn Marion seemed like the only real selling point in Phoenix.

That season was Marbury's best ever; Marion put up all-star numbers; Stoudemire became the first high school player ever to win Rookie of the Year; Hardaway found his groove; and Voskuhl and Williams combined to become a pretty decent presence in the middle. The Suns ended up in the playoffs and scared the heck out of the eventual world champion Spurs in the first round.

In 2003, the conventional wisdom said the Suns were the best young team in the league. Marbury had turned the corner and had just received a nice fat contract extension. Joe Johnson, after a stellar summer league performance, was ready to take over from Hardaway. Marion was now an all-star. Stoudemire had a shot at becoming an all-star. The draft had yielded two impressive prospects, Zarko Cabarkapa and Leandro Barbosa, who were supposed to step in and contribute immediately. The Suns were deep, athletic and poised to take on the big guns of the West.

Then disaster struck. Marbury became selfish again. Johnson was erratic, and Penny looked old. Marion's shot faltered. Stoudemire kept improving, but constant injuries kept holding him back. Cabarkapa went down with an early season injury. A trade of Bo Outlaw and Jake Tsakalidis to the Grizzlies backfired, and the Suns suddenly were too small to defend the paint. Frank Johnson lost his job. Assistant Mike D'Antoni took over. Then, GM Bryan Colangelo pulled the plug.

In the most shocking trade of the season, he sent Marbury and Hardaway to the Knicks for Howard Eisley, Antonio McDyess, Charlie Ward, Maciej Lampe, the rights to Milos Vujanic and the Knicks' No. 1 pick.

The hottest young team in the NBA just went up in smoke. As Suns fans freaked and commentators everywhere scratched their heads, Colangelo remained calm. The team had realized early in the season it wasn't going to win a championship with Marbury at the helm. His selfishness was already causing rifts in the locker room. With a huge extension under Marbury's belt, the Suns had to act quickly to trade him away while they still could.

In the process, the team slashed $31 million in payroll and actually positioned itself to be roughly $7 to $9 million under the cap this summer. Owner Jerry Colangelo subsequently put the team on the market and sold it within weeks of the regular season ending.

With new owners coming in (Colangelo remains the team's CEO, and his son, Bryan, remains the GM), a lottery pick, and lots of free-agent cash to spend this summer, the Suns have the potential to be one of the most improved teams in the league again next year.

How will they do it? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.

Chad Ford

ESPN Senior Writer