Perhaps it is because the Phoenix Suns are such a likable bunch, having maintained their good nature and sense of humor through these difficult times, that you want to keep their spirits up. Or maybe it's just that being in the Valley of the Sun (unofficial motto: "...but it's a dry heat") creates a natural tendency to look at the bright side of things. Whatever the reason, there has been a strong urge to help the Suns, 0-12 after Sunday's 87-84 loss to the Miami Heat, find a silver lining in each of their defeats. After loss No. 10, a 113-99 crushing by the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 20, they could take solace from the fact that their two-game season series against Chicago was over, that they had no more Bull-whippings on their schedule. The consolation after defeat No. 11, 115-105 to the Houston Rockets last Thursday, was that Phoenix had scored more than 100 points in a game for the first time this season. "We're grasping for anything right now," said forward Robert Horry, one of four Rockets traded to the Suns last summer for forward Charles Barkley and a second-round draft pick in 1999. "Everybody tells us this thing is going to turn around, and we know it will. What I wish someone would tell me is when."
It had better be soon, because the valley of the Suns is getting steadily deeper. The loss to Chicago broke the franchise record for consecutive defeats at the start of a season, and as of Sunday the NBA mark, 17 straight losses by the first-year Heat in 1988, was on the horizon. "The problem?" says rookie guard Steve Nash, whose play has been one of Phoenix's few bright spots. "Well, we're not shooting the ball well. We're also getting outrebounded. And we're turning the ball over too much. I guess you could say there's more than one problem."
The Suns are even beginning to suffer some of the ritualistic indignities reserved for truly horrid teams, such as a local radio personality's vowing to live in his station's mobile studio until Phoenix wins a game. Worse yet, the Suns are eliciting something dangerously close to pity from their opponents, including even Barkley. "I don't want to say anything bad about Mr. Colangelo or the team," he says, referring to Phoenix president Jerry Colangelo, whom Barkley has frequently ripped for his personnel moves, including his decision to put Sir Charles on the trading block. "I was mad a long time, but I don't think it's right to kick people when they're down." Any team in such a sad state that Barkley won't make it the butt of his insults has hit rock bottom.
Even with the loss of Barkley, no one expected the Suns, 41-41 in 1995-96, to sink this low. The free fall has already cost Phoenix a coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who resigned after defeat No. 8, 92-89 to the Vancouver Grizzlies on Nov. 14; he handed the job over to coach-in-waiting Danny Ainge, who was supposed to serve a one-season apprenticeship as an assistant before taking over in 1997-98. Fitzsimmons's exit was hardly the biggest favor anyone has ever done for Ainge—especially given that his first three opponents would be the talent-laden Los Angeles Lakers (who beat the Suns 102-88 on Nov. 17), the then undefeated Bulls and the Midwest Division-leading Rockets. After the debacle against Chicago, Ainge's first comment upon entering the postgame interview room was "Where's Cotton? I'm going to kill him."
Ainge was smiling, but Phoenix's plight will put such amiability to the test. The root of the Suns' difficulties might be that with the four former Rockets acquired in the Barkley trade—Horry, point guard Sam Cassell and forwards Mark Bryant and Chucky Brown—as well as free-agent signee Rex Chapman, they simply don't know each other very well. "If we're not running a set play, we have trouble sometimes," says Cassell. "'You start to make a move to the hoop and one of your teammates accidentally gets in your way, or you think a guy is going to one spot and he goes to another." The result is that Phoenix throws a lot of errant passes; the Suns end up having to dive for more balls than Ozzie Smith did. One scout watching Phoenix struggle against Houston last week shook his head and said, "It would be nice to see the Rockets have to play real defense."
With 10 players eligible to become free agents after this season—all four of the former Rockets as well as guards Chapman and Kevin Johnson, centers Joe John (Hot Rod) Williams and forwards Ben Davis and Wayman Tisdale—the Suns sometimes don't seem entirely sure it's worth the trouble to get acquainted. You've heard of interim coaches; Phoenix is an interim team.
"I can honestly say I don't think anybody is out there just trying to improve his own numbers or playing for his next contract," says Ainge. But it's obvious that at least some of the Suns have been playing politics as well as basketball. Even while Fitzsimmons was coaching, some players lobbied Ainge for playing time, correctly guessing that he would be the coach sooner rather than later. The situation grew so awkward that Ainge offered to leave the bench and go on scouting assignments to avoid undermining Fitzsimmons's authority. (The offer was declined.)
Moreover, the composition of the Suns roster has affected them in subtle ways. "We have so many guys who can play, you don't even know when you might be coming out of the game," says Horry. "You don't have a superstar like Hakeem [Olajuwon] or Barkley who you have to make sure gets the ball. So what happens is, guys start to think they might as well do their own thing when they get the ball. It's not that they just want to get their stats, it's that their own ability is the only thing they really feel sure about."
No one is quite sure anymore about the enigmatic Horry, who seems light-years removed from the player who was instrumental in Houston's back-to-back championships in 1994 and '95. Previously an inconsistent player, he has become consistently disappointing for Phoenix, averaging 8.3 points and 4.1 rebounds through Sunday. Cassell, the other principal in the Barkley trade, has been better—he led the Suns in scoring, with an 18.2 average—but the Phoenix offense has often consisted of four players standing around watching Cassell try to score on his own. The sad part for the Suns is that that's often their most effective attack. "With Sam. I think sometimes he comes down the court knowing a couple of guys have missed their last few shots, and maybe the confidence in them isn't there, so he tries to create something on his own," says Ainge.
Nearly every member of the Suns has spent the last few years playing with either Barkley or Olajuwon, and the adjustment to playing on a team of equals has been difficult. "We don't have anybody that other teams have to double-team," Nash says. In the NBA that is a fatal flaw. "We have a lot of secondary scorers," says Ainge. "We have 14 guys who are good, solid NBA players, yet we don't have one player who is a star or the leader of the team. Right now, I'd say [second-year forward] Michael Finley is the closest to being that guy, but life is going to be tough until we have someone who fills that role."