This has been a highly pleasant season for the Phoenix Suns, easily one of the five best teams in the National Basketball Association, and almost certain winners of the league's Pacific Division title.
What is surprising is that the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Milwaukee Bucks are invariably mentioned ahead of the Suns whenever the NBA playoffs are discussed. At least part of this is because Phoenix in past seasons has always had a reputation for relying more on finesse than power.
"When you're operating a franchise that isn't located in one of the East's media centers, like New York or Boston," said Suns' Coach John MacLeod, "you just don't get the nationwide publicity, no matter how well you play. As a team , we've talked about this frequently during the regular season and it has helped our motivation.
"While we're still not as physical as Philadelphia or Boston, we've come a long way this year in the power department," MacLeod continued. "We've got people now who can rebound and get us the ball, we've got a bigger backcourt, and we've got depth. On an individual basis, there may still be some NBA teams with better personnel. But I think we probably fit together as well as any club in the league."
Where the Suns' biggest improvement has come this year is on team defense, where they have gone from eighth to third in the standings. Instead of having 6 ft., 6in. Walter Davis playing up front with center Alvan Adams and Truck Robinson, MacLeod moved Davis into the backcourt and gave his job to Jeff Cook.
Now if you go looking for Cook among the league's top scorers or rebounders, you won't find him. The kind of hard-nosed defense he plays doesn't show up in a box score. But if you want someone who can block out under the boards, doesn't have to be told to dive for loose balls, and almost never makes mistakes under pressure, Cook is your man.
Adams, despite a frame that doesn't lend itself to those hip-cracking duels under the basket, makes it very tough on opposing teams when he is shooting and hitting from the outside. What this does is to force rival centers to come out and guard Alvan, thus leaving more rebounding room for Robinson and Cook under the boards.
At first Davis was uncomfortable in the backcourt. He wasn't used to developing his offense that far away from the basket; he wasn't used to handling the ball that much; and mentally he considered MacLeod's move a demotion. But now that Walter has played nearly a full season at guard, he says he wouldn't want to go back to being a forward.
The Suns's other guard position also underwent a change this season when Paul Westphal, who always wanted more floor time than MacLeod would give him and said so, was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson.
"Westphal is a tremendous offensive player who had some great years with us," explained Phoenix assistant coach Al Bianchi. "Paul could score against anybody. But there are more dimensions to Johnson, who may not be quite as good a shooter, but who is the best defensive guard in the league, who often steals the ball, and who will consistently get you four and five rebounds a game.
"there is no secret about our defense," Bianchi continued. "We're aggressive and we immediately go after our opponent's transition game. For example, we make it as difficult as we can for them to go from defense to offense by getting our people back quickly to cut off their fastbreak. Basically this is what every team in the league tries to do, except it only works consistently when you've got players who are willing to put the team ahead of themselves."
One of MacLeod's coaching theories is to play a lot of people, partly because this doesn't wear out his regulars by the end of the season, but also because it helps his bench retain its game rhythm.
This wouldn't work, of course, unless the Suns had quality reserves. They do in backup center Rich Kelley, whose rebounds to minutes played is always high, plus forwards Alvin Scott and Joe Kramer; and guards Kyle Macy and Johnny High.
MacLeod, if you read between the lines, obviously thinks that the Suns now have the balance, aggressiveness, and board strength that can carry a team safely through the playoffs. It is not an unreasonable assumption.