Basketball Suns: a team that would like to rise higher

Sometimes you can build something pretty good and, because of circumstances over which you have little control, almost no one realizes it.

This isn't exactly what happened to the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association, who have averaged 52 regular-season wins over the past four years, but it comes close. Included during that stand was a Pacific Division title in 1980-81, followed by an inglorious wipeout in the opening round of the playoffs.

But the Suns - and I'm sure you've heard this song before - have never had the luxury of a Moses Malone, Robert Parish, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the middle. Instead they have been operating chiefly with Alvan Adams at center, one of the best finesse players in the league, but not enough of a physical presence to provide a championship.

Basically Phoenix had two alternatives with Adams coming into this season. The Suns could go back to trying to trade him, knowing they probably couldn't get equal value in return, or they could surround him with the kind of muscle on the defensive board that would lessen the demands on him as a rebounder.

To accomplish the latter goal Phoenix traded forward Truck Robinson to the New York Knicks in exchange for 6 ft. 9 in. Maurice Lucas, and made a starter of 6 ft. 10 in. reserve cornerman Larry Nance.

Lucas, who was the league's fifth-leading rebounder last season, has two of the sharpest elbows ever honed and was a key member of Portland's world championship team in 1977. Nance, the Suns' No. 1 draft pick last year out of Clemson, also has homing-pigeon instincts for any loose basketballs that don't make it through the rim.

''Once we discovered that Lucas was available in a trade we knew it was a deal we had to make,'' Coach John MacLeod told me recently in Los Angeles. ''Every team needs someone who can rebound and get them the ball, but Maurice is also good offensively. So far Lucas has been everything we expected him to be.''

Yet after a fast start, Phoenix looks less like a team that might have made things rough for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA's Pacific Division.

''When we were 9-2 in November and rolling, we were playing much more aggressively than we are now; seldom turning the ball over; and taking good percentage shots,'' MacLeod said. ''We looked solid then - like we had balance; like we were ready. We'd set up a play in a crucial situation and it would work. But after you've won five in a row, you don't expect to lose five in a row.

''I'm not looking for excuses, but over an 82-game schedule a team, even a good team, is going to have at least one slump,'' John continued. ''I like to think we're having ours early; that this is only a temporary condition and not a permanent one. I think maybe my chief disappointment so far is that we haven't played better on the road.''

When McLeod came into the NBA in 1973 after six years at Oklahoma he broke with NBA tradition by making floor time for all 11 of his players. The feeling at that time, and it hasn't changed, is that a pro coach wins with his first eight or nine players or he doesn't win at all. Meanwhile John's reserves were averaging more than 17 minutes a game.

Actually MacLeod stayed with this system until last year, when he went to what was basically a nine-man formula. However, the Suns dropped from 57 wins the previous season to 46 in 1981-82.

''You can read whatever you want into those figures, but I don't think the fact that John relied on fewer players had anything to do with our poorer record ,'' explained assistant coach Al Bianchi.

''We are still a good team,'' Bianchi added. ''What happens is that some years you win the close ones and some years you don't. The breaks often have a lot to do with this and, in my opinion, last year too many bounces went against us.''

Although MacLeod has never mentioned a figure, he probably will be disappointed if the Suns, after acquiring Lucas to go along with players like Dennis Johnson, Walter Davis, and Kyle Macy, don't win at least 50 games this season.

Yet regardless of how well Phoenix plays, third place in the NBA's Pacific Division (behind LA and Seattle, both of which have better personnel) is about all MacLeod can legitimately expect.

However, like all good young teams that figure to improve with experience, John also knows that the Suns have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle in the playoffs.

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