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Top Five: Most Disappointing Follow-Up Seasons In Arizona Sports

The 2010-2011 Suns haven't exactly followed up their Western Conference Finals berth last year with a bang. But are they the most disappointing follow-up act to come through Arizona? Not even close.

Several weeks back I was graced with the title of "Arizona Sports Historian" - a job that comes with a certain level of expectation. You're going to get quite a bit of analysis here at SBN Arizona on the games that are happening but I've made it my job to put those games into the proper historical perspective.

Thus as we endure a wildly disappointing Suns season that came after a surprising and entertaining Western Conference Finals berth, I'd be remiss if I didn't take a look back at some of the other most disappointing follow up seasons in Arizona sports.

What's do I mean by a disappointing follow-up season you ask? Well I'm referring to the following:

When an Arizona sports team enjoys a very successful season and heads into the offseason with a certain level of expectation, only to see that franchise/university fall well short of its goals and in the mean time greatly disappoint a fan base. Got it?

Though it's not an Arizona example - think of the 2002 Patriots. The 2001 Pats won the Super Bowl and the next year they didn't make the playoffs.  Tom Brady didn't die and the entire defense didn't quit the game of football - they just missed the playoffs. That's what you call disappointing.

Honorable Mention:

  • 1976 Arizona State Football - I would really like to include these guys on the list since they slipped from a 12-1 season to 4-7 while having the same leading passer and rusher as a season before but there just isn't a lot of information on this team out there to find. I know they were ranked No. 3 in the nation in preseason - and finished 4-7. That is a lot of suck.
  • 2001-2002 Phoenix Suns - A scrappy Suns team had won 51 games the previous season despite missing Penny Hardaway for almost all of the season and Tom Gugliotta for a large chunk. With those guys back the next season should have been better - instead Phoenix traded Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury. The result was 36 wins.
  • 2002-2003 Phoenix Coyotes - After making a surprise playoff appearance the season before, the Desert Dogs dropped nine wins from their previous year's total and finished 14 points out of the final spot in the playoffs.
  • 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (51-111)- They'd won 84 games the previous year but with Curt Schilling traded to Boston the expectations weren't sky-high. However with a re-tooled lineup with Richie Sexson, Roberto Alomar around Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley there is no way they were supposed to be THIS bad.
  • 2008 Phoenix Mercury - In their first reign as defending WNBA champions, the Mercury struggled to replace head coach Paul Westhead and Penny Taylor, who opted to take the season off to play in the Olympics and limped to a 16-18 record.
  • 2008 Arizona State Football - Dennis Erickson stormed into town during his first season in Tempe and led the Devils to a 10-2 record and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. The follow up team returned a number of the stars, including QB Rudy Carpenter, but was never able to get on track - limping to a 5-7 season.
  • 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks - I'd like to plug these guys on the list for going from the NLCS to just over .500 but anyone who watched the 2007 edition knows that they were basically pulling wins out of their asses all year.
  • 2010 Arizona Cardinals - Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and Antrel Rolle were all gone so that's why they didn't make it into the top 5. Problem was they still played in a division where the winner won 7 games. That should have been easily attainable.

(5) 1999 University of Arizona Football 6-6 after 12-1

Thrill of Victory -

In 1998 the Wildcats won what is still a school-record 12 games. Their lone loss was to Cade McNown and the title contending UCLA Bruins.

Following that loss, Arizona won their final six games of the regular season - including a Territorial Cup win over Arizona State - and took out Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. They even had a defining regular season moment when Ortege Jenkins did this:

For their trouble, Dick Tomey's bunch finished 4th in both the AP and Coaches poll. 

Expectation -

The primary loss off the 1998 Wildcats was lock down corner Chris McAlister who was drafted 10th overall by the Baltimore Ravens. However the team returned the remainder of their stars such as Jenkins, Trung Candidate, and Dennis Northcutt. They were also adding Arizona High School state player of the year Bobby Wade to a potent offense.

Coming into the season, Arizona started exactly where they finished the previous season - in 4th in the polls.

What the hell happened? -

It only took until the first game of the season to expose U of A for not being as good as people thought. In that first contest they visited No. 3 Penn State and from the opening kickoff it was clear who the superior team was.

Penn State rolled over the Wildcats 41-7 in what was a sign of things to come in a very average season. Stanford handled Arizona 50-22 a few weeks later and the team lost four of its last five - including a loss at ASU to finish the season at 6-6.

After starting the season in the top 5 of the polls, Arizona didn't even make a bowl game.   

(4)  1995-96 Phoenix Suns (41-41)

Thrill of Victory -

In the three seasons leading up to 1995-96, the Suns won 62, 56 and 59 games respectively. In the 1992-93 they made the NBA Finals for just the second time in franchise history.

During the next two season the franchise may have had better teams but were unable to hold series leads against the Rockets in the 1994 and 1995 Western Conference Semifinals.

Charles Barkley was a perennial MVP candidate while Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle were All-Stars. Anyone who was around for Suns basketball during that era knows that team had the city's attention like almost nothing that had come before them. 

Expectation -

Going into the 1995-96 season, the Suns retained several of the core parts that made them great the previous few seasons. Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson were still around while A.C. Green, Wayman Tisdale and Wes Person helped bring some of that winning experience.

Having been eliminated by Hakeem Olajuwon and his Rockets the previous two seasons the Suns made a  move for a big man by trading Dan Majerle to Cleveland for reliable center Hot Rod Williams. Also added to the roster was high flying first round pick Michael Finley and local product Mario Bennett.

The stage was seemingly set for another deep playoff run. 

What the hell happened? -

Apparently losing an All-Star wing man who is your best defender actually makes you worse - especially when the center you pick up doesn't pan out at all.

With Kevin Johnson suffering from seemingly continuous injuries and Danny Manning unable to return from his torn ACL until late in the year - the Suns got off to a 14-19 start which cost coach Paul Westphal his job.

Cotton Fitzsimmons took over the roster for what would be the final time in his career and led the team to a 27-22 finish. Unfortunately the team was dispatched by the Spurs in four games in the first round of the playoffs. 

The talent just didn't match up with the expectations in this season. The Suns lost 18 wins off of their previous years total  - a franchise record.

But hey - they did get to issue the Bulls one of their 10 losses on the season!

(3) 2000 Arizona Diamondbacks (85-77)

Thrill of Victory -

During their expansion season of 1998 the Arizona Diamondbacks performed basically how you'd expect an expansion team to perform - winning 65 games and losing 97.

Heading into the 1999 season the team took drastic action to quickly improve their position in Major League Baseball - and boy did they. Arizona added Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, and Tony Womack to the existing Jay Bell and Matt Williams but the true major move was throwing a four-year $52.4 million deal at Cy Young winner Randy Johnson.

With their bolstered lineup and the Big Unit, Arizona won 100 games and the NL West on their way to the quickest playoff berth in the expansion era. Though they lost to the Mets in four games in the NLDS the season was about as an enormous step forward as possible. 

Expectation -

When you win a 100 games the previous season and return basically all the key parts that made you great the season before - expectations are understandably high. 

The thought was that with the team as loaded as they were they'd be a natural contender for the World Series and at worst a playoff team.  

What the hell happened? -

Late summer doldrums did the team in. Following the first day of the season, the D-Backs were either in first place or shared first place for every single day until August began.

With a minimal lead in the division Arizona made a huge move acquiring Curt Schilling from the Phillies just before the deadline.

Even with the Johnson/Schilling tandem and a lead in the division, the D-Backs fell apart down the stretch - going just 25-29 in the seasons last few months and falling into third place in the NL West.

It didn't help the potency of the lineup that Jay Bell took a major step back production wise while Matt Williams missed 66 games with injury.

(2) 1999 Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

Thrill of Victory -

The 1998 Arizona Cardinals were plucky little bunch that rebounded from a 3-4 start to finish 9-7 and make the playoffs for the first time since 1982 (when everyone made it based on the strike) and definitely for the first time since they began play in Arizona.

What made those Cardiac Cardinals even more fun was that an astounding six of their nine wins came by three or less points. Which is ridiculous. Including three straight such wins to finish the season and sneak into the playoffs.

In those playoffs, the Cards managed to go into Texas Stadium and upset the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys. Sure they weren't the same team that won those Super Bowls but they still had the triplets and had beaten the Cardinals twice in the regular season. 

Expectation -

Arizona may have fallen in the next round to the Vikings but that didn't deter people from thinking the franchise had turned a corner.

As is the case with many teams that experience success, the Cardinals saw a few key free agents head off for greener pastures. Jamir Miller, Lomas Brown, and Larry Centers - key figures on that '98 team - all departed via free agency.

Yet despite those issues the franchise still had a young budding star in Jake Plummer and added rookie first round pick David Boston to effectively all the major offensive weapons that were returning.

What the hell happened? -

Nobody was really that good but the fall of Plummer hurt the most. The third-year QB suffered with multiple injuries throughout the year (thumb, groin, hip) that caused him to be either out of the lineup - he missed four games - or completely ineffective (9/24 TD/INT ratio).

It also didn't do the team any favors that Rob Moore played like a guy who was in his last NFL season (37 catches) while Adrian Murrell went from 1,000 rusher to 2.9 yards per carry running back. 

Finally with all due respect to Jamir Miller replacement Rob Fredrickson - dude just wasn't as good. 

All those factors led the Cardinals to a 2-6 first half of the season. They did manage to win four straight to even their record but then sacrificed all that progress in an 0-4 finish to close at 6-10. 

(1)  1976-77 Phoenix Suns (34-48)

Thrill of Victory -

During the first seven years of the Suns franchise the team had made the playoffs just once - losing to the Lakers in the opening round of the 1970 playoffs. Thus when the team pulled upsets over the Sonics and defending NBA champion Warriors to make the 1976 NBA Finals it was a bit of a surprise.

The team was led by newly acquisitions Paul Westphal and rookie big man Alvan Adamas but had an impressive seven players averaging double figure points in a game.

In those NBA Finals, the Celtics took the first two games but the Suns came storming back to even the series when the action returned to Phoenix. As everyone is probably aware Game 5 was a triple overtime epic that Boston claimed.

Though back in Phoenix for Game 6, Boston was able to fend off the Suns for the title. 

Expectation -

42-40 the previous year isn't a great record but now that the core of the Suns team had been so close to the promise land the thought was that they would make another serious step as a franchise. 

To help bolster the roster, the Suns drafted rookie swing man Ronnie Lee and Dick Van Arsdale's twin brother Tom. Basically every other significant player from the Western Conference champions was returning.

What the hell happened? -

Paul Westphal was his usual awesome self while Alvan Adams picked up where he left off in his sophomore campaign - the real problems were injury and aging.

Curtis Perry, Gar Heard, and Keith Erickson - the Suns' 3rd-, 5th- and 7th-leading scorers during the previous season - both missed about half the '76-'77 year while suffering from injuries. The Original Sun Dick Van Arsdale slipped badly from a reliable starter who could give over 30 minutes a game while being worth about 13 points a game to a guy who was playing about 20 minutes and scoring less than eight.

The season was Van Arsdale's final one in the NBA. 

All the struggles led the Suns to just a 34-48 record and put them second to last in the Western Conference. From the Finals to the 5th pick in just a couple months - quite the free fall. 

Where will the 2010-2011 Phoenix Suns fall when it's all said and done? It's difficult to say since their story is not yet completely written but if they keep playing like they have been lately they could earn a prominent spot.