For better or for worse, Phoenix has gained a bit of a reputation as an athlete retirement home. People like Emmitt Smith aren't coming out to the Valley of the Sun to die -- it's just their careers and, in some cases, their dignity.
But while the Cardinals and D-Backs have had their share of once-great stars playing out their final days in the PHX, nobody compares to the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have had a seemingly long and illustrious history of taking once-great (or good) talents and bringing them out to the desert to play.
If you haven't figured it out yet, this is going to be a Top 5 of the greatest NBA players who really just weren't the same guy when they played for Phoenix (the title isn't art, but what is). The criteria are, as per usual, quite simple:
- Must have had a great career PRIOR to joining the Suns.
- Must have actually played (or be playing) for the Suns.
- Must have not been nearly as good with the Suns as they were previously.
It's that easy.
- Tom Van Arsdale (Suns, 1976-77) - After an 11-year career and three All-Star appearances with five different teams, Van Arsdale joined his twin brother Dick for their final NBA season. The 15.3 point per game career scorer was a sub six point per game scorer as a role player for the Suns.
- Joe Barry Carroll (Suns, 1991) - Most people think Barry Carroll (affectionately known as Joe Barely Cares) was a piece of crap NBA player, but he actually averaged over 20 points a game in four different seasons and 17.7 for his career. He was also a 1987 All-Star and helped the Warriors to the Western Conference Semifinals in the same season. Three teams and three years later, he signed with the Suns in January of 1991 and played just 11 games with the team, averaging 3.4 points a game.
- Wayman Tisdale (Suns, 1994-1997) - In his first nine seasons with the Kings and Pacers, Tisdale was a prolific scorer who went over 20 points per game twice and at least 16 a game in seven different seasons. What he lacked was any real playoff experience. Seeking that, he joined the Suns in 1994 and played out his days as a spot starter and reserve offensive threat.
- Jalen Rose (Suns, 2007) - You might have heard of this dude -- something about fabulous friends from college ... who knows. In his younger days, Rose showed a great deal of potential and developed into a 20 point per game scorer in three different seasons. He was the NBA's Most Improved Player in the Pacers 1999-2000 NBA Finals appearance year and he averaged 18 points, nearly five rebounds, four assists, and a steal per game. By the time he showed up in Phoenix in 2007, he was half-dead and found himself buried on Mike D'Antoni's bench.
(5) Penny Hardaway - Phoenix Suns, 1999-2004
Who He Was -
In his first six seasons in the league with Orlando, Penny Hardaway gave fans every reason to believe he could be a Magic Johnson-type player. The Magic had such faith in him that they traded the draft rights to Chris Webber for the honor of pairing the former Memphis State guard with fellow list member Shaquille O'Neal.
Though he couldn't take the Rookie of the Year away from Webber, Hardaway was an All-NBA 1st Team pick in both his second and third seasons in the league. In those seasons, he was good for about 21 points, seven assists, and four rebounds a game. That guy, right then, had just about everything -- he even had Tyra Banks and little puppet version of himself voiced by Chris Rock.
Shaq abandoned him for Los Angeles during the 1996 offseason, but Penny kept up his good work and was an All-NBA 3rd Team selection. The next season, Hardaway suffered a major knee injury that limited him to 19 games but he returned to play all 50 games in the lockout-shortened '98-'99 season.
What He Was In Phoenix -
When Penny arrived in Phoenix via a sign-and-trade with Orlando in 1999, his pairing with fellow All-Star Jason Kidd was hailed as a master stroke. "Backcourt 2000," as it was called at the time, was supposed to revolutionize the game of basketball and make the Suns a bonafide title contender.
Penny played only 60 games in his first season due to foot injuries, but when the Suns had him in the lineup they were an impressive 42-18. With a healthy Hardaway in the lineup, the Suns still weren't able to do any better than a five-game Western Conference Semifinal loss to the Lakers. As good as the Suns guards were, none of them could cover Shaq.
That first season was basically the peak for Penny in Phoenix. The next year, he made it just four games before succumbing to knee problems that resulted in microfracture surgery. Microfracture was in its infancy at the time and Penny was never able to regain the skills that made him special.
Hardaway returned in 2001-2002, but he was a 12/4/4 player as opposed to a 20/4/7 one. After another mediocre season-and-a -alf with the Suns, Penny was part of the Stephon Marbury to New York salary dump that helped the Suns land Steve Nash. As for the former All-Star, he played a couple more seasons in New York and then a piece of a season in Miami before retiring.
(4) Vince Carter - Phoenix Suns, 2010-present
Who He Was -
I'll be the first to admit that I trash on Vince Carter more than most people on SB Nation's network of super blogs. That said, not even I can deny that in his day Carter was a bad, bad man.
Vince always played second fiddle in his days at North Carolina, but he immediately paid dividends for Toronto when they made a draft day trade to get the shooting guard in 1998. The Raptors had just won 16 games in the 1997-98 season, but with Carter in the fold, they went 23-27 in the lockout-shortened '98-'99 season. Carter was named Rookie of the Year for his trouble.
In his second season, Carter scored over 25 points a game and led the Raptors to their first playoff berth in franchise history while being selected to the All-NBA 3rd Team. His third season was even more impressive, as his scoring bumped up to 27.6 a game -- on 46% shooting and 41% from three -- 5.5 rebounds, and nearly four assists. Vince took the Raptors all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and was All-NBA 2nd Team.
Those second and third years were the peak for Vince from an All-NBA perspective, but he was an All-Star every year up until 2008 and a 20 point scorer up until 2009. None of this mentions the fact that Carter basically mass-produced jaw-dropping dunk highlights in a way that would make Blake Griffin blush. The nickname Half-Man/Half-Amazing was earned.
Toronto fans can't stand the guy because of the way he quit on the team to force a trade during the 2004-2005 season, but Nets fans love him. I'd say Orlando fans are relatively neutral since expectations were high when they acquired him in 2009 and though he didn't meet them and gagged on some free throws in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals he was for the most part alright for the Magic.
What He Was In Phoenix -
As anyone watching the Suns this season is well aware, Carter was acquired from Orlando in order for the team to get Marcin Gortat to Planet ORNG. Dealing Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark to the Magic basically made Carter and his $18 million dollar price tag the cost of doing business.
Obviously he wouldn't be on this list otherwise, but Carter isn't nearly what he used to be. Not that it's a surprise for a 34-year-old guard, but the athleticism that once defined Vince is not longer there. He's had a few good games for the Suns here and there, but the single-digit scoring, invisible efforts have drastically outweighed the good ones.
Through 37 games in Phoenix, Carter averages a pedestrian 14.4 points a game and isn't adding the rebounding/assist numbers that always made him a well-rounded player. Basically, he kind of just limps up and down the court and if he feels good, he shoots/plays and if he doesn't, he finds himself on the bench after 20 minutes or so. Not a lot of amazing left in the legs. Never fear, fellow CTLVCOF members: barring a miracle, Carter will be bought out for $4 million dollars this offseason.
In his defense, he has a sweet beard.
(3) Gus Johnson - Phoenix Suns, 1972
Who He Was -
Johnson was a stud power forward for the Baltimore Bullets from 1963 until 1972. In nine seasons with Baltimore, Gus never failed to average less than 16 points and 11 rebounds a game. During the 1970-71 season, Johnson threw up ridiculous 18.2/17.1 numbers. The rebounds per game was good for second in the NBA.
Despite being 6'6" and having to bang with the big guys, Johnson was a five-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA 2nd Team selection, and two-time All-NBA Defensive Team. In his day, Johnson was known for his toughness and was also one of the first NBA players to use dunking as a weapon. Basically, he's the best player that you've never heard of.
Based on his nine seasons in Baltimore, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. Unfortunately, the honor was posthumous, since Johnson died from an inoperable brain tumor in 1987.
What He Was In Phoenix -
After Johnson missed half of the 1971-72 season with knee problems (a recurring condition), Baltimore cut their losses with the forward and dealt him to the Suns in exchange for a second round pick (the immoral Tom Patterson of the 25 NBA games).
Now 34, Johnson didn't have the explosiveness or ability that he did in his younger days and lasted just 21 games with the Suns before being released. In his short time with the Suns, Johnson put up almost eight points a game, but shot just 38% in getting there. Not exactly an ideal shooting percentage from your power forward, even in the 70s when shooting percentages were lower.
The Indiana Pacers of the ABA picked up Johnson as a role player for the stretch drive of their 1973 championship run. Now a limited player, Johnson retired after the '73 ABA crown.
(2) Grant Hill - Phoenix Suns, 2007-present
Who He Was -
One of the first of a group of guys anointed the "Next Jordan," Hill was a decorated collegiate athlete in his four seasons at Duke and came into the NBA with quite a bit of hype. Right from the beginning, Hill lived up to almost all of it as a Detroit Piston.
A 6'8" small forward with basically the alpha body for his position, Hill really could do it all. In his rookie season, Hill split the Rookie of the Year award with Jason Kidd while averaging almost 20 points a game, along with over six rebounds, five assists and nearly two steals and was named an All-Star.
He really only got better from there. In his next five seasons with the Pistons, Hill was All-NBA 2nd Team four times and All-NBA 1st Team in 1996-97. That ‘96-'97 season was almost freakish from a statistical standpoint, as the handsome devil averaged 21.4 points (49.6% shooting), nine rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 1.8 steals a game. You know how many people in the HISTORY of the NBA have had a season where they averaged 21 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, and over 1.5 steals? Two. Grant Hill and Larry Bird in 1986-87. I could not bold that enough.
Hill stayed in the neighborhood of those freaking numbers for much of the remainder of his stay in Detroit -- though raising his scoring to 25.8 a game in his last season with the Pistons -- and established himself as one of the league's top superstars. Hill's point, rebound, and assist numbers find peers in only Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, and LeBron James for a player's first six years. Ridiculous.
His 0-4 record in playoff series' notwithstanding, it was no surprise when Hill was the most sought-after free agent on the market in the summer of 2000. It wasn't quite LeBron to South Beach, but when Orlando won the Grant Hill lottery, it was an enormous roster move. What Orlando didn't count on was Hill's balky ankles.
In his first year with the Magic, Hill played just four games; in his second year, just 14; and his third, only 29 -- three seasons basically down the tubes. In year four, Hill managed to get 67 games out of a body that had seemingly betrayed him and averaged near 20 points a game on 50% shooting. The next year, Hill could only get into 21 games. During the final year of one of the worst max contracts in NBA history, Grant rallied to play 65 games and added respectable 14.4/3.6/2.1 numbers.
What He Is In Phoenix -
Following his time with the Magic, Hill had seemingly one priority: win. To accomplish that goal, he joined the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2007. In his first year in the Valley, Hill played 70 games (his most since 1999-2000) and started at small forward in all but two games. He was such an important member of the squad that his injury limitations in the 2008 playoffs were likely crippling to the Suns chances.
In the last three seasons, Hill has remained quite healthy missing -- just a handful of games -- and from a offensive perspective, he's been good for about 12 points, five rebounds, 2.5 assists, and a steal per game. But he has taken those relatively pedestrian offensive numbers and paired then with suddenly elite defense, as he has drawn the opposing team's top player in nearly every matchup.
Grant Hill is an unbelievably popular Phoenix Sun and I think it's going to be cute when some of you are up in arms about his inclusion on this list, but come on, don't lie to yourself -- Hill makes sense on this list. He's a fantastic guy and a great leader, but 38-year-old Grant Hill isn't the guy who was on the way to a lock Hall of Fame career in 1999.
(1) Shaquille O'Neal - Phoenix Suns, 2008-2009
Who He Was -
I could probably just write "one of the most dominant players in NBA history" and you'd take me at my word and stop reading entirely. Humor me anyway.
In his rookie season with Orlando, Shaq came into the league and immediately averaged 23 points and nearly 14 rebounds while leading the Magic from relative obscurity to the brink of the playoffs. But that was really just the beginning. Over the next 10 seasons, O'Neal averaged over 26 points a game every year, winning two scoring titles along the way.
Numbers were never a big problem for the unstoppable center, but his teams won and won a lot to complement them. He led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals as a first act, but went on to win four NBA Championships (three with the Lakers and one with Miami), being named the Finals MVP three different times. In two of the Lakers title runs, Shaq scored over 30 a game while averaging 15 rebounds a game. Say what you will about his work ethic, but he knew when to step up.
O'Neal may have won the league MVP just once (1999-2000), but he was a 14-time All-Star and eight-time All-NBA 1st Team pick. At his best, the guy literally could not be stopped.
What He Was In Phoenix -
In the couple seasons leading up to his acquisition by the Suns, O'Neal started to slow down quite a bit. Following Miami's title year, he averaged less than 20 points per game for the first time in his career and during the Heat's disaster year in 2007-2008, he was only good for about 14/7. None of this stopped the Suns from making a franchise-altering move for the center in February of 2008.
The trade, which sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for O'Neal, sent shockwaves through the league and was high risk, at best. The Suns had the best record in the Western Conference at the time of the deal, but sunk to sixth in the conference entering their first playoffs with O'Neal.
Shaq managed to adjust his game a bit to become a double-digit rebounder again, but his scoring dipped below 13 a game and it was a struggle for Steve Nash and the Suns offense to adjust to his presence on the floor. Phoenix was dismissed by the Spurs in five short games in their one and only playoff series with O'Neal.
During the following season, Shaq's first and last full one with the Suns, O'Neal put up excellent numbers for a 36-year-old center (17.8/8.4) and even made what will likely be his final All-Star game. But the Suns just weren't that good. Phoenix went 46-36, but did not make the playoffs. In the offseason, Shaq was dealt to Cleveland for what amounted to cap space.
He may have put up some decent numbers and actually played in shape for the first time in years, but the guy wasn't nearly the dominant force he'd been in a previous life. Alsom he defended a pick-and-roll about as well as I would.