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7 Phoenix Suns They're dazzling on the outside, but do they have what it takes on the inside?

Nov. 01, 1999
Nov. 01, 1999

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Nov. 1, 1999

NBA Preview 1999-2000

7 Phoenix Suns They're dazzling on the outside, but do they have what it takes on the inside?

Suns guard Jason Kidd was driving with center Luc Longley back
to the team's hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz., during training camp
three weeks ago when Longley suddenly felt ill. Swerving quickly
to the side of the road, Kidd braked just in time for his 7'2''
passenger to empty the contents of his stomach on the curb. "I
think it was Jason's Starsky and Hutch act pulling over that put
me over the edge," joked Longley, who had been suffering from a
stomach virus. "It was pretty dramatic."

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1999 issue Original Layout

For Longley, that experience was a lot like his 1998-99 season.
He started out riding along comfortably, then took a dramatic
turn for the worse and wound up with a sick feeling. After
getting his fair share of minutes during the regular season, he
was ineffective against the Trail Blazers during Phoenix's
first-round loss and spent most of the series on the bench. "I
was really disappointed with the end of last year," says Longley.
"To be cast aside in the playoffs, that upset me a lot."

Suns fans can only hope Longley is upset--and not just to his
stomach. For if Longley, a good-natured Australian, gets fired
up, then Phoenix's inside game could shed its perpetual
feebleness. That, in turn, might allow the Suns to end their
string of four straight first-round playoff exits and make a run
for the Western Conference title. Nothing else is missing for
Phoenix, which features former All-Stars at the other starting
spots: guards Kidd and Penny Hardaway, and forwards Tom Gugliotta
and Cliff Robinson. "We've got size at every position and much
more athleticism this year," says Suns coach Danny Ainge.

A key for Phoenix will be how well Hardaway--acquired from the
Magic in August in a trade for Danny Manning, Pat Garrity and two
future first-round draft picks--adjusts to playing alongside Kidd,
an MVP candidate at point guard who last year led the league in
assists (10.8 per game) and triple doubles (seven) while making
the all-defensive team. Considered one of the game's most gifted
players, the 6'7" Hardaway gives the Suns a much-needed finisher
on the break, a reliable scorer who can shoot from outside and
post up, and a tall defender to match up with the likes of the
Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Trail Blazers' Steve Smith. But
Hardaway can be temperamental: In Orlando he had trouble
coexisting with Shaquille O'Neal and grumbled about having to
play the point. It remains to be seen whether he can share the
spotlight with Kidd and Gugliotta.

If Hardaway can keep his ego in check, Phoenix could have the
NBA's best backcourt to go along with one of the game's most
versatile power forwards in Gugliotta and one of its top
defensive small forwards in Robinson. The Suns' bench, led by
veteran shooting guard Rex Chapman, is solid, though it provides
little in the way of size.

As a result, Phoenix's fate may be in the hands of Longley, who
was acquired from the Bulls before last season in hopes that he
could give the Suns the productive center they've lacked since
Alvan Adams retired in 1988. Longley is a good passer with a
reliable jumper and decent low-post moves, but he's often
passive. Last year he averaged 8.7 points on a career-best 48.3%
shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists, numbers not far off his
best but not what the Suns expected when they got him and his
five-year, $30 million contract in a sign-and-trade deal with
Chicago.

Longley's nadir came in the three-game playoff loss to the
Blazers. Unable to take advantage of immobile Portland center
Arvydas Sabonis, Longley was hooked by Ainge and replaced with
the smaller, quicker Manning and Garrity. He wound up playing
just 17.0 minutes per game in the series and averaging 1.3 points
and 3.0 rebounds.

Longley has vowed to put that episode behind him, and in order to
keep his slimmed-down backup, Oliver Miller, from eating into his
minutes, he worked hard in the off-season. He played with the
Australian team for the first time in seven years, changed to a
nearly all-fish diet, cut back on his intake of Foster's and
pumped iron regularly with the trainers of the Perth Wildcats, a
pro basketball team of which he's co-owner. Longley showed up at
training camp leaner, with 11% body fat compared to 17% at camp a
year ago. "I knew we were going to be running and gunning this
year," Longley says, "and I want to be able to stay on the
court."

Like Gugliotta, who struggled at times last year to find his
niche in the Suns' up-tempo offense, Longley expects to feel more
comfortable with a year under his belt. The added penetration
skills of Hardaway should further enhance his game. "With Penny
and Jason penetrating, teams are going to have to build walls in
transition with their big guys to cut them off. Tom and I are
going to be getting a lot of open shots and layups if we just
run," Longley says. "And defensively, our athleticism will help
us to switch and rotate in our scramble, whether we play it
full-court or half-court. Athleticism covers a lot of mistakes,
which is why my mistakes are so glaring."

Longley might have lost his lunch, but he hasn't lost his sense
of adventure. One day in Flagstaff he encouraged Ainge to
organize a team hiking trip four miles up into the nearby San
Francisco Mountains. "I really enjoyed it," Longley said, teasing
his leg-weary teammates. "We're trying to make it to the top.
That's the analogy we're making. We're reaching new heights,
we're peaking."

Whether the Suns can ascend to the Western Conference summit will
depend heavily on Longley's ability to give them at least a
fighting chance against the NBA's power centers. If he doesn't
deliver, there will be more than a few Suns with upset stomachs
at season's end.

--Marty Burns

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Lane change If Longley upgrades his play in the paint, Phoenix will have no flaws. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Faster, faster The gifted Gugliotta is seeking a place in the Suns' up-tempo game.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [4 1/2 stars]
BENCH [3 stars]
COACH [3 1/2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [4 stars]
CHEMISTRY [3 1/2 stars]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 27-23 (tied for sixth in Western Conference)
Coach: Danny Ainge (fourth season with Suns)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG % REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

SUNS 95.6 (3) 44.9 (8) 40.3 (21) 13.6 (3)
OPPONENTS 93.3 (19) 45.0 (23) 42.4 (18) 16.2 (8)

In Fact

Phoenix led the NBA with an average of 25.0 assists despite
having only one player--Jason Kidd--hand out more than three per
game. Kidd was the only player to lead his team in assists in
every game last season.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Clifford Robinson 58 16.4 ppg 4.5 rpg 2.6 apg 47.5 FG%
Was eighth-best three-point shooter last season with
career-high 41.7%

PF Tom Gugliotta 30 17.0 ppg 8.9 rpg 2.8 apg 48.3 FG%
Averaged 6.3 fewer points in playoffs than in 1998-99
regular season

C Luc Longley 173 8.7 ppg 5.7 rpg 1.2 apg 48.3 FG%
Only Sun who has played for an NBA championship team

SG Penny Hardaway[#] 22 15.8 ppg 5.7 rpg 5.3 apg 42.0 FG%
With Magic, played most minutes per game (38.9) of his six-year
career

PG Jason Kidd 8 16.9 ppg 6.8 rpg 10.8 apg 44.4 FG%
MVP candidate had career highs in scoring, assists and steals

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

F Rodney Rogers[#] 124 7.4 ppg 3.8 rpg 1.6 apg 44.1 FG%
Should have been better than Clippers' ninth-leading scorer in
1998-99

G Rex Chapman 166 12.1 ppg 2.7 rpg 2.9 apg 35.9 FG%
Has had double-digit scoring average in each of his 11 NBA
seasons

F Shawn Marion[#](R) 202 18.7 ppg 9.3 rpg 1.2 apg 52.9 FG%
Ninth pick led UNLV in scoring and rebounding in only college
season

G Gerald Brown 284 2.4 ppg 0.7 rpg 0.9 apg 37.1 FG%
Undrafted free agent from Pepperdine played sparingly as a rookie

C Oliver Miller[#] 335 2.5 ppg 2.0 rpg 0.0 apg 45.5 FG%
Began career in Phoenix and went to Finals with Suns in 1993

[#]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)