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flip the coin

Curse of the Coin Flip

The Curse of the Coin Flip is an alleged curse sometimes used to explain the failure of the Phoenix Suns to win an NBA Championship despite their regular season success. It refers to the Suns' losing a coin flip for the #1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft to the Milwaukee Bucks, and thus losing the opportunity to select Lew Alcindor in the draft. Two seasons after selecting Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks won an NBA Championship (1971), while the Suns still have yet to do so.

Regular-season success of the Suns

Throughout the Suns' forty year history, they have been very successful. They have posted 17 seasons with 50 or more wins and 3 seasons with 60 or more wins; have made the playoffs in 27 seasons; have won 6 Pacific Division Titles (including three in a row from 2004-07); have made 8 trips to the Western Conference Finals; and have won 2 Western Conference Championships. The Suns rank fourth among the NBA Franchises in all-time winning percentage, and are the winningest NBA franchise not to have won an NBA Championship.

Origins of the curse

The Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks both began play in the National Basketball Association in the 1968-69 season. Both teams finished last in their division: the Suns finished 16-66 and the Bucks finished 27-55. Under NBA rules of the time, the teams with the two worst records in the league flipped a coin, with the winner gaining the first pick in the following NBA Draft, as opposed to simply giving the team with the worst record the first pick. Whichever team won this toss was certainly going to gain a huge boost, for one of the most dominant and successful college basketball players of all time was in this draft: Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks won the coin toss, giving them the #1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft and giving the Suns the #2 pick. The Bucks, as expected, selected Lew Alcindor and the Suns selected Neal Walk, a center from the University of Florida.

The Suns since the Curse's inception

During Kareem's early career: the 1970s and early 1980s

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the NBA's most dominant centers of all time. Ever since the 1969 Draft, the Suns have struggled to get a consistent, dominant center, or "big man." This, along with strange twists of bad luck, have been two of the main reasons for the Suns' failure to win a title.

The Suns went 39-43 in the 1969-70 season, finishing fourth in the Western Conference and qualifying for the playoffs, where they lost in seven games to the eventual NBA runners-up, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns blew a 3-1 series lead in the process. The Lakers, incidentally, had a big man who was the most dominant in league history up to that point – Wilt Chamberlain. The bad luck bug struck the Suns during this series for the first of many times. In Game Six, the Suns led the Lakers at home, 22-9, and looked like they were on their way to eliminating the Lakers. However, center Jim Fox went down with an ankle injury, and the Suns blew their lead. They subsequently lost Game Seven by 30.

The following season – the 1970-71 season – the Suns finished 9 games better, with a record of 48-34. Unfortunately, the NBA had just split to their divisional format, and only the top two teams in each division made the playoffs. Despite the Suns' improvement, they finished third in the Midwest Division, behind the eventual Champions – the Milwaukee Bucks – and the Chicago Bulls. (It is worth noting that the Suns' record would have tied them for first in the Pacific Division.)

The Suns' next trip to the playoffs came in 1976. Sparked by their pick in the previous year's draft, #4 choice Alvan Adams, along with other team leaders such as Paul Westphal, Dick Van Arsdale, Curtis Perry, and Gar Heard, the Suns went 42-40 to finish third in the Pacific Division and qualify for the playoffs. Their record was good enough that they would have won the Midwest Division championship, since every team in the Midwest Division finished with a losing record. This seemingly bad twist of luck did not spoil the Suns' fortunes in the Western Conference Playoffs, however, for they upset the Seattle Supersonics in the Semifinals and the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Conference Finals to win their first Western Conference Championship. They went on to lose the NBA Finals in six games to the Boston Celtics. A dominant big man such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would have helped the Suns tremendously, for the tallest Celtics player was 6'9", and Abdul-Jabbar is 7'2".

The Suns' next trip to the playoffs came in the 1977-78 season, the first of eight consecutive playoff berths. They were eliminated in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks.

In 1979, the Suns won 50 games for the first time ever, finishing second in the Pacific Division, behind Seattle. In the playoffs, the Suns lost to Seattle – the eventual NBA Champions – 4 games to 3 in the Western Conference Finals.

The following season, the Suns won what was then a franchise-best 55 games, finishing third in the Pacific Division again. They were eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by the man who was the source of this curse – 1979-80 MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The 1979-80 season marked the sixth and final time that Abdul-Jabbar had won the MVP award, an NBA record.

The Suns won their first-ever division title in 1980-81, winning a then-franchise best 57 games, but were upset by the Kansas City Kings – who had a regular season record of 40-42 – in the Western Conference Semifinals, four games to three.

The 1981-82 squad won 49 games and finished third in the Pacific Division, but were again eliminated from the playoffs by Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers, this time in a four game sweep in the Western Conference Semifinals. This marked the third time that the Suns had faced the Lakers in the playoffs, and each time, the Lakers eliminated the Suns.

53 wins came the Suns' way in the 1982-83 season, but the Suns made another early playoff exit, this time at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the first round. The following year, the Suns went 41-41, gaining the Western Conference's sixth seed. After upsetting the Portland Trail Blazers and the Midwest Division Champion Utah Jazz, the Suns – for the fourth time in a playoff series, but the first time in the Western Conference Finals – faced the Lakers. This series finished like the previous three, with the Abdul-Jabbar-led Lakers once again eliminating the Suns.

1987

The Suns did not make the playoffs in the following three seasons. One of these years – 1987 – was particularly painful for the Suns and their fans.

The pain started in April. In the 1987 Draft Lottery, the hopes of the Suns and their fans were teased when they found out that they had one of the top two picks. Their draft hopes were dashed once again, however, when NBA Commissioner David Stern opened the envelope under "#2" and it contained the Suns' logo, giving the Suns the #2 pick and the San Antonio Spurs the #1 pick. The Spurs drafted future 10-time All-Star Center David Robinson, and the Suns drafted UNLV power forward Armon Gilliam. Robinson went on to be the 1989-90 Rookie of the Year, a 10-time All-Star, an 8-time member of either the first or second NBA All-Defense Team, the 1991-92 Defensive Player of the Year, and the 1994-95 MVP. Gilliam made the 1987-88 All-Rookie Team, but never was an All-Star. The Suns were disappointed in Gilliam's production and traded him to the Charlotte Hornets midway through the 1989-90 season.

More trouble came for the Suns in 1987 in the form of a drug scandal, as three Suns players (James Edwards, Jay Humphries, and Grant Gondrezick) were indicted by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office on drug-related charges.

The Suns' fans pain soon turned to grief. Hoping to solve their big man woes, the Suns had drafted a young center in 1985: 7'2" Nick Vanos of Santa Clara University. Vanos was the tallest player in Suns history up to that point in time, and was showing much promise as an NBA Center. The Suns never found out how good or bad Vanos fully was, as he was a passenger aboard the ill-fated Northwest Airlines Flight 255, which crashed shortly after takeoff in Detroit on August 16, 1987. Vanos was one of 154 passengers or crew members aboard the plane who died in the crash.

Abdul-Jabbar's final two years: Suns show promise, but still no title

The Suns traded for Kevin Johnson, Tyrone Corbin, and Mark West in early 1988. They also drafted Olympian "Thunder" Dan Majerle and signed All-Star Tom Chambers. Led by this new nucleus, they began a string of 13 consecutive playoff berths, starting in the 1988-89 season.

In the 1988-89 season, the Suns won 55 games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. They were eliminated in a sweep by their nemesis, the Lakers, marking the fifth time in as many tries that the Suns had been eliminated from the playoffs by the Lakers. This was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's final NBA season.

After Kareem's career

The 1990s: Continued success, but still no title

In the 1989-90 season, the first season after Abdul-Jabbar's retirement, the Suns finally defeated the Lakers in a playoff series, knocking the Lakers out in the semifinals, four games to one. However, they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals in six games. The Suns' bad luck hit during this playoff series: in Game Two, the Suns led the Blazers by 22 points during the second half, but blew the lead and lost by one point in overtime, 108-107.

The Suns had two more 50-win seasons in 1990-91 and 1991-92, but were eliminated in the first round by the Jazz and the Semifinals by the Blazers, respectively. In the summer of 1992, the Suns traded for Charles Barkley. Barkley won the NBA's MVP award during the 1992-93 season, leading the Suns to a franchise-best 62-20 record and a berth in the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan. The Suns' bad luck in the playoffs continued, as they failed to win a home game and lost in six games to the Bulls.

The next two seasons – 1993-94 and 1994-95 – both ended with the Suns winning 55+ games. In each season, the Suns were eliminated from the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals. In both cases, they lost in 7 games to the eventual back-to-back NBA Champion Houston Rockets. Both times, they blew a 2-game series lead: 2-0 in 1994, and 3-1 in 1995.

1995 was a case of particularly bad luck for the Suns. Just before the All-Star break, with the Suns on pace to win 65 games, Danny Manning blew out his ACL after colliding with center Joe Kleine during practice, ending Manning's season. The Suns still finished with 59 wins, but they truly missed Manning in the Rockets series, with Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon having a huge series. Manning is 6'11" and could have helped tremendously with the Suns' defense of Olajuwon.

The next four years all spelled first-round playoff exits for the Suns. In 2000, they bowed out in the semifinals to the eventual NBA Champion Lakers, four games to one. However, there was a bright spot for the Suns in 1999: the drafting of future All-Star Shawn Marion.

The run-and-gun era

The Suns started the first decade of the 21st Century with mediocrity. However, in 2002 they gained a high first round pick, taking high school phenom power forward Amare Stoudemire with the ninth overall pick. Stoudemire was the 2003 NBA Rookie of the Year, but the Suns still weren't heading in the right direction. That all changed with the hiring of Mike D'Antoni as head coach and the signing of point guard Steve Nash. D'Antoni's system, coupled with Nash's skills at point guard, brought the Suns back to tremendous regular-season success. They won Pacific Division titles in three straight years – 2005, 2006, and 2007. In two of those three seasons, they won 60+ games. However, they ran into some terrible luck in the postseason.

Their most recent bad luck

Each of the Suns' three straight Pacific Division championship seasons came to a particularly unfortunate end. In 2004-05, the Suns won a league-best 62 games. They swept the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and knocked the Dallas Mavericks out in six games in the semifinals. However, that series proved to be fateful: in Game 2, the Suns lost swingman Joe Johnson until Game 3 of the Conference Finals due to a facial fracture he suffered when he hit his face on the floor after being fouled from behind by Mavs forward Jerry Stackhouse. In the conference Finals, the Suns fell behind to the San Antonio Spurs three games to none and lost in five to the eventual NBA Champions. Joe Johnson's injury seriously changed the complexion of the first two games, and the Suns lost both by close margins.

In the 2005 offseason, the Suns traded an unhappy Joe Johnson to the Atlanta Hawks for Boris Diaw and a protected 2007 first round draft pick. The Suns would get the Hawks' 2007 first round pick so long as it was not in the top three. If the Suns failed to get the 2007 pick, then the Suns would get the Hawks' 2008 first round pick. Diaw has played a major role on the Suns' team ever since. The Suns also signed defensive specialist Raja Bell, hoping to bolster their perimeter defense.

However, the 2005 offseason contained a scary moment: the knee injuries of Amare Stoudemire. He missed all but three games of the 2005-06 season – and all of the playoffs – due to these injuries and his subsequent microfracture surgery.

The Suns won 54 games in the 2005-06 season, taking their second consecutive Pacific Division title. In the playoffs, they beat the Lakers in seven games in the first round. They beat the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the semifinals, giving them a second straight trip to the conference finals, where they faced the Mavericks, who knocked the #1 seeded San Antonio Spurs out in the semifinals. In the conference finals, the Suns were off to a good start, defeating the Mavericks in Game 1 on the road. Unfortunately, Raja Bell injured his calf and missed Games Two and Three. The Suns lost both games. Throughout the entire series, the Suns sorely missed Amare Stoudemire, as they blew double-digit leads in Games Five and Six, dropping the series to the Mavs in six games. Their lack of depth in the low post was exposed in blowing those leads in Games Five and Six.

The Suns won 61 games in the 2006-07 season, good enough for their third straight Pacific Division crown – their sixth overall – and the #2 seed in the Western Conference. The Suns dumped the Lakers in the opening round, taking five games to do so. The #1 seeded Mavericks lost their first round match to the Warriors, making the Suns the surviving team with the best record. In the semifinals, they had to face the San Antonio Spurs.

The 2007 Spurs series

The Suns dropped Game One at home by five, 111-106. They had to finish the game without Steve Nash due to a nose injury he suffered from a collision with Spurs point guard Tony Parker. After the Suns won Game Two in a 20-point blowout, the Suns lost Game Three on the road, 108-101. This game was heavily criticized for its officiating, and later on, it was revealed that Tim Donaghy – one of the officials on that game – bet on games he officiated.

In Game Four, the Suns came from behind to win on the road, 104-98. However, with 18 seconds left, former Sun Robert Horry fouled Steve Nash hard, sending Nash into the scorer's table shoulder first and inciting a fight. During this altercation, Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw both left the Suns' bench. Earlier in the game, Spurs center Tim Duncan left the bench and walked onto the court after his teammate, center Francisco Elson, was undercut by Suns forward James Jones. Elson got up ready to fight, but Jones had already run to the other end of the court, and Bruce Bowen came and brought Duncan back to the bench. Stoudemire and Diaw both were suspended for one game each for leaving the bench, and Horry was suspended for two games for the foul. Duncan did not receive any suspension for leaving the bench. The undermanned Suns lost Game Five in Phoenix after blowing a big lead, and the Suns then lost Game Six by eight to be eliminated from the series.

Snubbed by the Draft Lottery yet again

The 2007 NBA Draft Lottery was not kind to the Suns either, since the Atlanta Hawks were drawn for the #3 pick, which meant that they got to keep it, and the Suns would get the Hawks' pick in 2008. The 2007 NBA Draft was predicted to be a deep draft, especially in the big man department.

Finally: The acquisition of a dominant center...But still no title

The Suns began the 2007-08 season with a bang, rolling to a 34-14 start and the best record in the Western Conference up to that point. However, their continued lack of a dominant center – which has been one of their nemeses throughout their existence – concerned their coach, especially with how that would affect the Suns' fortunes in the playoffs. So, on February 6, 2008, the Suns traded four-time All-Star small forward Shawn Marion and backup guard Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O'Neal, giving the Suns a dominant center for the first time in team history. Even with the acquisition of O'Neal, it wasn't enough as the Suns faced defeat once again at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, this time, in the first round of the 2008 NBA Playoffs, losing, four games to one. After the season, D'Antoni left the Suns to become the new head coach of the New York Knicks.

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