by Adam Fleischer
The starting unit in the NBA can be a funny thing. It’s not unusual that one of a team’s best players is not a part, instead beginning each game on the sideline. It could be that this player provides a needed spark off the bench, or is more comfortable in that role, or maybe plays the same position as the team’s best player.
In no other major professional sport are those who don’t start the game so crucial to a team’s success. The NBA even gives out an award every year for the most outstanding player who starts each game on the bench. You don’t need to have the best starting unit in the League to win the championship, nor does having the best one ensure pouring champagne in June.
And what exactly does “best” mean with respect to a starting unit? A talented and successful group with clear on court chemistry seems to fit.
These were all questions I considered and facts that I had to convince myself of in choosing the best starting unit of the last decade.
A bunch of teams were in the discussion: One of a few Pistons teams (they were a close second); the championship Celtics (Rondo was a question mark at the time and Perkins was simply serviceable); early decade Sacramento Kings (their success also relied heavily on bench play); a Lakers squad (a couple Hall of Famers over the hump? AC Green starting every game for the 2000 championship team? Nah).
So, ultimately, the nod had to go to an exciting team that took the NBA by storm during the ‘04-05 season out in Phoenix. The Suns were coming off an abysmal 29-53 showing the previous year and had just brought Steve Nash back to town during free agency to run Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
The results, of course, were pretty special.
With a starting five of Nash, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudamire, the Suns started the year hot, jumping to a 31-4 record out of the gate. They finished things up in April with 62 wins and 20 losses—a 33 game turnaround from the year before and good enough for the League’s best record.
A six-year sidekick of Dirk while in Dallas, Nash came back to the desert and made clear his individual value before long. He averaged double digit assists for the first time in his career, dishing a league-best 11.5 per to go along with 15.5 points. He won his first of two consecutive MVP awards and earned his first of three consecutive All-NBA First Team selections.
Amare Stoudamire had a career year alongside his new teammate. He shot 56 percent from the field, attempted a still career best 10 free throws per game, and grabbed nine boards to go along with 26 points a night, fifth highest average in the League. He’s only come close to that sort of scoring output one other time in his career (the 2007-08 season). He was All-NBA Second Team.
The versatile Shawn Marion also flourished running with Nash, catching oops left and right on the way to his second career all-star appearance and the first of two consecutive All-NBA Third Team selection. Marion also posted the second best scoring and rebounding numbers of his career and was third in the League in boards.
Joe Johnson dropped 17 per during the ‘04-05 campaign, which proved to be his final one in Phoenix. His continued growth and impressive showing that season earned him a $70 million contract from Atlanta.
Quentin Richardson was a solid fifth starter to round out the unit. He scored 15 per, a legitimate output from your fifth option. In his only year with the Suns, QRich lead the League in threes made, perpetually posted beyond the arc, benefitting from the chaos created by Nash and Co.
On the season, this five-man unit had a plus/minus of +470. To put that in perspective, the Pistons starters were the second best that year, at +299, and Dallas was third at +219. The Celtics championship team starters were +388 on the season. The Cavs starters last year were +187.
Plus, the Suns scored 110.4 points per game as a team, a remarkable seven points more than the second highest scoring squad; these starters averaged a remarkable 92.9 of those points. No, they didn’t exactly D up (let up the most points per in the League), but this team got the job done when they were out there together. Leandro Barbosa was in just his second year and he, like other bench players, weren’t the hugest factors on a team that counted very heavily on production from its starters. It worked for most of the year, but once the playoffs rolled around, defense and depth proved important, and the Suns couldn’t get past the eventual champs in San Antonio.
Just to recap, the ‘04-05 Phoenix Suns had a starting five of: the MVP, All-NBA First Teamer, all-star, and league leader in assists per game; an all-star All-NBA Second Team performer who was the fifth leading per game scorer for the season; an all-star All-NBA Third Teamer who was third in the League in rebounding per game; a future all-star in his final year before earning a lucrative deal and become “The Man” on his own team; and a solid fifth starter in his only year in Phoenix who was tied for the most three point field goals on the year.
The Suns never even advanced to the Finals with this core. But they put in work. Like I said, there’s more to this thing than a starting five.
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.