By Jeff Merron
Page 2

Despite the Suns' recent mini-slump, the team's turnaround has been remarkable. They've already surpassed last year's win total of 29 and the season isn't even at the midway point. If Phoenix continues at its current pace, the Suns will finish the regular season with a 67-15 record; that 38-game improvement would top the record of the 1997-98 Spurs, who won 36 more games than they had in 1996-97.

But of course, it's not all about the regular season. Our list of best NBA turnarounds ...

10. 1968-69 Bullets
36-46, .439, in 1967-68; 57-25, .695, in 1968-69

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Gene Shue's Bullets hit the jackpot two years in a row, drafting Earl Monroe with the No. 2 pick in 1967 and Wes Unseld with the No. 2 pick in 1968. Monroe -- the 1968 Rookie of the Year -- was outdone in 1968-69 by Unseld, but he probably didn't mind. The Pearl finished second in the NBA in scoring at 25.8 ppg. Unseld was only the team's fourth-leading scorer with a 13.8 average, but was fifth in the NBA with 18.2 rebounds a game and became only the second player in NBA history to be named MVP his rookie season. Wilt Chamberlain had been the first.

The Bullets finished the regular season with the best record in the league, but slid toward the end of the year and bowed to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.

9. 2003-04 Nuggets
17-65, .207, in 2002-03; 43-39, .524, in 2003-04

Carmelo Anthony
Even Carmelo Anthony needed help as a rookie in Denver.

Two words: Carmelo Anthony. The rookie averaged 21 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.2 steals a game, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, and energized both the team and the Denver fan base. Meanwhile, free agent Juwan Howard, the team's leading scorer in 2002-03, took off for Orlando

Point guard Andre Miller arrived from the Clippers and led the team in assists and steals and was the Nuggets' second-leading scorer. Marcus Camby, who'd played a total of 58 games in the previous two seasons, was good for 72 games and a team-leading 10.1 rebounds. And Earl Boykins, coming off the bench, averaged 10.2 points and 3.5 assists in about 22 minutes a game. The Nuggets lost to the Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs.

8. 1997-98 Pacers
39-54, .476, in 1996-97; 58-24, .707, in 1997-98

This was an unusual turnaround case in which the new coach -- Larry Bird -- made the biggest, clearest difference in the transformation. The Pacers' roster didn't change much from the previous season. Reggie Miller and Rik Smits remained the team's two leading scorers, although Smits played 20 more games in 1997-98. The major addition on the floor was Chris Mullin, who added 11 ppg and was a second threat (besides Miller) from 3-point range. Mark Jackson's presence throughout the season also made a huge difference; the team's assist leader had played only 30 games in 1996-97, but didn't miss a game under Bird's guidance, and played more minutes than any other Pacer besides Miller.

The Pacers beat the Knicks and the Cavs in the playoffs before bowing out to the Bulls in a great seven-game Eastern Conference final matchup.

Best In-Season Turnaround
The Seattle Sonics went 40-42 with Bill Russell steering the ship in 1976-77. At the end of the season, they promoted Bob Hopkins, Russell's cousin and an assistant to Russell for three years, to head coach.

Talk about bad decisions.

In the first game of the season, the Sonics were drubbed by the Warriors, 116-84. They continued to lose, sometimes by a few points, but most of the time in double-digit margins. Three weeks into the season, Seattle boasted a 2-10 record. After two straight wins, they got cold again, losing five in a row.

Maybe Hopkins was spending too much time on the local newspaper column he wrote, called "Hoppy Talk."

Finally, after a 115-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets, which put the team at 5-17, Hopkins got fired, and was replaced by former Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens.

The Sonics took off on an immediate six-game winning streak and didn't stop. "[Wilkens has] done his miracle work by employing some unusual methods," wrote Paul Attner in the Feb. 5, 1978 edition of the Washington Post. "All five Sonic starters on opening night have either been benched or traded by Wilkens and now he starts his young players and substitutes with his veterans. That contrasts with the conventional NBA substitution philosophy." Among those promoted to the starting lineup were rookie Jack Sikma and guards Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams.

The unconventional worked. Under Wilkens, the Sonics went 42-18 the rest of the way and made it to the NBA Finals, losing in seven games to the Bullets.

7. 1991-92 Cavs
33-49. .402, in 1990-91; 57-25, .695, in 1991-92

Lenny Wilkens' Cavs came out steaming in 1991-92, with a nine-game home winning streak and a smack trouncing of the Heat, 148-80, early in the season. Brad Daugherty averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds per game and finished third in the league in points per shot attempt; he made the All-Star team and the All-NBA third team. Mark Price, who played just 17 games the year before, averaged 17.3 points and 7.4 assists, and was also an All-Star and All-NBA third-teamer. Larry Nance was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team. And rookie Terrell Brandon was a solid add, averaging 7.4 points, 3.9 assists, and a steal a game despite limited playing time.

The Cavs finished the season with the second-highest win total in the league, then beat the Nets and the Celtics in the first two rounds of the playoffs before losing to the Bulls in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.

6. 1988-89 Suns
28-54, .341, in 1987-88; 55-27, .671, in 1988-89

The 1988 Suns were about as new as you could get without being an expansion team. Cotton Fitzsimmons, who hadn't coached since 1985, became the new head coach and director of player personnel. He traded Larry Nance for Kevin Johnson, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin, and signed free agent Tom Chambers. Guard Jeff Hornacek, in his third year, continued to improve. All together, it added up to a winning mix -- the youngest team in the NBA went 18-4 over the final stretch, and led the league in scoring, with Chambers (25.7), Eddie Johnson (21.5), and Kevin Johnson (20.4) forming the NBA's only 20+ trio.

The Suns continued their hot streak in the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping the Nuggets and then ousting Golden State. The Lakers swept them in the Western Conference finals.

5. 1969-70 Bucks
27-59, .329, in 1968-69; 56-26, .683 in 1969-1970

Two rookies made the difference for Larry Costello's Bucks in their second season: Lew Alcindor, the No. 1 overeall pick, averaged 28.8 points (second in the NBA) and 14.5 rebounds (third) per game, made All-NBA second team and All-Defensive second team. Bob Dandridge, the Bucks' fourth-round draft pick out of Norfolk State, added 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Flynn "Electric Eye" Robinson, the team's leading scorer its first season, was a solid No. 2 scorer with 21.8 ppg. He enjoyed a career season, making the All-Star team for the only time.

This all added up to a 29-game improvement, an astounding achievement for a second-year expansion team. The Bucks beat the Sixers 4 games to 1 in the Eastern semifinals before bowing to the eventual NBA champion Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks would win it all the next year.

David Robinson
After missing two years while in the navy, Robinson was an immediate star with the Spurs.

4. 1989-90 Spurs
21-61, .256, in 1988-89; 56-26, .683 in 1989-90

The Spurs that took the court in Nov. 1989 were an almost entirely different bunch from the 1988 edition. Among the adds: David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Terry Cummings and Maurice Cheeks. The Admiral was consistently great from game one, swept the season's Rookie of the Month honors and finished with averages of 24.3 ppg and 12 rpg. Cummings averaged 22.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. Elliott added 10 points a game. And Cheeks led the team in assists for the first 50 games of the season, before he was traded to the Knicks for Rod Strickland. Strickland was an immediate offensive upgrade -- he averaged 8 assists and 14 points the rest of the way. The Spurs made it to the Western Conference semis, which they lost to the Blazers in seven games.

3. 1997-98 Spurs
20-62, .244, in 1996-97; 56-26, .683, in 1997-98

This is the team the Suns are going after -- this Spurs team holds the record for the biggest regular-season turnaround. And all it took was two players: David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Duncan was the first pick in the 1997 draft, and Robinson had played only six games the previous season due to injury. Duncan was an All-Star, registering 57 double-doubles. He averaged 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds a game. Robinson nearly matched him, averaging 21.6 ppg, 10.6 rebounds, and racking up 40 double-doubles. San Antonio beat the Suns in the first round of the playoffs but lost to the Jazz in the conference semis.

2. 1979-80 Celtics
29-54, .354, in 1978-79; 61-21, .744, in 1979-80

Larry Bird
When Red Auerbach signed Larry Bird, the fortunes turned for the Celtics.

The Celtics went from worst to first with the addition of Larry Bird, who led the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and assists on the way to being named Rookie of the Year. JoJo White, Bob McAdoo, and Billy Knight, who combined for 107 games in 1978-79, departed, and the Celtics trimmed their season-long cast of characters from 18 to 12. Dave Cowens and Cedric Maxwell had solid seasons, and Nate Archibald and Chris Ford played well in the backcourt for new head coach Bill Fitch. The Celtics swept the Rockets in the Eastern Conference semifinals before bowing to Julius Erving and the Sixers, 4 games to 1, in the conference finals.

1. 2001-2002 Nets
26-56, .317, in 2000-01; 52-30, .634, in 2001-02

The Nets added Jason Kidd and Kerry Kittles (back from a knee injury) to their lineup in '01-02. Also new to the team were center Todd MacCulloch, rookie Richard Jefferson, and guard Lucious Harris, who combined for 28 points, 13 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The Nets registered their first 50-win season and first trip to the NBA finals.

Also receiving votes:
1988-89 Warriors (23-game improvement)
1969-70 Suns (23-game improvement)
2003-04 Grizzlies (22-game improvement)
1976-77 Bulls (20-game improvement)
1996-97 Heat (19-game improvement)




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