Back in 1999, the NBA was in a weird place. The Chicago Bulls dynasty just ended with MJ retiring. A lockout happened. The San Antonio Spurs won it all with their new superstar Tim Duncan, only a season after winning 20 games. It was a true transition period for the league that saw a lot of changes and new teams emerging—one of the most promising ones formed in Phoenix led by Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway. Unfortunately, the hype around them never delivered.
The Suns acquired 28-year old Penny Hardaway in a sign and trade to pair him with 26-year old Jason Kidd. This flashy backcourt brought some new excitement to the league, labeled "Backcourt 2000". This was the duo of the future that was supposed to bring a new era of faster and more dynamic basketball to the NBA.
You can argue Kidd and Penny were the most exciting players to watch at the time, with their mix of athleticism and passing ability making them stand out, delivering amazing plays night in and night out. It was a style ahead of its time, much more similar to the way the game is played today. On paper, it looked perfect, but in the end, this duo spent playing only two seasons together, with the second one having Penny out for all but four games. Kidd would get traded after the second season to the Nets, which would be the end of the short-lived era in Phoenix. What went wrong?
The up's and down's
We mainly remember Penny Hardaway for his days with the Orlando Magic. And with good reason. Penny was spectacular from the moment he entered the NBA, with many people labeling him the second MJ. Penny got so popular and loved by fans that people speculated Shaq got jealous and left for LA because of that. However, a knee injury in 1998 would be the end of Penny as we knew him.
On the other side, Jason Kidd was one of the better all-around players in the league, leading the NBA in assists. Kidd was pleading for the Suns to get Penny, as he was a big fan of his game. Head coach Danny Ainge shared Kidd's opinion and displayed enthusiasm about the prospects of the team before the season, believing they could go a long way.
But only 20 games into the season, with a 13-7 record Danny Ainge would step down to the surprise of everybody. It was unfortunate, as Danny had a good relationship with the team. Ainge got replaced by rookie head coach Scott Skiles, who brought another dimension to the Suns.
A rigorous defensive game plan would make the Suns one of the best defensive teams in the NBA at the time, limiting their opponents to 93.7 ppg. But that was the good side of their season. Injuries plagued the team, with their roster having 269 games missed all together through the season.
There wasn't enough time to gel together, with their complete starting five playing only 13 games all season. But despite that, the Suns would finish with a remarkable 53-29 record. Penny missed 22 games that season and averaged 16.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 5.3 apg. Solid season, but it was evident this wasn't the Penny Hardaway from his Magic days. The athleticism wasn't there anymore, and Penny had to rely more on his jump shot.
Also, Kidd's broken ankle injury didn't help, as he returned during the playoffs. In the games Penny and Kidd both played, the Suns dominated with a 33-12 record. You also have to add into consideration that two key role players in Rex Chapman and Tom Gugliotta went down with season-ending injuries.
The Suns would breeze by the Spurs in the first round despite all that. To be fair, Tim Duncan was out with injury. But the Kobe/Shaq-led Lakers were too big of a task for the Suns, and they got eliminated in five games. All things considered, with all the adversity and injuries, you had to praise the Suns for fighting through and holding their ground. The future was looking bright, but then it all went crashing down.
The fall of the early 2000's Suns
We might remember Jason Kidd as the calm and reliable veteran, but the point guard was a bit of a hothead back in his younger days. Off-court troubles regarding domestic violence presented a concern, despite not affecting Kidd's on-court performance the following season. The Suns traded him away to the Nets in exchange for Stephon Marbury in 2002, ending an era. In the end, it turned out great for Kidd, who completely revitalized his career and image in New Jersey.
The fall out of the team also wasn't helped by the fact Penny had knee surgery that kept him out for all but four games in the 2001 season. But the Kidd-led Suns would still manage to somehow win 51 games, but only to be bounced out in the first round. That marked the end of a promising era.
The Nets got Jason Kidd, who completely changed their culture, while Penny managed to return next season and spend a couple of more decent years in Phoenix. This team and star duo had a lot of promise, but all the nagging injuries, significantly Penny's and Kidd's off-court troubles, really prevented the Suns of the early 2000s from reaching their full potential. A true shame.