Three of the four remaining teams in the NBA playoffs can boast of at least two players who were top-five picks in the draft.
Miami has Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton. Detroit trots out Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, and Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn fit the bill for Dallas.
(Dirk Nowitzki was the ninth pick in 1998.) Then there’s the Suns.
Of their top seven players, only Tim Thomas (seventh in 1997) and Shawn Marion (ninth in 1999) were top-10 selections. And they weren’t slam-dunk choices.
In fact, there isn’t a single player in the Suns’ rotation who was considered a can’t-miss prospect.
Steve Nash was too small and too slow. Boris Diaw was a bust as a backup point guard in Atlanta. Raja Bell wasn’t drafted and was eating in a Denny’s in Sioux Falls, S.D., when the Philadelphia 76ers called to offer him a job.
Leandro Barbosa and James Jones? Who knew? And who cared?
Not since the Bad News Bears has a more unlikely success story played out in front of a national audience.
But maybe, when you think about it, that’s why the Suns are where they are, just four wins away from an NBA Finals appearance.
There is a toughness and resiliency to this team that says more about its character than it does its talent. So many of the Suns have been through difficult times that they weren’t fazed when Amaré Stoudemire went down . . . or when Kurt Thomas was sidelined . . . or when the Los Angeles Lakers went up 3-1 . . . or when Bell was suspended in Game 6 of that series . . . or when Nash’s legs betrayed him against the Clippers.
They sucked it up and did what they’ve been doing most of their basketball life — wiped the snide look off their critics’ faces.
“We have a lot of players on our team that should have something to prove and play like they have something to prove,” Bell said. “When it’s time to man up, we man up.”
Clearly, the Suns aren’t a bunch of mutts trying to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Nash is a two-time MVP. Marion is a three-time All-Star. But the team’s success is certainly far greater than the sum of its parts.
The best way to put it? The Suns have a collective inferiority complex.
“We’ve all faced a lot of adversity in our careers and we’ve all been doubted,” Nash said. “None of us were really handed the job or were a sure thing. I think it does make up with who we are individually and collectively. You really learn a lot from being doubted. It builds character.
“I think a lot of guys in our locker room feel they’ll never be granted their place. It’s never safe, it’s never a given. It’s still driving guys.”
It might sound silly, multimillionaire athletes who have long since proven their worth being motivated by slights years ago. But how many of us are still weighed down by insecurities from our childhood? How many of us were called fat or ugly and even though we know better today, when we look in the mirror, the taunts still dance in our heads?
Athletes are no different. Say they’re not good enough and the driven ones will do everything to prove they are.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Bell said. “That’s who we are and how we play.”
There’s a side benefit to the players having experienced so much turbulence in their careers: The locker room isn’t overrun by egos. No one — with the possible exception of Thomas — was given a silver spoon when they got to the NBA, so they’re more willing to forgo their needs for the needs of the team.
“I think we’re a group that tries to make the most of each other instead of making the most out of themselves,” Nash said. “It helps to have that sense of community. It’s definitely something important to our success.”
(Being unselfish is easier to swallow, by the way, when the team’s best player has an ego the size of a hummingbird. Who’s going to complain about the number of shots they’re getting when Nash’s only concern is winning?) There will come a point — perhaps in the Western Conference finals — when talent wins out over resolve. Plucky will only get a team so far.
But when the season is over and we’re left with our memories, we should marvel not only at the distance the Suns traveled, but the path they took to get there.
It was paved with hard work, sweat and fears.