Basketball Hall of Famer Paul Westphal is one of the most important figures in the history of the Phoenix Suns franchise.
In fact, they've never made the Finals without him.
Westphal, who spent six of his 12 NBA seasons playing for Phoenix, helped lead the Suns to their first-ever NBA Finals appearance in 1976. Once his playing career came to a close, Westphal began his NBA coaching career on the sidelines in Phoenix.
After starting as an assistant in 1988, Westphal took over as the Suns head coach for the 1992-93 season, which resulted in their most recent Finals appearance prior to making it this season.
This past January, Westphal passed away following a battle with brain cancer. To honour his legendary impact, the Suns have worn a black band on the left shoulder of their jerseys throughout the 2020-21 NBA season. While 2021 marks the first Finals without Westphal's physical presence, that black band is representative of his everlasting impact on the franchise and a reminder that he is right there with the team as they vie for their first-ever NBA title.
As Phoenix gears up for its date with the Milwaukee Bucks, learn more about who Paul Westphal is…
1. Early playing career
Westphal, a native of the Los Angeles area, attended the University of Southern California, where he earned All-American honours in his senior season.
A 6-foot-4 combo guard, he was selected with the 10th overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1972 NBA Draft and began his playing career alongside the likes of Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Don Nelson, Paul Silas and Jo Jo White. Westphal spent the first three seasons with the Celtics, winning an NBA title with the team in 1974.
In the offseason of 1975, Westphal was dealt to the Suns, where he would take a major leap in his career.
2. His emergence came quickly in Phoenix
After averaging just 7.3 points per game through his first three NBA seasons, Westphal had a breakout 1975-76 campaign in Phoenix.
Appearing in all 82 games, Westphal's playing time essentially doubled, as did his production, as he went from averaging 9.8 points per game in his final season with the Celtics to 20.5 points per game in his first year with the Suns.
The scoring isn't the only magical part of Westphal's first season in Phoenix, as the Suns advanced to the postseason for just the second time in the franchise's eight-year history with a 42-40 record. There, Phoenix eliminated the Seattle SuperSonics and Golden State Warriors to set a date with the Celtics in the 1976 NBA Finals.
Phoenix fell in six games, but Westphal averaged 20.8 points in the Finals against his former team, and the franchise had officially arrived after making a deep run early in its existence.
3. Westphal racked up honours in his prime
The next five seasons were prime years for Westphal, who earned five consecutive selections to the Western Conference All-Star team from 1976-1981.
Over this five-year span, Westphal averaged 22.4 points and 5.5 assists per game, with his scoring peak coming at 25.2 points per game (good for sixth in the league) in the 1977-78 season with the Suns. In addition to All-Star selections, Westphal earned All-NBA honours four times, with First Team selections coming in 1977, 1979 and 1980 and a Second Team selection coming in 1978.
Following the 1979-80 season, Westphal was traded to the Sonics, where injuries began to derail his career. Despite earning an All-Star selection, he was limited to 36 games in the 1980-81 season and, in th offseason, signed with the New York Knicks, where injuries held him to just 18 games in the 1981-82 season.
In the 1982-83 season, Westphal's final year as a Knick, he was named the league's Comeback Player of the Year after averaging 10.0 points and 5.5 assists over 80 games (59 starts). He returned to Phoenix as a free agent in the 1983 offseason, and the 1983-84 season would be his last in the NBA.
He was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 2019.
4. He quickly rose up the coaching ranks
After one year of retirement, Westphal got into coaching, getting his start at Phoenix's Southwestern Baptist Bible College in 1985. After one season there, Westphal remained in Phoenix but moved onto a new post at Grand Canyon University, which he led to a 37-6 record and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Championship in the 1987-88 season.
In 1988, then-Suns head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons hired Westphal to join his staff, thus beginning his NBA coaching career.
Westphal spent four seasons as an assistant under Fitzsimmons and was promoted to the Suns head coaching job ahead of the 1992-93 NBA season. With a roster that featured Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle, Westphal led the Suns to a league-best 62-20 record in his first-ever season as a head coach.
With the league MVP in Barkley, Westphal would lead the Suns back to the Finals for the first time since he played for the team. While they would fall to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games, Westphal had one of the best rookie seasons for a head coach.
Westphal compiled an impressive 177-69 record in his first three seasons leading Phoenix but was let go early on in Year 4. His NBA coaching career also included stops in Seattle and Sacramento, where his coaching career effectively ended in 2012.
5. His impact in Phoenix goes beyond measure
Westphal, whose No. 44 is one of six numbers to hang in the rafters at Phoenix Suns Arena, remains in the franchise's top 10 in a number of statistical categories, including points, assists and steals.
He was named to the Suns' All-Century Team as a coach (First Team) and player (Second Team), the franchise's 40th-anniversary team in 2008 and is one of 11 Basketball Hall of Famers to have worn a Suns uniform at some point in their career.
The biggest impact, of course, is that the Suns had not advanced to the Finals without Westphal's name present on the roster prior to this year. As they play in his honour, the team's first title could end up being a product of his immeasurable influence.
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