Though it comes 17 years after his death, longtime NBA coach Cotton Fitzsimmons is finally getting his due. Fitzsimmons is among the inductees on Sept. 11, 2021, for the Basketball Hall of Fame, winning 832 games over 21 seasons with five franchises. His introduction to coaching in the league was a rough one, though. His first two editions of the Phoenix Suns are among the best teams in NBA history to miss the playoffs.
Fitzsimmons was one of several coaches who transitioned from the college ranks to the NBA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, the league expanded from nine teams at the end of 1965–66 to 17 by 1970–71. Secondly, few organizations in that era had assistant coaches, and no team had more than one. The talent pool at the NBA level was shallow.
Cotton Fitzsimmons engineered some outstanding turnarounds
When he entered the NBA, Cotton Fitzsimmons established a reputation as a coach who made teams better. When he came to the Phoenix Suns in 1970, they won nine more games than the previous year and posted their first winning record. His arrival with the Kansas City Kings in 1978 brought a 17-victory improvement and a division title.
But his return to the Valley of the Sun in 1988 represented Fitzsimmons’ most significant quicker fixer upper. The Suns had missed the playoffs three straight seasons and fired coach John Wetzel after a dismal 28–54 record in 1987–88.
The team’s win total nearly doubled to 55, and Phoenix reached the Western Conference Finals. That season, he became just the second coach named Coach of the Year with two different teams. A COY winner with the Kings in 1978–79, Fitzsimmons followed Bill Fitch with the Cleveland Cavaliers (1976) and Boston Celtics (1980) as a two-team recipient. (Pat Riley later did him one better, winning COY with the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat.)
But his early years with the Suns brought a lot of heartbreak.
Fitzsimmons’ first two Phoenix Suns teams won 97 games but missed the playoffs both years
When the NBA realigned with three expansion teams (the Buffalo Braves, Cavaliers, and Portland Trail Blazers), the old Eastern and Western divisions became conferences. Within each were two divisions. The Eastern Conference included the Atlantic and Central groups. The Midwest and Pacific made up the Western Conference.
In 1970–71, the Phoenix Suns finished tied with the Lakers for the fourth-best record in the league at 48–34. The top two finishers in each division qualified for the playoffs. That was where it went sideways for the Suns. Despite finishing with a better record than five of the eight postseason clubs, Phoenix went dark at the end of the regular season. The Milwaukee Bucks stormed to the Midwest Division title at 66–16. The Chicago Bulls topped the Suns by three games at 51–31.
The following season was more of the same. Cotton Fitzsimmons’ crew won 49 games, better than three of the four Eastern Conference playoff teams for the second consecutive year. But that was eight games behind the Bulls and 14 back of the Bucks in the Midwest.
Cotton Fitzsimmons left the Phoenix Suns after the 1971–72 campaign
In May 1972, the Phoenix Suns released Cotton Fitzsimmons from his contract, and he headed east to the Atlanta Hawks. His first Atlanta squad improved from 36 wins to 46, and the Hawks were Fitzsimmons’ first playoff team.
The 1971–72 Suns, at 49–33, are the best team to miss the playoffs. Three other clubs, including Fitzsimmons’ 1970–71 squad, failed to qualify for the postseason after winning 48 games. Frustratingly for longtime Phoenix fans, a third Suns club is among the four teams on this list of good-but-not-quite-good-enough units.
The 2013–14 Suns team under Jeff Hornacek went 48–34 and finished a game out of the playoffs. In 2007–08, the 48-win Golden State Warriors wound up two games behind the Denver Nuggets for the last playoff spot.
Besides the Kings, Suns, and Hawks, Fitzsimmons also coached the Braves and San Antonio Spurs.
And for fans who lament the current playoff system and would prefer seeing the top 16 teams based on records (scheduling differences be damned), remember the problem isn’t new.
Cotton Fitzsimmons found out first-hand how playoff formats don’t always reward the best teams.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.