PHOENIX — The team that was supposed to produce a thrill a minute actually could be deathly dull. And the team that was billed by its management as an up-and-comer in the NBA actually was heading on a steep slide downhill.
And so, despite crippling injuries and trades that haven't worked well so far, the Suns on Wednesday fired Frank Johnson, a popular former player who rose from the ranks of a community relations speaker who urged kids to say in school to that of the club's head coach.
They replaced him with assistant coach Mike D'Antoni, who will be under contract as the head coach through next season. D'Antoni, who has one year of NBA head-coaching experience and eight years in Europe, promised a more wide-open, high-scoring style of play.
"We're going to try to be exciting," said D'Antoni, who will make his debut at home tonight vs. the New Orleans Hornets. "We're going to try to put up a lot of points. And if it's fun for the players, it will be fun for the fans.
"It should be exciting the first couple of nights. The ball will be flying around. I hope we don't hurt anybody."
Johnson accepted his fate graciously.
After getting the word about noon from Suns officials Jerry and Bryan Colangelo, he spoke to the players. He shook each of their hands, saying such things as, "Good luck. Play hard. You guys know how. Play as a team."
And then he was gone. Later, Johnson said he was thankful for the chance to have coached them. "I really appreciate the opportunity," he said. "I'm going to learn from it and move on."
The ex-coach said he couldn't pinpoint what has been going wrong with the team, but admitted, "We just weren't playing well.. . . We just didn't play the way we needed for me to stay on board.
"If I were in their shoes, I probably would do the same thing," he said of the Colangelos' action.
Johnson said he'd like to coach in the NBA again. But for now, "I'm going to sit back and relax and get away from it for a little bit."
Team chairman Jerry Colangelo told reporters, "Don't feel sorry for Frank Johnson." Johnson has been under the microscope for nearly a month, ever since the team started out a disappointing 3-6, even though he'd led the team to a surprising run to the playoffs last season.
The Suns have lost six of their last seven games, including two bad losses on the road to Orlando and Miami. The Suns blew a 22-point lead against the Magic, who had lost 19 in a row, then lost by 20 to the Heat. That dropped their record to 8-13 — placing them 13th in the 14-team Western Conference, a standing the Colangelos couldn't tolerate.
"Something had to change," said Jerry Colangelo, who — after reading the players' body language — said, "The more I saw, the more I didn't like what I saw."
Johnson said he didn't necessarily think the game in Miami would be his last.
But he acknowledged, "I didn't like the way we lost in Orlando."
Club president Bryan Colangelo, along as an observer on the Suns 1-3 trip, sat alone, grim-faced after that game and — when asked about the outcome — replied, "It was terrible."
Agreed D'Antoni, "The bad one was in Orlando. We should have won that game.
"And then we didn't get it back in Miami."
As Johnson's lead assistant, D'Antoni took his share of responsibility, saying, "I was a big part of us not getting it done."
The Suns have been badly damaged by the loss of their promising rookie, Zarko Cabarkapa, and Amare Stoudemire, the reigning rookie of the year, to serious injuries.
Even when healthy, the star trio of Stoudemire, Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion failed to mesh nearly as well as they did last season.
They've also been affected by personnel moves.
To save money, the Suns traded Bo Outlaw, their hyper-energetic defensive specialist, and backup center Jake Tsakalidis to Memphis for a player who no longer is on the team.
The Colangelos on Wednesday say they recognized Outlaw's value as a high-energy player, but that, "We felt that would be replaced by Zarko," Bryan Colangelo said.
Jerry Colangelo pointed out the Suns had to be cost conscious as they are facing a $10 million luxury tax by the NBA this season because their payroll may hit the $66 million range. Their projected losses for this season have been estimated at a record $20 million.
The Suns, however, later spent the money they saved on Outlaw's contract by acquiring center Jahidi White when it became apparent they were too small up front.
In firing Johnson, Bryan Colangelo said: "This isn't about anybody running for cover. I'll take my share of the responsibility."
But he also said he felt the team's talent level had been upgraded.
Johnson finishes with a 63-71 coaching record in one full season and parts of two others. He became a fixture as a clutch player nick-named "Fourth Quarter Frank" during the Suns' thrilling run to the NBA Finals in 1993, when they were edged by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
He retired as a player and went to work in the community relations department. He specialized in talks to kids, urging them to stay in school.
His speeches were so effective — Johnson considered communication his greatest strength — that he became the NBA's national "Stay in School" spokesman.
He hooked on as an assistant coach under Danny Ainge, then took over as head coach from Scott Skiles in February, 2002.
Two months later, the Suns gave him a three-year contract.