Annually, each NBA team and the NBA as a whole identify the team’s and league’s Sixth Man of the Year. This distinction is given to the unsung hero of the team, the guy that starts each game on the bench and is never part of the festivities surrounding the announcement of the starting lineup. The Suns have had their share of these “sixth men,” including guys like Dan Majerle, Eddie Johnson and Leandro Barbosa.
I suggest there is an unofficial sixth man of every year for the Suns who has only stepped on the court when a player has gone down. That person is Aaron Nelson, Head Athletic Trainer for the Phoenix Suns. He joined the organization in 1993, then working under Ring of Honor Member Joe Proski, the only other athletic trainer in franchise history. Nelson succeeded Proski in 2000, when Proski retired.
One might ask how it is possible to measure the value of a team’s trainer. Clearly, wins and losses could be considered, but that is far more a function of roster-building (General Manager), strategy and philosophical approach (Coach) and athletic ability (Players). Another measure can be the trainer’s longevity with the team. The longer he remains as trainer, the more likely it is that the team finds him to be of value. This would also be faulty since top people often move around as they are actively recruited by other teams seeking their talents. Further, some people stick around because of comfort, both by them and with them.
Steve Nash became a free agent following the 2003-04 season with the Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban resisted signing Nash to a long term deal out of fear that Nash’s best days were behind him. The Suns didn’t see it that way and the rest, as they say, is history. In his six seasons with the Mavericks, Nash averaged 68 games played per year. Remember, this was from age 24 through 29, the prime of most athletes’ careers. In his eight subsequent years with the Suns, Nash averaged 75 games played each season. Not only was this an increase over his Maverick average, it also occurred when Nash was between the ages of 30 and 37. We all know that after leaving the Suns for the evil empire in LA, Nash has spent far more time as a spectator with Jack Nicholson than as a player with Kobe and friends (assuming Kobe has any friends).
The Suns signed Grant Hill as a free agent going into the 2006-07 season. While no one would ever question his talent or character, everyone questioned Hill’s durability. In the immediate seven prior seasons with the Orlando Magic when he was between 28 and 34 years old, Hill averaged only 28 games per season. In his first four seasons with the Suns at the ages of 35 through 38, he averaged over 78 games played each season, with his overall five year average as a Sun being in excess of 72 games. In his one season after leaving the Suns, he played in just 29 games as a member of the LA Clippers before retiring at the end of last season.
If anyone suspects that the examples of Nash and Hill are statistical anomalies and do not establish a cause and effect connection with Aaron Nelson, just consider Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq joined the Suns just before the trade deadline in February of 2008. In his one and one half seasons with the Suns, he missed only seven out of 110 games, a games played percentage of 94%. Bear in mind that this was at the end stages of his career, after 15 seasons of being beaten to a pulp through things like the “Hack-A-Shaq.” Compare that with his prior 3.5 seasons in Miami, where he played in 69% of their total games. While a member of the Suns, basketball pundits remarked often about a seemingly newfound exuberance in Shaq’s game. He was quoted as saying that he was in his best basketball shape in years and that he felt great. Shaq credited the training staff with his ability to stay on the court and prolong his career. According to O’Neal, Nelson and his staff focused on building O’Neal’s balance, flexibility and core strength.
The current Suns roster is quite young, averaging less than 26 years of age. That is a chronological measure. I suggest that under the direction of Aaron Nelson, players who stick around with the Suns for the long haul will be seen to have found the Fountain of Youth. With Nelson’s guidance, players with great potential will have their name far more frequently listed in the line-up than on the injury reports. That makes him my Sixth Man of Every Year. And, by the way, Aaron Nelson is likely a favorite of Coach Hornacek as well, who happens to be his brother-in-law.