When people were predicting how the Suns would do this year at the beginning of the season, Phoenix decided not to listen to them. Before the season started, the Suns were expected to compete with the Utah Jazz for last place in the West and were candidates for a top lottery pick in the upcoming draft, which is full of talent. Turns out that those people were completely wrong. Not only are they teetering on the playoff precipice, but first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek is among the frontrunners for NBA Coach of the Year.
It is certain that every game of the final month of the regular season will be played in a playoff atmosphere with Phoenix. The difference between being in and out of the playoffs will most likely be one victory and they are in that spot due to Hornacek’s play-hard approach. He has transformed a group of talented role-players into a group of winners playing great team basketball. That’s not an easy thing to do in the NBA, but Hornacek has found a way.
Among him at the top of race for NBA Coach of the Year are Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts and Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers. Terry Stotts has Portland playing very good basketball at 20 games above .500 with 18 games left to play. Stotts has found a way to bring the star play out of young up and comers, like LeMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews. With that being said, Stotts definitely has a greater talent pool to work with and hasn’t done nearly the same job as Hornacek in developing young players. Unlike Hornacek, Stotts hasn’t gone further into his bench to create depth. That’s something Hornacek has done to the max. When comparing the two coaches for Coach of the Year honors, one must see that Stotts relies solely on his starters and Hornacek has made his team into a more complete team.
Frank Vogel, head coach of the Indiana Pacers, has done a great job with his team. However, they are the Pacers. They have one of the best teams in the league and would most likely be just as good with any other coach. They are the only Eastern Conference team that has presented a challenge for the Miami Heat over the past few seasons. They were predicted to be at the top before the opening of training camps. They hold one of the best records this season and show no signs of letting off. Paul George and Evan Turner make up a formidable scoring front court and Roy Hibbert has been a dominant force down low, both on offense and defense. It’s hard to get a win in the NBA no matter what team you are, but Vogel has a more manageable roster than Hornacek. It is a lot easier to win with the roster Vogel has, which makes the coaching of Hornacek a lot more respectable.
At the start of the season, everyone including the Suns team knew that they didn’t have a talent-rich roster. Who on the Suns roster would you pick over players like Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge? Despite that, Hornacek managed to convince his players from day one that they could win in this league. Players like Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and PJ Tucker have either over-achieved or Hornacek has brought out there true potential. Point guard Goran Dragic has become a star. Eric Bledsoe has turned into a potential free agent after being seen as a strong back-up point guard. The two Morris brothers have been very useful off the bench, proving that two is better than one. In addition, Hornacek’s focus on getting the two to be more consistent is starting to see major benefits.
With all that being said, let’s see what the real opponent is to Hornacek winning the NBA Coach of the Year honors. It is not Vogel, nor is it Stotts. Rather, it’s the playoffs. Statistics show that 96% of the Coaches of the Year in the past 25 years have lead their team to the playoffs. The only team that didn’t was Orlando’s 1999-2000, which was led by Doc Rivers. Before that season started, the Magic were predicted to do just as bad as the Suns were this year. They ended up going 41-41 that season, just missing the qualifications for the playoffs. The other 24 teams not only qualified for the playoffs, but were highly seeded in those playoffs. The teams from the West with Coaches of the Year had a 3.5 average playoff seed, while those from the East had an average playoff seeding of 1.8. Clearly, the award is given to coaches of winning teams and teams of high expectations leading into the playoffs. Even though Hornacek has well surpassed expectations this season, they are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff expectations this season.
Hornacek should be the clear winner for this year’s NBA Coach of the Year awards, whether they make the playoffs or not. If they finish out of the top eight in the West, he more than deserves to join Doc Rivers as the only other non-playoff Coach of the Year over the past 25 years. He has brought the Suns back to a winning-mentality team, despite their lack of superstar talent. He has raised attendance ratings and television ratings from last year. He has raised future expectations with the stockpile of draft picks that Hornacek and the Suns control. He has done all of this in the same fashion as he played the game: hard work, commitment to team, humility and vision. When the Suns fail, Hornacek makes no excuses. That same mentality should come into use when voters for the Coach of the Year honors make their decision. They should have no excuses for naming anyone other than Hornacek as this year’s Coach of the Year award recipient. He has turned the face of the Sun’s franchise into better things and has them on the rise for spoilers in the playoffs.