Let me start with a very transparent example that is a microcosm of Hornacek's performance as a tyronic head coach.
In the 2012-13 season Markieff Morris took 45.3% of his shots from 16' or further away from the basket. Under Hornacek's tutelage that shrunk to 31.9%. As a result of this his eFG% went up from .442 to .507. This tangible improvement isn't anomalous, either, as the team as a whole took better shots and made a higher percentage as a result.
Hornacek coached the players to capitalize on the strengths in their skillsets and eschew their weaknesses... and the players embraced his message. They bought in. That's a very important part of effective coaching. Basketball knowledge can be futile when it isn't complemented with the ability to instill that knowledge in the players. Many good coaches have been tuned out before and lost their teams.
Hornacek seemed to make the Suns self aware... and that may have saved and/or revitalized the careers of many players on the roster.
The inimitable, and our very own, East Bay Ray already did a lot of the heavy lifting for me with his story that detailed how the Phoenix Suns delivered on Coach Jeff Hornacek's August forecasts. It is a testament to a coach's ability when he can get that kind of across the board improvement out of his players.
Here's how stupid the improvement on the team was last season. Eric Bledsoe went from a bench player averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 assists per game to a starter averaging 17.7 and 5.5 while increasing his eFG% from .473 to .522 in the process. That's a bigger jump than most other players will ever experience, but it was basically an afterthought in the wake of what his teammates achieved.
Part of what made Jeff's effort so spectacular was the depth expectations had sunk to after the calamitous state of affairs last season had spiraled into. It wasn't just that the team was abysmal, the organization appeared completely rudderless.
The palingenesis of the team gained notoriety throughout the league as the season progressed, but I think in many ways the people that were most surprised were the ones closer to the team (Jim raises hand).
But maybe not those closest. From the outset those directly within the organization had confidence the team would be much better than the prognostications of peril. Still, I don't even think any of them expected 48 wins.
Instead the team took the stance of letting their play on the court do the talking. There was no bluster or bravado over how much better the team would be than the consensus predictions. There was no indignance over a perceived slight from those predictions. The team even hedged itts bets by alluding to the season as one that shouldn't necessarily be judged by wins and losses. There was no discussion of the team contending for the playoffs after the team had been burned by such statements the previous preseason.
Under Hornacek the Suns (48-34) won 23 games more than they did the previous season (25-57). That is tied for the third biggest turnaround in franchise history behind the 2004-05 SSOL team (+33) and the 1988-89 team (+27) which Hornacek was a member of.
Of course, this doesn't include the 1999-00 Backcourt 2000 squad that went from 27-23 to 53-29 (+26, right?).
When Jeff took the job he said he'd always thought of coaching, like his father, he just didn't think it would be at this level. In a season with a leitmotif of exceeding underwhelming expectations it seems like Hornacek surprised himself again. Not only is he coaching at the highest level, but it appears he is a prodigy.
He's even a really likable guy, even if he's not necessarily dripping with charisma. The abrasive, unpoised nature of Lindsey Hunter feels like a lifetime away.
The players like to play for him. There is a cohesiveness in the locker room and on the court. The Suns never gave up on their coach this season. What evidences this more clearly than the fact that the team was basically never out of a game? When some teams would pack it in and play for the next game the Suns would scrape and claw with palpable desperation. Hornacek rarely ever criticized the effort of his team this season and that's because the team rarely ever gave less than maximum.
When asked about the one positive that stood out in his mind the most this season Hornacek responded, "I think overall, for the team and the organization, it's that we got it back to Phoenix Suns basketball and what that's really like."
Pretty much sums it up for me.
The biggest blemish on Hornacek's inaugural season was that the Suns fell painfully short of a postseason appearance. He facetiously took the blame.
"I screwed up at the beginning of the year. We had this little three game set that we kept track of. I told the guys that if we end up with a plus seven we're going to be in the playoffs, but plus seven over .500 put us right at 48 and we didn't get in. So I guess I screwed that up. It should have had plus eight."
That was just about the only thing Hornacek didn't get right.
Since Hornacek finished second to Greg Popovich in the Coach of the Year voting I guess that makes him Rookie Coach of the Year instead.
Jeff almost got an A+, but in the end the playoffs was the cherry on top. In a way it's like he killed it all semester long, but didn't quite ace the final.
For that reason Hornacek will have to settle for an A.