The Phoenix Suns coaching staff, led by rookie Head Coach Jeff Hornacek, exceeded all expectations last season. Not only did the newly-formed group have surprising success in the win-loss column, they helped a number of players exceed their career numbers by a landslide.
Hornacek hired Jerry Sichting to help devise an offense that was better than expected, and Mike Longabardi came over from Boston to help scheme a passable defense. Mark West and Kenny Gattison worked with the big men, and break out players Markieff Morris and Miles Plumlee had the best seasons of their careers.
"There is genuine teaching going on at a level we never had," Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said before last season began. "Jeff, first and foremost, has a great way of communicating with the kids. He's a teacher. And his staff has been teaching. I come down here and I'm just sort of amazed at the level of teaching that's going on now that didn't exist before.
"And he's not just paying lip service to it. He genuinely enjoys it."
The proof was in the pudding, if the pudding is wins and progression from year to year.
The Phoenix Suns improved in nearly every single category from 2012-13, and that was AFTER the team was gutted for youth in the offseason. Three starters from the 2012-13 season - Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola - were traded for younger players, and the team got a lot better anyway. One of the more experienced NBA teams was transformed into the second-least experienced NBA team last season, and the team got a lot better anyway.
Much of that is thanks to Jeff Hornacek and his coaching staff. Sure they can get better. Being just inside the top 10 in some categories is not the top of your mountain as a coaching staff. Just being passable on D is not good enough either.
But getting your team to 48 wins after being predicted to win 21 is enough to get you second place in the Coach of the Year voting. Especially after the team did exactly what you said they would do before the season started.
2013-14 season recap
A year ago, our own Jim Coughenour got a unique, exclusive interview with new Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek had been on the high-scoring, resurgent Suns team in 1988 that went on to multiple Western Conference Finals appearances in five years after bottoming out in early 1988.
"What did we average last year?" asked Hornacek when asked if the Suns could exceed 102.9 points per game, which was met or exceeded by only five teams in 2012-13. The Suns averaged 95.2. "Over 102.9, we would hope we can get there. If we can get there I think that's a good start for us in our first year. So, hopefully, I would say yes."
The Suns more than had a good start, averaging 105.2, good for 7th in the league in pure scoring. That's 10 more points per game than the season before. Most of the roster was turned over, but none of them had been reliable scorers in their careers.
"We put certain drills out there, certain routines for these guys," he said. "We have great coaches, all guys that have been around the league for a while that can help each one of our players improve their shooting. It's up to them, also, to put up that effort."
"We go by the fact that you want to shoot that game speed shot," Hornacek said. "A guy that comes to the gym and shoots 500 shots in a lazy fashion, he's just wasting his time. If you're going to come to the gym and shoot extra shots, we want them to be game speed. If you shoot 100 of them at game speed, it's going to be more beneficial than the 500 at a slow pace. Our coaches will harp on that. We'll push the guys to really put themselves in the positions they would be in a game while they're practicing."
"I think with our guys, with Goran and Eric at the point guard, we have two guys who can get the ball and really go with it. We have to have shooters. I think that guys like Caron Butler will really add to the ability to spread the floor and get down the court and get open shots. Hopefully Gerald Green and other guys that we have that can shoot the ball can help this."
Butler was traded before the season started, but Channing Frye returned from the shelf to help Marcus Morris and Gerald Green provide a lot of three-point shooting to spread the floor.
The Suns had no inside threat to start the season, so Hornacek devised an offense that created a lot of shots in the paint from the guards on dribble drives off the pick and roll. Back when Nash was the PG, the pick-and-roll resulted in pocket passes to Amare or kick-outs to the three-point shooters. But now, the Suns tapped the strength of their best players to create a two-pronged attack predicated on the pick-and-drive or pick-and-pop.
"Obviously you have to find that balance when it gets out of control, when they're taking bad shots," Hornacek said. "That kind of stuff you learn in practice. We go over and over that in practice to allow the guys freedom but teach them what shots are good and what shots are bad. Of course you can't fast break every time down the court because there are out of bounds plays and time outs, so that's when you really have to have the execution of a half-court offense. That's where you need to find the balance."
The Suns did not have a low-post threat last season beyond the occasional success of Markieff Morris, which was a true godsend late in the year. Coach Hornacek often commented on the lack of pure scoring under the basket, but worked around it all year to win most of the wars while slightly losing those battles at the rim.
"First, of all you have to play some defense," Hornacek told Jim last year. "If you can get stops and have teams take bad shots or create turnovers, then you can really fly up and down the court."
The Suns hired the Celtics defensive guru Mike Longabardi, who figured out a scheme to play to his guys' strengths (quickness) and mask their weaknesses (strength).
The Suns really excelled and wreaking havoc. Dragic, P.J. Tucker and Bledsoe played hounding defense on the perimeter when healthy. Miles Plumlee did a great job early and late in the year of opportunistically defending the rim. He's no DeAndre Jordan, but he's a passable rim protector on the weak side. Channing Frye provided passable post defense, and Markieff and Marcus Morris got their hands into passing lanes. All in all, enough to get by.
The Suns did lose the battle on second-chance points, but not by as much as their roster suggested. To only lose that metric by 1 point a game is a win as far I as I am concerned.
"You have to have guys that can run. If you have slower guys then it isn't going to work. You need to have guards that can really push the ball and distribute. That hasn't changed since basketball has been played."
And push they did. The Suns led the league in fast break points.
And that's what Jeff's Suns did when he and Kevin Johnson played the Bledsoe/Dragic roles for that highly successful run in the late 80s and early 90s. It's not all about getting layup on the break. It's taking the best shot overall, and not hesitating to take when it's there.
"If you get out and run the break," he said. "[coach] Cotton Fitzsimmons always told me if I have an open shot from 18 feet out when it's one on four then go ahead and shoot it because that's the best shot we're going to get in our regular offense in terms of being open like that. I think there's value that when you push the ball and get open looks then hopefully you shoot higher percentages."
What he learned
"You learn a lot," he said at the end-of-season presser. "As coaches we need to look at things, what we didn't do very well. How we handled certain situations. I could have an idea of letting things go at the end of the game because that's what my teams always did that I played on, trying to figure out your guys that you have does that work the best or should you call timeouts."
Sure, he could get better at managing the game. He let them play a lot when as young players they might have benefited from a timeout. But Hornacek was coaching on the court all game long. During every timeout, he's talking to players about what they did and what they could do better in the future.
Early in the preseason, Markieff Morris wasn't yet convinced to get into the post yet on offense when the play was bogging down. He hung on the three-point line waiting for a kick-out that never came. As he ran back down the court, Horny yelled to get on the block as Morris put his hands out to plead his case that he was open. By the time the season started, Morris had learned the lesson and ended up with his best professional season of his career.
"It was a growing process for me also, seeing how it went," Hornacek continued, reflecting on the season. "What worked and what didn't. Practice time. Do we practice these days? Looking at our records after certain days off, seeing did we practice too hard the day before. We'll try to improve for the coming year."
Challenges for the 2014-15 season
At different points in the summer, coach Hornacek has mentioned several areas the Suns need to improve in the coming season.
Developing the bigs
"Development is important," defensive assistant coach Mike Longabardi said in July, just before the Summer League. "We need to make sure these guys are getting better and are ready to play come November. That's whats most important."
The most obvious focus this summer has been on the development of the team's big men. The Suns have said that Markieff Morris will likely start this season next to Miles Plumlee. Last year, Keef was the backup to Channing Frye but Frye left for Orlando.
The Morris brothers, Miles Plumlee and Alex Len all spent nearly the entire summer in the valley, working out at the arena and with the trainers. Reports are that all are bigger than last year, but they each need to develop new skills to grow as players.
Miles Plumlee is working on scoring from the low block. GM McDonough said it was one of his failings last year that he couldn't find a paint scorer for Hornacek. Plumlee spent his 6-game Summer League stint hoisting hook shots and mid range jumpers with little success. But last summer, P.J. Tucker had the same problems with his three-pointer. It was during July, August and September that Tucker realized success that would last the whole season. Can Plumlee find the same with his scoring?
The Suns season, in my opinion, hinges a lot on Miles Plumlee's availability. It doesn't even matter if he improves - he just needs to stay healthy. While the Suns have plenty of depth to get by at the other positions, if you take Plumlee out of the picture who's left? Alex Len as the starter? Earl Barron? Markieff Morris? None are 30+-minute-a-night answers in 2014-15.
Let's talk Alex Len. From April to early July, Len made a lot of progress. He gained a lot of mass (I'd say muscle, but you know some of it had to be water weight he'd lose once games started), topping out at 260 before SL started.
"He does look good," Longabardi said right before SL. "He's put the time in with Nelly, Cowboy all those guys in the training staff mafia. And he's put his time here with Mark and Kenny. And he wants to be good. He's feeling more comfortable. He's playing a lot more free and easy, which is good. Hopefully, that will continue."
But then he got injured (pinkie finger) in the first SL game, which ruined a lot of development time. Before that he'd made great progress and he's been back playing ball for much of September.
"I see the most improvement from our center position. When I watch Miles Plumlee and Alex Len, I see different players than we saw in April. Those guys have improved a lot individually."
Markieff Morris is another key to a good season for the Suns. While they signed Anthony Tolliver to take some of Channing Frye's minutes as a stretch four, it's Markieff Morris that Hornacek has already tabbed as the starter.
Keef and his brother Marcus Morris have been lifting weights all summer to get stronger, so they can share the PF position in 2014-15. Mook will be more of the stretch four, while Keef will be the big man who plays on the block like he did last year. Where Keef needs to improve is his post defense, rebounding and to become a threat from the three point line to open up the lanes for drivers.
"Markieff I think will have a big year for us."
Improving the defense
Coach Longabardi led the defensive scheming last season to get a group of under-experienced players to produce an above-average defense. Lacking a true rebounder made it difficult finish defensive possessions, as evidenced by the net negative on second-chance points (shown above), but the Suns competed.
"We have to be more physical," Hornacek said this summer. "We have to really be more solid on the rotations. Not having the breakdowns, especially defensively. To beat the big teams, you can't have 20% of the time going ‘oh yeah I forgot my rotation' or ‘my bad'. It's got to be in that 95-100% you're doing the right thing. You look at these top teams, they are in the right rotation all of the time."
The Suns return most of the same players from last season. Only Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver (and maybe Zoran Dragic?) are new to the rotation. So a second year of teaching the defense should result in better accountability from the team.
"We will push these guys to play defense," coach Hornacek said. "The old Phoenix Suns, that's always the talk with ‘no defense' but we'll emphasize defense. I think the guys are going to have to scrap and play hard.
"A high percentage of defense is effort. If you put the effort in you can get away with things. That what I did when I was playing. I wasn't the greatest defender, but if you put the effort in you can do a decent job."
"We talked about it," he said of courting Isaiah Thomas this summer while wanting to bring back Eric Bledsoe. "We talked about how it was going to affect peoples' minutes, how we would play it.
"But again we still go into training camp with the guys that are here and are going to play. We feel it just gives us another weapon if something happens with Eric or Goran with injury, and not lose a beat."
Definitely, Thomas gives them a high-caliber insurance in case of injury. Additionally, Gerald Green is back, Archie Goodwin is a year older and Zoran Dragic is a lion heart. But not everyone will be happy, once the games start. Everyone will want their share.
"I think they will all be affected a little bit," Hornacek said. "Like we did last year, when guys are going good they will be in there. We've explained it to them that some nights you're going to have it, some nights other guys are going to be hot and you're going to ride with them and maybe that game you don't play as much. The next game you might be the hot guy and you play some more.
"Our guys were good about that last year. It makes it easier on us coaches that they understand that and respect that. They know that's the best chance we have for winning, the hot guys staying in, and they cheer for each other and that's what's great."
More than anything, it will be Hornacek's job to make sure they all stay happy.