NBA coaches love it when one of their players makes them look like an idiot. No, not by calling them out in the media or bungling plays. Coaches love it when a player performs so well in games that the coach looks stupid for not having played him sooner or more often. This is presently happening to coach Jeff Hornacek three times over.
Jon Leuer looked pegged for third-string power forward duty behind Markieff Morris and Mirza Teletovic to begin the season, but Leuer forced Hornacek's hand by averaging 15.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per 36 minutes off the bench.
When the struggling Morris missed a game on Dec. 2 with a bruised knee, Leuer started in his place and hasn't relinquished that position since. Leuer is now averaging a career-high 19.8 minutes per game while Morris has played just under 35 minutes total in the six games since Leuer seized his starting spot.
Alex Len has reached a similar position 24 games into the season, and while Len's play early on didn't demand an increased role as strongly as Leuer's, he has found the confidence necessary to tap into his talent ever since being handed the keys to the center position in the absence of Tyson Chandler. Five of his eight double-digit scoring games and both his double-digit rebounding games have come while Chandler has been out with a strained right hamstring. Those numbers include career highs in both points (20) and rebounds (14, twice).
Then there's Devin Booker, who is merely shooting 17 of 23 (73.9 percent) from behind the arc over the first 20 games of his NBA career. The next closest rookie to Booker's 3-point accuracy this season who has attempted more than two 3-pointers is Marcelo Huertas at 42.9 percent.
All three players are giving Hornacek little alternative than to continue playing them, which may become thorny in a few days.
The only easy call for the coach between the three is Leuer, as the starting power forward role is his to lose. Between his well-rounded play and consistent production, the only ways Leuer vacates the starting lineup is due to injury or as the result of some pie-in-the-sky trade that nets the Suns a better power forward.
Hornacek also has little to fret over regarding Booker's role, as neither Archie Goodwin nor Sonny Weems has proven to be better or a better fit for this Suns team as the backup two-guard than the 19-year-old rookie. It will be interesting to see how Booker responds once his name features more prominently in other team's scouting reports, but he has already proven himself to be more than a one-trick pony.
The potential brier patch for Hornacek is at the center position. The Suns expect to have Chandler back soon, possibly as early as Sunday afternoon against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The question is whether Len should remain the starter once Chandler returns to health. Len has averaged 15 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks over the past four games while shooting 55 percent from the field. Meanwhile, the veteran Chandler was averaging 5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks before he got hurt. He was also shooting 46.4 percent from the field, his lowest percentage since 2003-04.
Hornacek could elect to bring Chandler along slowly at first, continuing to start Len and bringing Chandler off the bench for 10 to 20 minutes to start, but such a strategy would not buy much time to ultimately make a decision between an up-and-coming center and a veteran who hasn't come off the bench regularly since 2009-10 with the Charlotte Bobcats. Chandler likely didn't see himself losing the starter's job in the first season when he signed on in Phoenix, but if Len continues producing at the level he has once Chandler is back, someone will be squeezed. An equitable 24-24 split of minutes between Chandler and Len would leave Hornacek no minutes to run his small-ball lineups that feature Leuer or Teletovic at center, and that's not happening.
This all becomes a moot point if Len regresses, but if the young Ukrainian has indeed reached the next stage of his development, Hornacek may be forced to get creative when divvying up minutes. He may even need to occasionally use that mythic dual-centers lineup that has been seen around these parts as frequently as El Chupacabra or the Jersey Devil.
Deciding who plays is one of the toughest aspects to coaching, and while it is always welcome when players step up and demand more minutes with their play, the flip side of that coin is that someone will lose minutes as a result. When those minutes are siphoned from ineffectual players, that's one thing, but it is much tougher when the affected player is a veteran defensive stalwart who just signed a 4-year, $52 million deal over the summer.