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Phoenix Suns Hornacek may be feeling tipsy as dominoes fall

Speculation leads to coach Jeff Hornacek being targeted to replace Fred Hoiberg in Ames, Iowa. Why would Hornacek say no?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Speculation has abounded for months, the prophesy foretold. Thibodeau outHoiberg to Chicago. Hornacek to Iowa State. And now as the first two predictions are coming true we have to wonder if the final one is right around the corner.

Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek just might have to make a big decision in the coming days, and there's no indication that Suns owner Robert Sarver will lift a finger to give Hornacek more reasons to stay.

Currently, Hornacek is tied with a four other inexperienced coaches at $2 million per year, the lowest head coaching salaries in the entire league. Each of the "$2 million club" were hired in the same offseason. Hornacek, Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford and Dave Joerger were all hired in the summer of 2013.

Each of the "$2 million club" was promoted to their first-ever head coaching gig from an assistant position. Even Miami's Eric Spoelstra and Indiana's Frank Vogel, by now surely on their second contracts after getting their first gig like these guys, aren't rolling in the dough despite deep playoff success. Just like in any business, those you promote are the ones to whom you give the least amount of money.


All the other NBA coaches make more money because the owners had to compete with each other for the "shiny new penny".

Just-retired player Jason Kidd, who'd never even lifted a clipboard and worn a tie at the same time during a game, got more money from the Nets and later the Milwaukee Bucks ($2.5 million per year). Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher each got $5 million per year. None of the three had ever coached anyone before, on any level.

Experienced coaches hired away from other leagues get more money too. Boston hired Butler's Brad Stevens that same summer of 2013 to a contract twice as long worth $3.6 million per year. David Blatt was given something north of $3.5 million per year to leave Russia to coach LeBron.

If you thought that was a lot of money, this summer's hires of first-time NBA coaches is putting the last two years to shame.

Rumors popped up last night that Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg is finalizing a five-year deal with the Chicago Bulls worth somewhere around $5 million per year to be their coach. Billy Donovan was hired by the Oklahoma City Thunder last month for about $6 million per year.

Add in the coaching retreads - all making significantly more than the $2 million club - and you've got a dozen coaching hires just in the last couple offseasons that have to leave guys like Hornacek scratching his head.

He knows what's going on.

"If you look what happened to the NBA coaching salaries," he told Burns and Gambo the other day on ArizonaSports radio, "I don't know if there was a directive or whatever, but I saw that the average salary of an NBA coach is still less than what it was six years ago. So how does the salary go down?"

The average coaching salary right now is something just north of $4.4 million per year. The 5 members of the "$2 million club" of 2013 dropped that average. Hornacek even noted that the average is ticking back upward.

"Now it's starting to get back up there where it was previously," he noted, injecting a bit of hope at the end. "But it's still not even at the level that it was six years ago. So that probably will end up changing here soon."

The average is rising quickly. Not since the "$2 million club" was formed in 2013 has a coach been offered so little. In addition to those mentioned above, Stan van Gundy got $7 million per year last summer to coach the Pistons. Doc Rivers and Greg Popovich now make over $10 million per year. Yes the average is rising. But Hornacek is still at the bottom of that rise.

Hornacek also noted that college coaching contracts are coming closer to NBA salaries.

"I think colleges have gone that way, and I think it's on all levels it's sometimes surprising when you see how much money the college coaches are making, even on the assistants' level," Hornacek said. "I've seen some of those assistant coaches' salaries and thought, 'Holy crap, I think that's more than probably what some of our assistants make.'"

But will Suns owner Robert Sarver care?

Put yourself in Sarver's shoes. You see Hornacek making the same money as his club mates and none of them are getting new contracts either. Budenholzer won Coach of the Year. Clifford and Joerger have been great successes as well, taken their teams to the playoffs. Vogel and Spoelstra before them had success but never got their contracts torn up for new ones. What has Hornacek done to deserve a new contract if these guys don't?

Likely, Sarver will offer to guarantee Hornacek's fourth year to line up with GM Ryan McDonough's contract length. Or, he might offer to extend both of them beyond 2017, likely with raises involved.

But these next two years for Hornacek are already negotiated at $2 million per year. And that's still scraping the bottom of the NBA coaching barrel.

Take the money and run

Why not take more from Iowa State? Hoiberg made $2.6 million per year from them. If they turn to Hornacek, who now has two years NBA coaching experience, it's likely they'd offer more than Hoiberg made to entice him to move to Ames, Iowa.

Coaching at the college level is more demanding than the NBA in many respects. You recruit year-round, while coaching is almost a side gig. Hornacek may not want to go to Ames. But to get paid your worth, or more, you often have to leave the nest.

I think the "allure" of returning to his alma mater is overblown. If Hornacek liked Ames, Iowa so much why did he move and settle in the valley of the sun? It's Phoenix where he's put his roots, not Iowa.

But if Iowa State offers to double his income and give him a half-decade or more of job security, could he turn it down? Even if he doesn't like Ames, or the grind of college recruiting/coaching, he can see that Hoiberg, Donovan and Stevens turned a good college resume into $5-7 million a year in the NBA.

If you want Hornacek to stay in Phoenix, you have to hope he's not offered the Iowa State job. Because it's not likely Sarver will tear up Hornacek's contract in order to double his salary right now.

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