The only thing missing from the Suns entertaining 2013/14 season were the playoffs, but with a 48-34 record the Suns saw a bright future with their first year coach that had special powers of making players buy into his system completely, boost their confidence and put them in positions to thrive. Jeff Hornacek was wildly praised for his outstanding coaching qualities and was 2nd only to the later Champions Spurs' coach Pop in Coach of the Year voting, trailing him by just a few points. This year he got one vote for third place. It seems like a drastic step back, but then we have to remind ourselves that the Suns were still surprising overachievers back then that Jeff managed to turn into an over .500 winning team in the Western Conference.
The 2 point guard system was a success and won 2/3 of its games last season while at full strength. The 2014/15 season plan according to Hornacek was to have at least 2 of the 3 point guards on the floor most of the time. At times it worked well but as we've learned over the course of the season players weren't completely comfortable with their roles and never really bought into the entertaining but in retrospect disastrous 3 point guard experiment that lead to a midseason reshape of the roster. Sure there were spurts even before the trades when the team seemed to gel together nicely, but those were few and often came against Eastern teams, bad Western teams or managed to end in a buzzer beater loss. Sigh. No one was convinced it could really work consistently.
After the trades when things were settling down a bit new acquisition Brandon Knight got injured and later Alex Len went down and Hornacek never got a real opportunity to see what his new team could do.
With 23 players and 13 different starting lineups he ended his second season with a 39-43 record. That still puts his overall NBA coaching record over .500. The 9 game drop-off in the win column is disappointing and despite all the issues of the 2014/15 Phoenix Suns, some of it has to be attributed to the coach himself.
Hornacek failed to inspire confidence in players like he did last year, he didn't get them to buy into the system and couldn't make them focus enough to win consistently or avoid technicals. Both team offensive (109.5 (8th in the NBA)—>105.3 (16th)) and defensive ratings (106.2 (15th)—>106.7 (17th)) were worse than last year. There was also a drop-off in team shooting percentages (46.3%—>45.3%, 37.2—>34.1% from 3). While the shape of the roster is probably more the front office's doing, the roles and rotations supposedly come from the coach. Hornacek playing an All-NBA point guard out of his position is at least a bit questionable. As is making that same guard guard the 3 spot when playing 3 point guards at once. One could argue he was doing the best with what he had. But then I remember multiple interviews where he stressed lack of ball movement being the main issue and the next game we'd still have the same problem.
Was he too lenient with players, preaching ball movement and effort yet never consistently getting it? Or was it really, as he said, just a lack of veteran leadership that caused this team to frustrate us all year.
I imagine it has been a tiring year for coach Hornacek. From players being late, getting Ts every other game, questioning their roles and complaining about everything to refs, media or coaches to the "sitting out if you get a T" rule he enforced In January and later was sort of forced into revoking - Jeff's second season as a head coach in the NBA did not go at all as smoothly as his first. Chemistry was bad, players were unhappy and/or uncomfortable in their positions and the roster completely changed at the trade deadline. Despited all that he still managed to bring a young team with no superstars near playoff contention in the West. That counts for something.
My biggest concern with Hornacek is the lack of obvious improvement. Individually or as a team nothing really makes this team better than it was last year.
In his Exit SitDown Jeff said he thought everybody on the team improved in some aspect of the game and now they just have to figure out how to make each other better and when asked about the coaches improvement his answer was that the "coaching staff found certain things that worked for certain guys" and now the team just needs to get better at executing plays. At least that inspires some confidence for next year.
In comparison to other 2nd year coaches Jeff doesn't seem like such a star this year. Atlanta Hawks Mike Budenholzer went from 38 wins to winning Coach of the Year with his 60 win first place in the East. David Jeerer took his Grizzlies team from 50 to 55 wins in the West while Boston's Brad Stevens improved his team by 15 wins and took them to the playoffs. Well at least the Hornets coach took a step back this year leading his team from 43 to 33 wins. I'm leaving Brett Brown out on purpose.
Last year Hornacek had a roster no one expected much from have great success, while this year the team was supposedly improved with higher goals in mind that they failed to reach. Despite the roster differences neither team should have been a legitimate playoff contender in the West and yet Jeff managed to keep them both within reach all year. He'll have one more year to prove himself and give the Suns a reason to pick up his 2016-17 contract. I just hope the front office can assemble him a more balanced roster during the summer.