Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek enters the 2015-16 season on the last guaranteed season in his contract. But he's not going to let that bother him.
"Just like any other player getting towards the end of their contract," Hornacek said to Bright Side. "You go out there and do your best and these things tend to take care of themselves with time. So that's the way we approach it."
It's not entirely clear if by "we" he meant he and his wife Stacy or he and his assistant coaches, and I didn't have the presence of mind to ask the clarifying question. Lead assistants Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi have both been with Hornacek the last two years, and may also be on contracts that end next summer.
The Suns have a team option on the 2016-17 season, but have not yet exercised that option to give Hornacek some breathing room entering the season.
It's a mystery why the Suns have not extended Hornacek and his staff yet, unless they want a cheap scapegoat if Suns' fortunes don't turn around quickly this year. The Suns allowed Alvin Gentry to coach into his final year in 2012-13, making the separation in January easy to swallow when the season went south. Prior to Gentry, the Suns had to eat nearly $6 million of Terry Porter's $7.5 million, three contract when they fired him after just 51 games.
On the other hand, the team's architect General Manager Ryan McDonough and his assistants are under multi-year contracts. Lon Babby, at his own request, took a step back to Senior Advisor.
A query to Managing Partner Robert Sarver last week about Hornacek's contract was met with a quick comment that he doesn't negotiate in public. A conversation on this topic earlier this summer was nixed in the same way. Sarver explained how Hornacek's salary - one of the lowest in the league - was appropriately commensurate with his experience, but did not broach the topic of extensions.
Currently, Hornacek is tied with four other inexperienced coaches at $2 million per year, the lowest head coaching salary 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.
Sarver explained to me that there are three tiers of coaches (or coaching salaries) in the NBA, and that those with no prior head coaching experience were at the entry level of the pay scale. Next higher are college and international head coaches with postseason experience (like Brad Stevens, Billy Donovan), and then NBA head coaching re-hires (like Alvin Gentry and George Karl). Even among the head coaching re-hires, the pay scale is correlative of playoff success.
Exceptions to these rules appear to include just-retired players, like Jason Kidd ($2.5 million per year) and Derek Fisher ($5 million per year), and guys hired out of press booths, like Steve Kerr ($5 million per year). But those are more the exception than the rule.
Let's take a layman's look at Hornacek's pro head coaching resume.
- Led the Suns to an 87-77 record in two seasons, despite having 0 All-Stars to lean on
- Took over a 25-win team with little experience, and gave them the blueprint and confidence to be the league's biggest surprise team in 2013-14
- Finished second in Coach of the Year award voting in 2013-14
- Led the Suns to a top-10 offense the first 1.5 years, before his most talented scorers were traded away
- Led the Suns to a middle-of-the-pack defense (15th and 17th) each year without any defensive anchors
- Has ties to the valley. Said taking the Suns job was a "no brainer". Has lived in Phoenix since he began playing here in 1986.
- Still wants to coach the Suns to the playoffs, despite a very frustrating year
- More interested in wins than on-court player development, giving short minutes to draft picks. This could be seen as a detriment on a rebuilding team, but the front office has been as interested in playoff contention as Hornacek has been.
- Too-simplified late-game play calling, making it easy for defenses to break up the play
- Seems indifferent to player insecurities, willing to mention specific player flaws to the media and expect them to handle it with maturity
- Had a much more difficult 2014-15 than his rookie year.
- Moved Dragic off the ball in 2014-15, expected him to make the largest sacrifice among the three point guards he was handed
- Lost the respect of his team's most "connected" players, the Morrii and the Dragon, resulting in trade demands from two of the three
- Lost the battle of the T's, having to ease up on punishment when players refused to back off arguing with officials
Hornacek, a head coach with just two years NBA coaching experience and no playoff appearances, does not appear to be deserving of huge raise yet. He's not really in the $5-10 million range in salary demands.
However, guaranteeing his 2016-17 year at the low, low rate he's currently being paid seems to be the right thing to do. It's only right to give your hand-picked head coach the same security you gave the front office that built the star-less team he's supposed to coach. He wasn't any more the problem last season than they were.
Don't make him a lame duck coach, easy to axe, Ryan and Robert!
Give him the security of two seasons, no matter what might happen this year.