Jeff Hornacek has some short-comings as a coach, and the Phoenix Suns ownership and front office have some shortcomings in team building. They both failed each other after being seen as the bright light of the future just 18 months ago.
The Phoenix Suns fired coach Jeff Hornacek, league sources tell The Vertical.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) February 1, 2016
The Suns PR staff used the best possible words to describe the situation.
SUNS RELIEVE JEFF HORNACEK OF HEAD COACHING DUTIES
Let's go back to the summer of 2014. Coach Jeff Hornacek finished just behind Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year race. He'd taken a ragtag team predicted to win 16-20 games to 48 exciting wins and a last second chance at the playoffs.
Every rotation player had a career year, and Hornacek was given oodles of credit for putting them in position to succeed with a good scheme and good mentoring for his inexperienced players. The Suns finished with the league's 8th best offense and 13th best defense, and were in 7th place in the West as late as early April before fading to 9th when Goran Dragic suffered a twisted ankle and the Suns moxie ran dry.
Dragic went from mid-pack point guard to third-team All-NBA and the league's Most Improved Player. Several other Suns landed in the top 10 of the Most Improved voting, including Markieff Morris and Gerald Green. Miles Plumlee made the Rising Stars roster as an injury fill-in and was invited to work out with the Team USA over the summer.
Then the summer of 2014 happened.
The Suns failed to land an impact free agent after courting LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, so they decided to triple-down on the two-point-guard lineup by signing Isaiah Thomas out of nowhere and re-signing Eric Bledsoe to give the Suns three guys capable of averaging 20 points and 6 assists per game in an attacking scheme.
When that failed because all three guys wanted the ball too much, they jettisoned two of the three and brought in a new running mate for Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, who promptly got injured for the rest of the season as the Suns faded out of the playoff picture.
With another summer to clear up the confusion and straighten out the roster, they instead swung and missed on the biggest free agent again and spent the rest of the summer in a one-sided pissing match with their starting forward while failing to otherwise improve the roster after the signing of Tyson Chandler and drafting of Devin Booker.
At the same time, they decided to hedge their bets on the one-time runner up for Coach of the Year, leaving coach Hornacek to dangle in the wind under an implied win-or-else mandate. Their other option was to guarantee his lowest-salary-in-the-league contract for the 2016-17 to give him some staying power as the roster bucked and swayed under him because they didn't even bother trading Markieff Morris. I'd have recommended option 2, for those wondering. There's almost zero downside to option two, except for a few bucks if he failed and got himself fired.
Now, not only is Hornacek on the street but the way it happened was about as ugly as it could possibly get. First, his silent feud with Markieff Morris failed miserably. He was forced to have Morris on the roster, so he didn't play him as a signal to the rest of the guys he wouldn't play someone who wouldn't play hard. The guys heard him, but somehow interpreted that message as a negative and collectively played weaker as the games went on.
Even before Bledsoe busted his knee again, the guy who'd started the season on a 22 and 7 tear had posted awful games of 8 and 9 points in ugly losses where the Suns didn't even compete. Brandon Knight, who started the season putting up 20 and 6 a game, regressed as the season went on to become a player who looked so much worse than his numbers.
Of course, Markieff Morris used his playing time to further tear away at the coach's and team's chances. Shooting under 40%, committing fouls and turnovers at terribly high rates, and generally looking slow out there made him and the Suns look bad, bad, bad.
The list goes on and on. And GM Ryan McDonough - the guy who's made more than a dozen trades in two years - has refused/failed to make a single trade since late summer as the Suns sink to the depths of the league.
The Suns almost fired Hornacek in January, but instead fired his top assistants and told him he had one more chance to succeed, by that time, with almost no NBA coaching experience on his staff and his best player out for the season.
But the most pervasive message being received by viewers and fans all season was that the players were no longer responding to coach Hornacek. The same thing that got playoff coaches Kevin McHale and David Blatt fired this season, as well as Lionel Hollins, finally got Hornacek the boot too.
While the players didn't blame Hornacek, they also didn't support him. The entire team effectively became coach-killers. They broke off of the called plays regularly to do their own thing. They didn't crow about it the past two years because their broken plays almost never worked. It wasn't until last week that someone admitted it to the media.
Archie Goodwin, all of 21 years old and in his third season being coached by Hornacek, broke off the designed play to end the game against the Hawks and decided it was better to shoot a contested, off-balance three pointer instead. Goodwin is a terrible three-point shooter, in case you've forgotten. But he made the shot, the Suns won the game, and Archie felt compelled to take 100% of the credit for the win. Good on ya, Arch.
Another theme is how badly the Suns look on the court. Not only were they playing without cohesion and purpose, they also looked bad on trying to execute simple plays. Rarely do you see a Suns set and say "wow that was well-designed". Some of that problem is the players doing their own thing. But some has to be attributed to Hornacek not designing plays the players believed in.
Hornacek's coaching career in Phoenix is dead. And now we wait to see who takes over for him.
Lest you think the Suns franchise learned a lesson in the debacle that was January 2013, when they fired Alvin Gentry without a clear plan in place, they are doing it again.
In 2013, the Suns spent a weekend pitting the entire assistant coaching staff against each other by interviewing them to replace the fired Gentry. In the end, they hired the least qualified guy on the staff and alienated everyone else. Majerle left in a huff. So did Turner. Lindsey Hunter coached the team with only one remaining experienced assistant in Igor Kokoskov.
This time, I guess you could say the Suns made it a bit easier on themselves. They already fired the only experienced assistants on the staff, so there's no one left to walk off in a huff this time.
But still, they are interviewing the remaining assistants to coach out the rest of the year, per Coro.
- Corey Gaines is in his first year as a full-time NBA assistant. He has previously been a player-development coach for the Suns for years, and was hired (and fired) as head coach of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.
- Nate Bjorkgren is in his first year in the NBA. He began the year as an assistant/player development guy who just in January was promoted to a front row bench seat when Sichting and Longabardi were fired.
- Earl Watson (not to be confused with Lindsey Hunter, though I can understand why you might) is in his first year as an NBA coach.
One of those three will reportedly take over as the Suns coach. Rumor has it the Suns really like Earl Watson, but he's got such little coaching experience it would be hard to give him the reins mid-season.
Frankly, the kind of coach you SHOULD hire in a situation like this is someone who will calm the waters. Someone who will pass on positivity, teach the players every thing he can, and make ticket-holders smile when they hear his name. Someone like Jeff Hornacek.
Someone will coach this puu-puu platter that boasts Archie Goodwin, Devin Booker and Jordan McRae (all pure shooting guards) as their playmakers for the foreseeable future. And that someone will need a thick skin and an updated resume for June job searching.