Jeff Hornacek is out. Earl Watson is in. And through it all, the Phoenix Suns remain a team left wandering the desert without a compass to indicate true north. They seem directionless to all, and the baffling number of mixed messages sent by general manager Ryan McDonough on Feb. 2 only served to reinforce that image of the once-proud franchise.
To wit: As McDonough went from media outlet to media outlet to explain why ex-coach Hornacek needed the "ex-" attached to his title, one theme that came up with regularity was the opportunity this change represents for the development of the young players on the roster. McDonough cited Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Alex Len, and Archie Goodwin as guys who would be gaining valuable experience for the final 33 games under Coach Watson.
Then Watson said this about Markieff Morris:
"He is the main focus of our offense moving forward, we know that."
We do? Because over the first 49 games of this season, he hasn't looked like he had much interest in being anything other than the main focus of his one-man pity party. Furthermore, McDonough never mentioned this change as a great opportunity for Morris to return to being a focal point outside of a few generic comments about the organization's hopes that he can still return to being the player he was in seasons past. Considering his attitude towards the team since late June, one would think Morris' role would be one of the last addressed by the incoming coach, not the first.
But this is just one instance where the Suns failed to provide a unified front on an issue despite having plenty of time to get their stories straight in advance. Another theme that came up in Watson's introductory press conference and then was reiterated throughout the day was one of holding players accountable. As McDonough said on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Doug and Wolf, "The players told us they were looking for more structure and more accountability and more discipline, so that's what we're going to give them." McDonough also said during the team presser that the team was "put on notice."
That's great, except that it's already been tried. When Hornacek held players accountable, whether through benching them for an egregious number of technicals last season or pulling players from the game for failing to adhere to the game plan this season, the players themselves didn't come across as giddy over someone finally cracking the whip. Are these very same players, who sadly couldn't be adult enough to police themselves, going to suddenly find a level of professionalism and respect that they've been holding in reserve all this time for Hornacek's assistant coach? And if McDonough and the front office actually cared about putting the team "on notice" instead of offering lip service to the notion, they would have done so long before February. After all, the final decision on fines and suspensions comes from upstairs, not the head coach.
And just in case it hasn't been given a fine enough point, it doesn't exactly scream accountability when the head coach says something like "R.C. [Buford] said you have to find the heartbeat of your team. Once you find the heartbeat of your team, you have to make it in sync with one beat," then goes and anoints Morris, the least functional of all the Suns this season, as the offense's leader. If Markieff Morris is the heartbeat of this team, then the Phoenix Suns have arrhythmia.
But enough about Morris. Let's talk about Watson. During all his time spent with the media, McDonough conveniently glossed over Watson's lack of experience, instead focusing on how personable Watson is and the various coaching influences in his life, from John Wooden and Hubie Brown to Larry Bird and Jerry Sloan. Gee, the Suns certainly are fortunate to have found a coach who is likeable and played for experienced and successful coaches like Jerry Sloan. How did they ever manage to find someone like that?
This is not meant as a personal attack on Watson. He may prove himself to be a good coach yet, but he said nothing during his press conference to convince skeptics he was the right hire. He said next to nothing about X's and O's, instead choosing to focus so heavily on his message of loving and nurturing and embracing his players that he sounded like a first-time parent — or cult leader. Watson takes the helm with plenty of backers, with Mike Richman of The Oregonian even tweeting that during his stint in Portland, players used to refer to Earl as "Coach Watson." Well, there are people who refer to Andre Young as Dr. Dre, but that doesn't make him qualified to remove an appendix.
Again, what message is being sent by an organization when the assistant coach on staff with the least amount of actual coaching experience is chosen to lead? What message is being sent when the team fires a coach only to replace him with a younger, less experienced, and less accomplished copy? And for that matter, why should a team of supposedly grown men need as much coddling as Watson insisted he'd provide? Is this a team of basketball players or baby pandas?
But by far the biggest point of obfuscation has to be how blame has been dispensed for this sham of a season. Easily the drum McDonough beat the loudest during all this was how he was largely responsible for the team's woes. "I want to say a lot of this is on me," McDonough told Doug and Wolf. "I take responsibility for the state of the team and the roster. I need to do a better job, I know that. My staff and I know that. We know we're on the clock, and we need to step it up and improve our talent level."
Interestingly enough, here is what McDonough told Doug and Wolf about the choice to leave the disgruntled Morris on the roster:
"These decisions — the decisions to trade for players either coming or going, to sign players as free agents, draft players — those are organizational decisions, and they're not made just by me or just by one person. You know, the way I do my job as a general manager is to get input from my staff, our front office staff, from ownership, and from the coaching staff — especially the head coach — and strongly weigh those opinions. We made an organizational decision to go forward this year with Markieff Morris on the roster. It obviously hasn't worked out the way we hoped it would."
In all likelihood, that is true. Despite McDonough having the final say in the matter, keeping Morris on board was probably a decision made at an organizational level, just as every other personnel move was, and cannot be pinned solely on McDonough. In that same regard, the final product on the floor wasn't the sole responsibility of a single person, either, yet everyone involved in what this season has ultimately become has not been held to the same level of culpability, which is what McDonough does not seem to grasp. Yes, he claimed on numerous occasions to take responsibility for the sorry state of the Suns' roster, but saying you take responsibility is only the first step. Until actions are taken to correct the mistakes, those are only words.
As it stands, the only ones to pay the price for this disaster of a season are Jeff Hornacek, Mike Longabardi, and Jerry Sichting. Not Ryan McDonough or his staff, who put this team together and crowed to anyone who would listen during Media Day about how good this team had the potential to be, and certainly not the players themselves, who have laid more eggs this season than a startled hen in a henhouse. Just Hornacek, the lame-duck head coach left to twist in the wind while a difficult situation devolved into impossible around him. Was Hornacek a perfect coach? No. There was plenty of room for improvement, but he didn't deserve the fate of scapegoat.
Coaches are hired to be fired as they say, and that was the case for Hornacek. It is simply easier to fire a coach than it is to trade an entire roster. However, it is also easier to fire a general manager than to overhaul a roster, and with all the muddied messages and questionable decisions coming from the Phoenix Suns lately, that particular message needs to ring through like a clarion for this general manager. The players may be the ones most at fault for this season, but it is McDonough's head that is next on the chopping block if things don't improve soon.