When the Phoenix Suns made the decision to fire head coach Jeff Hornacek at the beginning of February and replace him with assistant Earl Watson, the move raised more than a few eyebrows. Watson had never been a head coach at any level and had just one season as an assistant coach for the D-League's Austin Spurs under his belt before joining Hornacek's staff this past summer.
Clearly there were more qualified candidates for the vacant head coaching position around the league — or in the team carpool for that matter — but one thing is clear now: Watson is the right man for this job.
That may seem an odd thing to say considering Watson has compiled a record of 5-15 and presided over four of the team's franchise-record six losses by 30 or more points this season, but it's true. Watson wasn't given the job to win games; he was given the job to begin rebuilding a positive culture in the locker room and help develop the young players, and he has done an admirable job of that.
Since becoming coach, Alex Len has seen his production go from 6.8 points and 6 rebounds in 19.5 minutes per game to averaging a double-double (13.4 points and 10.8 rebounds) in 27.5 minutes. Devin Booker has gone from 10 points and 1.5 assists in 21.7 minutes to 17.6 points and 4.3 assists in 35.6 minutes. Even middle-child Archie Goodwin has seen a jump in his stats nearly across the board. Granted, a lot of these improvements can be attributed to the increased usage of these players, but that is the point. Just as a mother eagle will coax her fledglings from the nest when they are ready to fly, these young players needed someone to coax them out of their comfort zones and heap responsibility upon them if they were to ever tap into their potentials. Watson did that for them.
Watson has also proven adept at encouraging and supporting his players. He never misses an opportunity to offer encouragement and stroke their egos, and the players have taken to the approach like a needy cat to a warm lap.
"I love and respect what he's been able to do," purred Tyson Chandler about Watson in a recent arizonasports.com article. "It's not an easy task, to be honest. And I didn't know how he was going to do it to be 100 percent honest because it's tough.
"He's had to adjust, maybe three or four times. That's not an easy task to do, and he's handled it like a mature, veteran coach. I didn't see it. I'm surprised, in a positive way, and I respect it. I respect it a lot what he's been able to do and what he's done for this team and these young players in a short amount of time."
Watson's approach was never going to be Hornacek's, though. Even though Hornacek was a personable guy who got along well with his players, he was never going to be the coach singing Kumbaya around the campfire — not with Jerry Sloan and Cotton Fitzsimmons as his coaching inspirations. Although fiercely loyal to his players, Sloan wasn't the type of coach to strike a nurturing tone with his players, just ask Greg Ostertag. And Fitzsimmons once made Kansas City Kings rookies Eddie Johnson and Kevin Loder play one on one after a three-hour practice to determine which one of the two would move to the end of the bench, according to Johnson in his book, You Big Dummy!.
While both coaches cared for their players, both also expected results. Playing time would be earned, not given, and winning was paramount to letting players play through their mistakes. Hornacek coached much the same way, which is why hard-nosed veterans like Ronnie Price and P.J. Tucker were getting time at the expense of players like Goodwin and even Booker early on.
That is not an indictment of Hornacek. His style of coaching plays better with a veteran-laden team than one with a handful of young players who need time — and frequent confidence boosts — to develop. Ultimately, Hornacek and this Suns team had grown incompatible over the seasons, and Watson's style was the most compatible option for this assemblage of players.
But as much as this Suns team has needed Watson, Watson has needed this Suns team. As a wet-behind-the-ears coach, he couldn't have asked for a better situation than taking over a flagging team midseason — the expectations were virtually nonexistent.
Now, just as he has created an environment for his players to grow in, this Suns team has offered Watson that same opportunity for growth. He has proven to be a terrific motivator, but his challenge going forward is to become more. The offense under Watson doesn't appear changed from Hornacek aside from the developmental focus on getting Len more touches and a few high-low sets between the bigs, and the defense remains too often as porous as a screen-doored submarine. But what will determine Watson's fate the most is whether he can crack the code regarding the team's troubling lack of consistent effort from game to game — or even quarter to quarter. That will be the key to whether Watson remains head coach of the Suns once expectations return.
However, there are still 13 games left to be played this season. Thirteen games that offer a chance at growth for player and coach alike.