Ever since the weird, two-tiered firing of the top three coaches on the roster in the month of January, the Phoenix Suns have been in limbo over the long-term outlook of their coaching staff.
The Suns named Earl Watson to replace Hornacek for the remainder of the season to give the team "a new voice" when the Suns had lost 19 of 21 games, including inexplicable non-competitive losses to some of the league's worst teams.
Watson's Suns finished the season 9-24, after Hornacek's Suns went 14-35 through the end of January.
The coaching search apparently began in earnest as soon as the season ended, and should come to a conclusion before the draft combine that begins May 11.
"Any advantage you can get as an organization as far as being out ahead of that, having potentially your pick of all the candidates," McDonough said to Arizonasports.com last week, "because we're not just talking about hiring a head coach â that's obviously extremely important â but then once you get that guy in place, then you have to fill out a good staff as well, and for some of these better assistant coaches there's a lot of competition for the staff as you go through that process as well."
McDonough iterated that Earl Watson has done nothing but help himself since he was named the interim head coach at the beginning of February, despite a 9-24 record.
Watson is the first coach the Suns will interview. Other coaches with Suns ties have been mentioned in rumors, but none have been confirmed to receive/accept a Suns coaching interview as of this time.
Recent indications are that the job is Earl's unless someone in the interview process blows away the Suns front office. It's happened before. McDonough wasn't the #1 option in 2013 for GM, and Hornacek wasn't the top coaching option at the beginning of the process in 2013 either.
Parallels to 2013
When Earl Watson was named to replace Jeff Hornacek before the February 1 home game, his rapid ascension from a player development role in his rookie NBA sideline campaign looked a lot like 2013 Gentry-to-Hunter all over again.
Yes, the high-level facts are the same.
Both Lindsey Hunter and Earl Watson were ostensibly hired by the head coach (Alvin Gentry and Jeff Hornacek, respectively) to a player development role in their rookie NBA coaching season. They'd each been a decade-plus rotational point guard on multiple NBA teams with a reputation for toughness and defense, and a belly full of coaching aspirations.
They each joined the Suns just to take their first step, and learn the trade of coaching from a tertiary position. Yet by January, both had impressed the GM and leapfrogged an entire coaching staff to the top spot when the season went to pot.
But that's kind of where the similarities between Lindsey Hunter and Earl Watson end.
The first deviation from 2013 came in how the top assistants left the team. In 2013, Gentry's staff revolted and quit at the sight of Hunter taking over the team. This time, the front office pre-empted that revolt by firing the top assistants, Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi, long before the head man was axed.
Earl is no Lindsey
By the end of 2012-13, none of the players stumped for Hunter to come back the next year. In fact, most of them were skeptical they'd be back themselves. But even those who expected to return were ambivalent about the coach.
It's very different with Earl Watson.
To a man, and without exception, the Suns players love interim coach Earl Watson. They talk about how he calmed the storm and helped them focus on basketball, allowing them to keep up their spirits up.
Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic, both free agents, expressed a desire to return to the Suns next year. Mirza even suggested that he'd be most inclined to return if Watson returned as well. Young players, like Alex Len, talked glowingly about Watson's ability to keep them competitive despite the struggles with so many injuries.
Watson ready for the job
Earl Watson talked about the whirlwind two months as coach in such a difficult situation. When he stepped in, the Suns had lost 19 of 21 games and every one of their playmakers was injured - Eric Bledsoe was lost for the year, Brandon Knight was lost indefinitely and Ronnie Price had just undergone toe surgery.
He was forced to play two shooting guards - Archie Goodwin and Devin Booker - and a number of short-term signees at the point.
"We brought in like 50 point guards from the D-League in one week," Watson joked.
He exaggerated for effect, but the craziness was real. Besides using two off guards barely old enough to drink at the point, the Suns brought in Lorenzo Brown and then Jordan McRae in January, then Phil Pressey and Orlando Johnson in February. All were on 10-day contracts and didn't last more than 20 days.
Earl had a few other items on his interim coaching agenda too.
"So we had to get a guy in Markieff Morris," Watson said, "Elevate his game when he hasn't played all year who we knew that was going to be a challenge, get Devin Booker better at the same time, keep Alex Len ready to step into that [power forward] role once (the trade of Morris) happened, tell Tyson Chandler we need you for the rest of the season, find P.J. Tucker and make him better, create a bench with Mirza Teletovic, and also figure out our point guard situation."
Raising Morris' trade value was one of Watson's first orders of business.
"We all knew we had a situation with a player who didn't want to be here," Watson said. "So both parties wanted to execute a positive ending."
Watson encouraged Morris into playing his best basketball of the season, and when the trade deadline approached the team was able to turn that performance into a 2016 lottery pick. McDonough said later it was Morris' play under Watson that finally improved his trade value.
But the biggest obstacle, according to Earl, was the player's attitudes.
"Whether you're a first year coach, 15, 10, whatever your years are in this league," he said. "It's really difficult to change the emotions, the attitudes, and mindset of an NBA team in a losing season."
Watson said when he was hired, winning games wasn't a top priority. He said he was told that no matter how wins they accumulated the rest of the season, he wouldn't be held accountable.
"But what was held accountable was competing," Watson said. "Getting the young guys better, and changing the culture and the attitude and the atmosphere from discouraged to loving the opportunity."
The players did embrace Watson. In exit interviews, they all said they'd like Watson to come back. And, they commended him for righting the ship in the locker room, getting rid of excuses and drama, and putting them in a position to feel proud of their efforts even in loss after loss.
"It was a lot going on, but I think our staff executed everything that was asked of us to do and mixed in a little winning along the way," Watson said.
The Suns lost Watson's first 9 games - all against high-seeded playoff caliber teams - but then finished the season 9-15 as 19-year old rookie Devin Booker became their #1 scoring option and veterans like Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker and Mirza Teletovic re-committed to the season.
Watson smiles at the thought of what he's been through the past two months.
"I don't know if I'll ever see another challenge like this in my coaching career again," he said. "But I'm prepared for the future."
Watson has said on the radio that he's okay either way, and that any door closed means another one will open. It's safe to say that Watson will be a long time coach in the league.
He might not be fully formed yet as a coach, but he's making progress. He said one of his biggest developments in two months is that he can now draw up plays in the huddle (something Hunter never did in 2013).
But this version of Earl Watson is more of a motivational guy - perfect for a young team that needs to commit to a process, and a program. And that ought to be what the 2016-17 Suns focus on, given that Booker and this year's draft pick would ideally be the new faces of the franchise with long-term future in the valley.