It has now been over two months since Lindsey Hunter took over as Phoenix Suns interim head coach.
Following the firing of Alvin Gentry in in the middle of January, Hunter was promoted from head of player development all the way to head coach for Phoenix. This move was widely criticized, as two more prominent figures in Elston Turner and Dan Majerle were both passed over to give Hunter his first ever coaching position.
Now, Hunter has coached a total of 35 games for Phoenix, in which time the Suns have compiled a 10-25 record. The team has won a total of just three games since the start of March, and the Suns have latched on to the bottom spot in the Western Conference.
But grading Hunter's job as coach goes deeper than just overall record. A lost season seemed inevitable after the Gentry firing, and Hunter was not expected to take Phoenix to the playoffs.
To truly analyze his performance thus far, we need to take a look at his coaching philosophy and personality, as well as the current state of team morale and individual player progression.
The Suns might be losing right now, but Hunter originally vowed to change the Suns into a better defensive team.
Just several days after being inserted into his new role, he said (per ValleyoftheSuns.com), "Of course, I want us to be a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team. That’s what I want. And that’s what we are going to work towards being."
Hunter played on several great defensive teams over the course of his 17-year playing career, but the Suns have not been able to emulate those clubs in the slightest. In fact, the Suns have only declined defensively.
Since the All-Star break, Phoenix is 6-17 in 23 games. Opponents are scoring 105.0 points per game in those 23 games, compared to just 99.9 points per game from before. Opponents are also shooting slightly better percentages from the field, behind the arc and from the free-throw line.
To be fair, Hunter has not had much to work with. P.J. Tucker is really the only Suns player known for his defense, and while there are some other decent defenders on the roster, there are still too many players who fail to bring the effort on both ends of the floor or who are just playing out of position and are being bullied by the opposition (Scola, I'm looking at you).
Even so, it is peculiar that the Suns have regressed defensively despite Hunter's previous comments. That might lead you to believe that the Suns are just putting in more effort offensively, but that isn't the case either. The Suns' performance on offense has remained stagnant, and defensively, they've only gone from bad to worse.
However, some of Hunter's original claims have been fulfilled. He was expected to start a "youth movement" in Phoenix and begin to work on player development, and he has done just that. Hunter is paying more attention to the team's prospects, and they are starting to produce as a result.
One such player is Wesley Johnson, who played just 125 minutes this season before Hunter took over. Under Gentry, the former fourth overall pick of the 2010 NBA draft looked like a complete bust; now, he might just be a crucial piece of the team's rebuilding process.
Johnson started receiving a large amount of minutes in March, and he hasn't looked back. In his last 10 games, Johnson is averaging 14.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals while shooting 40 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown. He is able to shoot, defend or hustle, and he's been rewarded for his play by being inserted into the starting lineup.
If you had asked whether Johnson would be re-signed to a multi-year contract a few months ago, some might have just laughed in your face. But now, the possibility of a lucrative contract for Johnson this summer seems very plausible.
Another developing prospect is Kendall Marshall, who seems to have finally gotten settled in the NBA.
Marshall still has plenty of weaknesses. He is hesitant to drive to the rim, he will miss open threes and he is one of the worst defenders on the team.
In fact, he averaged just 4.0 points and 4.1 assists per game in March while shooting 35 percent from the field. So why is there hope? Because Marshall started two games that month, and he proved that his passing alone could make him a successful NBA player and possibly a starter several years down the road.
Marshall first put up 13 assists against Utah and then another 10 while taking on Sacramento. Ever since Hunter has taken over, he has been able to efficiently run the offense and set up teammates with great assists. He has a lot of work to do, but he is certainly making progress.
These are the results of the team on the court since Hunter became head coach. However, there are other factors that contribute to his grade, and those stem from Hunter's personality as a coach.
Hunter was a player just a few years ago, so he likely doesn't have a hard time connecting with the players.
In fact, Jermaine O'Neal is just one person who recently praised his coach for an excellent job so far.
But as O'Neal himself pointed out, Hunter isn't afraid to be aggressive with his players, and sometimes that can backfire.
With the Suns losing so many games, Hunter is probably frustrated, which is understandable. However, he has a little bit of a worrisome habit in calling out his players in front of the media.
For example, in an embarrassing loss to the Boston Celtics on February 22, Goran Dragic played 43 minutes. The Suns were already down by 14 by the end of the third quarter, but Hunter continued to play Dragic for the entire fourth quarter. His reasoning (per Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic) was that he "wanted guys who would compete."
Ouch. The Suns had already lost the game, but Hunter didn't even want to rest his best player in a blowout loss because he doesn't trust his bench. It's not a direct insult, but it is obvious he wasn't happy with some players.
This has happened more than once. After a March 20 loss to the Wizards, Hunter was extremely angry and complained that he wasn't pleased with the "young guys" to the press. He said about the Morris twins (per Vince Marotta of Arizona Sports):
"I told Marcus and I told Markieff that if you're not going to go out and compete, forget making shots, forget bad passes and things like that -- if you're not going to go out and compete and fight, you'll watch the guys that will."
Being angry is fine, and I'm sure Hunter lectured the Morris twins, Beasley and Marshall after that game. But to go to the media and throw those guys under the bus seems a little bit unfair. While those guys should be held accountable for their bad games, finger-pointing will not help.
And then there was another incident several days ago, when Hunter called out P.J. Tucker (per Craig Grialou of Arizona Sports):
#Suns Hunter, "Our supposedly toughest guy didn't practice today."What's wrong with PJ Tucker?Answer, "He has a boo-boo."— Craig Grialou (@Craig620) April 1, 2013
For clarification, Tucker's "boo-boo" was knee soreness, as he had taken a hit to the back of his knee. Nothing was broken, but it was a legitimate cause for concern and he was questionable for the following game against the Clippers. However, Hunter didn't seem to take the issue so seriously.
And last, but certainly not least, is Michael Beasley. First, Hunter stared down Beasley after a terrible air ball during a game, and then just hours ago Saturday, Hunter fired back at Beasley after the forward claimed that he has stopped listening to coaches and is just doing what he knows how to do (per Daria Del Colliano of Arizona Sports).
Some of Hunter's comments are perfectly justified. However, they can come across as immature, and he has to be careful. There haven't been any problems yet, but if the team is losing and the coach starts placing blame on specific players in front of the fans and media, chemistry and morale will both plummet. A coach isn't usually the one creating a harmful atmosphere, but too many of these types of comments could generate a dysfunctional locker room in Phoenix.
Overall, you can't say that Hunter has done a bad job. The Suns may be 10-25 under their new coach, but they were also 13-28 under Gentry, and most fans were fine with him at the time of the firing.
We will never know how Majerle or Turner could have done on the sidelines this season, but even Phil Jackson could not have taken this team to the playoffs simply because of a lack of talent. Hunter has a limited amount of talent to work with, but he is making the most of it and trying to fight for some wins down the stretch.
But at the same time, not all is well. Hunter's defensive-oriented philosophy simply is not working, and the way in which he treats the players can be a little concerning. Are these problems that can be fixed with more experience, or are they troubling trends that may continue if Hunter is re-signed?
Nobody can know for sure at this point, but Hunter hasn't exactly been this team's dream coach. If someone better comes along this offseason for the right price, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Hunter unemployed at the start of next season.
Overall Grade: C+
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