Checklist for Jeff Hornacek to Succeed as Phoenix Suns Head Coach
The Suns are clearly ready to get their rebuilding process underway. Over the past few years, the team has been stockpiling assets to the point where they now have six first-round picks in the next three drafts.
Then, a promising young GM named Ryan McDonough was hired just a few weeks ago, and now the Suns have decided to go young again by bringing in fan favorite Jeff Hornacek, formally a lead assistant and shooting coach for the Utah Jazz.
Critics of Hornacek will point to his lack of experience. Even for a young team like Phoenix, perhaps the Suns should have targeted a respected, well-known coaching veteran to get them back on track.
But on the other hand, a fresh face does appear to be exactly what the Suns need. The Charlotte Observer recently conducted a study in which they examined 44 cases from the past 10 years in which a coach took over a team following a losing season.
Of the 24 coaches who had previously led an NBA team, only 10 found more success the following season.
However, of the 20 new and inexperienced coaches, 11 saw an improvement in record. Among those men are coaches such as Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks.
One only has to watch the current Eastern Conference Finals series between the Pacers and Heat to find Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel, two other first-time head coaches, commanding their squads from the sidelines.
Now, it appears as though Hornacek is getting his chance. Some, such as former Sun and four-time All-Star Tom Chambers, have only pleasant things to say. Chambers said of Hornacek:
"I believe firmly that if you've done it and you're asking these kids today to do something you've already done, it's an easier task. Jeff came from a coaching family, he's always been a coach, he had to always work to hone his game...He knows what hard work is all about."
I'm not sure anybody expects Hornacek to fight for a .500 record with the amount of talent on the current roster. In fact, that would be a ridiculous expectation even for Phil Jackson.
Hornacek has the opportunity to affect this team in a positive way while they try to build an identity, and here are some things he can focus on to help the Suns improve.
Work With The Shooters
Unfortunately, the Phoenix Suns can no longer dominate opposing teams with an onslaught of three-pointers. While they used to be kings of the NBA when it came to long-distance shooting, the Suns finished this past season 28th in the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage. They shot under 34 percent as a team for the first time in 11 years.
However, Hornacek was one of the greatest shooters of his era. For his career, he boasts a 50 percent conversion rate from the field, 40 percent from downtown and 87 percent from the free-throw line.
Plus, before working with the Jazz as an assistant coach, Hornacek was the team's main shooting coach. For the past several years he has worked with Utah prospects on their shooting, and the results have been fantastic.
Just speak to Gordon Hayward, who improved his three-point percentage from 35 percent in 2011-12 to 42 percent this past season.
Hayward said of Hornacek, "Having a great shooter like that work with me helped a lot — not just with mechanics, but with my confidence".
Then, there is Alec Burks, a former lottery pick who has shot 35 percent from three-point range in his two professional seasons despite shooting just 29 percent in his final season with Colorado.
Hornacek is clearly doing something right, and the Suns have several prospects that could use help with their shot as well.
For example, Wesley Johnson had a much improved second half to the season, but he still shot 32 percent from three-point range and is very inconsistent. One night he may shoot 2-for-10, and the next he may score 20 points and be on fire the whole time.
Markieff Morris is technically a face-up power forward, yet he is one of the least efficient big men in the NBA when it comes to shooting. Among 59 forwards who attempted at least 100 three-pointers, Morris ranked 44th in three-point percentage, hitting 34 percent of his shots from behind the arc. Below is his shot chart for the 2012-13 season, and it isn't pretty.
Then, there is Michael Beasley. If the Suns choose to keep Beasley around for next season, he will perhaps be Hornacek's biggest project. That is, if Beasley decides to start listening to his coaches any time soon.
The Suns do not need Hornacek to turn this team into one that emulates the mid-2000s run-and-gun Suns. There just isn't enough talent to revive that style of play again.
However, hopefully he can get them out of the bottom-third of the league in three-point shooting. If the team's shooters become more consistent and the Suns are just about average offensively, they will surely win more games. From that point on, it's all about an emphasis on defense.
All the Suns should ask from Hornacek is for him to get the most he possibly can out of a mediocre roster.
Continue Focus on Player Development
This is, of course, the most important aspect of any rebuilding team. The whole reason the Suns fired Gentry in January was to allow a new coach to give the younger prospects more playing time.
Unfortunately, the Suns haven't been very big on player development in recent years.
Kendall Marshall rarely received playing time before Lindsey Hunter took over, but he isn't the first rookie to struggle to obtain minutes on the Suns. In fact, since 2000 Amar'e Stoudemire is the only player the Suns have drafted who has received more than 20 minutes of playing time a game in his rookie season.
Years ago, all of this was acceptable. Although trading away draft picks that would later become Rajon Rondo and Luol Deng has haunted Suns fans, it was partially justifiable at the time because the Suns were one of the top NBA teams who didn't need youth.
Now, that philosophy is dead. The Suns have forgotten about wins and losses and have started focusing on the future.
It's true, there isn't a lot of young talent on this team to focus on. Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Kendall Marshall and the Morris twins aren't a great set of prospects.
Still, the Suns need to shift their attention to those players right now. Someone needs to work with Markieff Morris on becoming a better post defender and improving the consistency of his jump shot. Kendall Marshall needs to develop some skills other than fantastic playmaking.
Perhaps someone should try to work with Beasley before the Suns give up on him for good.
Even if the Suns don't have a lot of prospects right now, they certainly will soon. As I stated earlier, Phoenix has several first-round picks in the next few drafts, and they will need a coach who is willing to work with those prospects and allow them to play and gain experience, even if it means losing a few more games.
What the Suns need right now is someone who is a "player's coach." They need someone who can not only bring out the best in his players and develop them, but someone who can also relate to his team as a former player and earn respect, thereby keeping control of team chemistry and morale.
Fortunately, Jeff Hornacek appears to be that guy.
Until now, the Suns have cared about how many wins or losses they've accumulated. Starting now, any move the team makes has to be looking ahead to the future. It doesn't matter if the Suns have a few 20-win seasons, as long as that means they are able to rebuild faster and ultimately become contenders again.
This is not just advice for Hornacek, but for the players and fans as well. The best thing to do in this situation is simply to remain calm and patient.
Rebuilding is not going to be easy. It will most likely take a few years, if not much longer. In fact, there are plenty of cases in which NBA coaches are hired for one or two seasons and do not see the end product of a rebuilding process.
The best thing the Suns can do for now is hold their heads high and not give up.
With McDonough and Hornacek in place, there will be more moves to come. In fact, a major roster overhaul is likely coming soon. Over the next few years, a lot of free agents and young players will play for this team, and a lot of them will come and go. Hornacek will need to handle a locker room that will constantly be welcoming new members.
On a rebuilding team, controlling chemistry is key. Sometimes young players can clash in the locker room, and the Suns will need some veteran players as well as to prevent those situations from happening.
Are you comfortable with the current direction of the Suns?
Honestly, the Suns are going to be a pretty bad team for at least a couple of years. By the time the Suns can contend again, if Hornacek hasn't dazzled the front office with his impressive coaching, there is a possibility that he will be gone already.
A team with a coach who is respected by his players is much more likely to win a title than a team with a roster full of self-centered, narcissistic players and a coach who is unable to control the locker room. It's a team game, and someone needs to be around to teach that to the new draftees.
Rebuilding is always a tough process, but the sooner the Suns realize that there are no shortcuts, the sooner they can be back in contention for a championship.
If this team continues to focus on the future rather than the present, and accept that sometimes you need to get worse in order to ultimately get better, they will be back in the playoffs soon and these rebuilding seasons will soon become nothing other than a distant memory to Suns fans.
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