The Phoenix Suns finished the 2012-13 season as a Western Conference bottom feeder with a 25-57 record. Fans and analysts alike expected more of the same in 2013-14, but the Suns—with the help of new general manager Ryan McDonough—got their mojo back the minute Jeff Hornacek was hired as head coach.
Through Jan. 4, the Suns have already reached 20 wins following a 116-100 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks (20-12 overall). They’re four-fifths of the way to the win total they posted through the entirety of last season with approximately three months remaining.
Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins are all averaging career highs in points per game. The offense is clicking, and unselfish play is leading the way. Credit Hornacek for changing the culture in Phoenix while simultaneously earning the respect of young players.
“We’re a really young team,” Dragic said, according to a must-read article by Matt Moore of CBS Sports. “Nobody expects us to play fundamental basketball, sharing the ball all the time. The best thing is all the players have a great relationship with the coaching staff. We really believe in Jeff. Jeff is unbelievable; he played in this league for many years and was one of the best shooting guards. He knows how to play this game.”
Following a 21-point comeback victory on the road against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 20, Gerald Green said, “I gotta give coach the credit. He never panicked, he never yelled at us. He kept with it. He told us to stick with the plan, just to keep at it, it’s going to work,” per Moore’s article.
Hornacek’s even-keeled demeanor has worked wonders for the eighth-youngest team in the NBA.
In addition to having a mean age of 25.5 years, the Suns roster has an average professional experience level of 2.9 years. Only the Philadelphia 76ers (2.5 years) have a lower average experience level when compared with Phoenix.
Despite dealing with a young and inexperienced squad, Hornacek set a winning tone from the outset by teaching his players to make good decisions with the ball.
“Early on in training camp, we made it an emphasis that when we saw a guy not make the right pass or the extra pass, we’d stop the play. And we’d explain to the guy, if you just make this play or find this guy, then this or that will happen,” Hornacek said, according to Moore.
The first-year head coach went on to explain that teaching players to make the right play every time was a struggle initially, but that having a consistent, disciplined style has defined the NBA’s elite teams.
“That’s probably what makes San Antonio so great, Pop (San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) harps on it. The top ten teams in the league all share the ball, they move it quickly,” he said.
Much like Gregg Popovich, who has extracted production from guys like Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills, Hornacek has put relative unknowns in a position to succeed.
Green, who was known prior to this season as “just a dunker,” has reinvented himself as a three-point sharpshooter and a well-rounded performer. He’s scored at least 20 points in a game eight different times, both off the bench and as a spot starter.
And savage swats:
The athleticism he’s displayed at his size has been a marvel to behold, but he’s also managed to balance his athletic prowess with a soft touch around the basket. His baby hooks are a far cry from former Sun Robin Lopez’s, whose hook shots were fired at the rim like line-drive darts.
Hornacek embraced Plumlee’s potential from the outset, as the NBA sophomore has started all 31 of the Suns’ games.
The most important personnel move Hornacek decided to make, however, was using Bledsoe and Dragic simultaneously in the backcourt.
In his article, Moore chronicles the first time Dragic talked with his new head coach:
“The first time I spoke to him,” Dragic says, “I was back in Europe. And he said ‘We want to be like those old Suns, use two ball-handlers and play extremely fast, up-tempo.’ You never know if that’s going to work or not, but he always tries to give you that confidence. Even in tense minutes on the floor, he’s always calm. It helps you to not get worried, and just play your game.”
Historically speaking, the Suns have built a reputation as a run-and-gun team (primarily when Steve Nash was winning MVP awards in the desert). Hornacek wanted to get back to that identity, so he reached out to his new point guard to explain his thought process.
The decision to play Bledsoe and Dragic in the same backcourt needed full support from the coaching staff. Hornacek had no problem endorsing that idea.
In a league that can sometimes be handcuffed to something as arbitrary as set positions, the Suns thought outside the box and are reaping the benefits as a result. The uptempo style has thrived better than fans could have imagined, because Phoenix constantly has two ball-handlers on the court who can run half-court sets or fast-break opportunities.
Dragic entered Saturday night’s matchup with the Bucks averaging 18.9 points, 5.9 assists and 2.9 rebounds to go with a player efficiency rating of 20.61.
Bledsoe, who has missed the Suns’ past two games due to a knee injury, is averaging 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds with a PER of 20.17.
Both floor generals are having career seasons under Coach Hornacek, and analytics has undoubtedly played a role in their success.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough has instituted a philosophy that embraces analytical statistics—such as effective field-goal percentage (eFG%), which accounts for the fact that three-point shots are worth more points, and are thus weighted accordingly.
The analytics movement has become increasingly popular in NBA circles, but former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins lost his job for not buying in.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote that the two parties couldn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension due to “major philosophical differences.”
Grizzlies president of basketball operations John Hollinger is a staunch advocate of analytics, having developed player efficiency rating during his time at ESPN. Hollins didn’t agree with Hollinger’s philosophy, and it’s clear he wasn’t a fan of the trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors.
Contrary to the situation that unraveled between Hollins and Grizzlies management, McDonough and Hornacek are both on the same page. In fact, the Suns coach has even been using shot charts as a coaching tool.
Here’s what Hornacek said about using that analytical tool, via Moore:
We’ve given the point guards the shot charts [...]. We’ll tell them in transition, “Let the guys get set before you throw it to them.” It’s been shown that if they’re on the run, the percentage goes way down. So if you know Gerald Green shoots a high percentage from the corner, wait till he gets all the way down there and gets set.
It’s become increasingly clear over the course of the season that the Suns have a sky-high basketball IQ as a unit. Hornacek’s emphasis on teaching through a variety of different methods has been the key.
After years of poor decisions under former GM Lance Blanks—who signed Michael Beasley to a three-year, $18 million contract prior to last season and put a hodgepodge of below-average players around Steve Nash with the hopes of competing—the Suns finally have a hope for the future.
McDonough is building the roster, while Hornacek is molding the pieces into a cohesive, competitive corps. He led Phoenix to a 10-3 record in December, earning Coach of the Month honors in the process.
The Suns probably won’t compete for a title in 2014, but they’ve raised eyebrows and drawn leaguewide attention with their play thus far. Thanks to Hornacek, the Suns are genuinely fun to watch once again.