Jeff Hornacek took over a Phoenix Suns team that finished 25-57 a season ago—fourth-worst in the NBA—and now has the revamped roster fighting for a playoffs berth against all odds. But has Hornacek already established himself as the favorite for Coach of the Year?
Fans and pundits didn't expect much (putting it lightly) from the Suns after they missed the playoffs for three straight years and formulated a new roster under general manager Ryan McDonough.
NBA.com’s Sam Smith, Yahoo! Sports’ Marc J. Spears and Sports Illustrated’s Matt Dollinger all pegged Phoenix to finish last in the Western Conference prior to the 2013-14 season—and who could blame them?
The Suns showed very few signs of life last year as they entered the post-Steve Nash era. They won the fewest amount of games since the inception of the franchise in 1968-69, when the expansion team finished 16-66.
They followed their abysmal 2012-13 campaign by trading away veterans like Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola, which put Phoenix's first-year head coach in a difficult position.
Despite basement-level expectations and plenty of uncertainty, Hornacek has molded an inexperienced Suns crew into one of the most exciting teams in the league. He’s obliterated outlooks that had Phoenix vying for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, has numerous role players competing at a high level and has done it all with a calm demeanor and positive attitude.
Not only were the Suns expected to be lottery-bound in 2013-14, but they were also supposedly poised to finish at the bottom of the standings.
Well, so much for that bleak viewpoint.
Relative to expectations, no team in the NBA has been better than the Phoenix Suns.
Prior to the season, many envisioned the Portland Trail Blazers as a fringe playoff team. And while they burst onto the scene like gangbusters early on, they’ve sputtered of late due to the absence of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge—posting a 4-8 record in their past 12 games.
Head coach Terry Stotts has done a tremendous job in Portland, but its improvement was to be expected due to Damian Lillard’s added experience, coupled with a revamped second unit.
First-year head coach Steve Clifford also deserves heaps of credit for turning the Charlotte Bobcats’ fortunes around.
After finishing dead last in defensive efficiency last season by surrendering 108.9 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN, the Bobcats have flipped the script by becoming a top-10 defensive team in terms of efficiency. Charlotte ranks ninth in that category this season with a mark of 101.8.
While the turnaround of team defense has been impressive, the Bobcats are still two games under .500 in the lowly Eastern Conference (35-37).
The Suns were predicted to finish last in the West, but are actually in the playoff hunt at 43-29 overall.
Nobody expected them to compete, much less contend for a postseason berth. As a result, Hornacek gets the edge when team success is pitted against original expectations.
Improvement of Players
Coach Hornacek has instilled confidence in players all over the roster. From starting point guard Goran Dragic to trade throw-in Ish Smith, the Suns coach has an eclectic group of guys posting career years in terms of scoring.
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While those numbers are due in part to added opportunity, that shouldn’t count against Hornacek’s ability to teach and get the most out of his guys. Many of the aforementioned Suns are getting more minutes, but they’re also producing when they see that court time.
The respect that Hornacek commands has players buying in and believing in what their coach has to say.
“We’re a really young team. Nobody expects us to play fundamental basketball, sharing the ball all the time,” Dragic said, according to CBS Sports’ Matt Moore. “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.”
Athletic swingman Gerald Green praised Hornacek’s coaching ability after a 21-point comeback victory against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 20 by saying, “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.
“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.
He’s putting his guys in a position to succeed, which has translated to unexpected W's regardless of opponents or injury troubles. Those are all qualities you look for in a Coach of the Year candidate.
Other Coaching Candidates?
Hornacek’s impact on the Suns has been astronomical thus far, but does anyone else deserve mention amongst the “favorites” for the award.
Stotts and Clifford have excelled for different reasons on opposite coasts, but Gregg Popovich—a coaching mainstay for the San Antonio Spurs—can never be counted out of the equation.
Pop has the veteran Spurs dominating once again after an NBA Finals appearance in 2013. Despite injury troubles and a new collection of role players filling various voids (Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and even the short-lived Shannon Brown), San Antonio sports the best record in the Association at 55-16.
Honestly, I wouldn’t be opposed to a co-Coach of the Year Award getting handed out each season. Many would argue that Popovich is the best in the business, so why not recognize his greatness along with another worthy candidate?
A novel idea, sure, but Pop’s impact has been nothing short of legendary.
If we’re talking about nothing but 2013-14, however, Hornacek has to be the guy. He didn’t enter the season with luxuries named Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and he was entering a foreign situation as a rookie head coach with new personnel.
Despite it all, the Suns have been extremely competitive and a joy to watch play.
It’s worth considering that the Spurs have compiled a 13-12 record against the top 10 teams in the league excluding themselves: Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns.
Who should win NBA Coach of the Year?
It’s alarming that each record against the NBA’s giants is so similar when you consider the Suns were expected to finish last, while San Antonio’s only question mark was whether they’d make the Finals again.
Tom Thibodeau, Dwane Casey, Stotts, Clifford, Pop—a compelling case could made for any of those guys at season’s end.
As it stands, however, I believe Hornacek’s influence has stood out above the rest.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley said on a broadcast earlier this year that the Suns coach should win Coach of the Year “easily.”
There’s plenty of competition amongst the coaches, but if Phoenix makes the playoffs, that will solidify Hornacek’s case.
In fact, even if the Suns come up short, don’t be surprised if Hornacek wins Coach of the Year regardless. His work with young talent and NBA castaways has undoubtedly been COY worthy—and remember, he's just getting started.