In Hornacek, Suns turn to the past with eye on future
Hornacek's history, teaching chops appear well suited for Suns' long-range reconstruction.
By RANDY HILLFS Arizona
PHOENIX – The past was a blast for the Phoenix Suns, but one major deficiency continues to distort the historical narrative.
The Suns – who check in fourth among NBA franchises for all-time winning percentage – have yet to seize that slippery O’Brien Trophy.
“The Phoenix Suns have been a great organization forever,” former Suns shooting guard Jeff Hornacek said. “One thing that I always thought was missing was a championship.”
And Hornacek, officially introduced Tuesday as the 16th head coach in Suns history, has come home to change that. Well, he’s here as a seemingly outstanding piece in an ambitious rebuilding project that follows the second-worst season in franchise history.
The long-range goal is obvious, but in Hornacek and recently hired general manager Ryan McDonough, the Suns have two hires that have been judged favorably around the league.
A crucial variable is the growing notion that franchise owner Robert Sarver has embraced patience as the Suns pull themselves up from 25 wins and reach for elite status.
After two expectedly clumsy seasons of tiptoeing around the eventual departure of Steve Nash and one season of scoreboard agony, the Suns have a plan.
“We’re going to try to build through the draft and develop our young players,” said McDonough, rewinding a big point of emphasis from his first Suns press conference. “That’s the initial plan.”
If a really swell free agent wants to play along, the process may accelerate.
But to tie everything together, the Suns also needed to hire the coach who checks off the boxes next to several categories.
Those include respect of pretty much everyone in the organization and the ability to teach.
With Hornacek, who has three years in as an NBA assistant with the Utah Jazz following a quick run as a shooting coach, it seems like checks on both.
“It became clearer and clearer to us as the process went on that Jeff Hornacek was the right guy to lead the Phoenix Suns going forward," McDonough said. “His work with the Jazz has drawn rave reviews.”
It’s fitting that Hornacek’s introductory press conference was staged on the Suns’ practice floor. The work required to actually go forward will happen there, starting with the development of players and translating into a collective upgrade in adhering to detail.
As the culture change we’ve heard about for the last few months continues to unfold, the biggest question attached to any new coach is the Suns’ style of play.
Will there be an aggressive push away from leftover memories of the Mike D’Antoni Age? The Suns tried it (for a moment) with Terry Porter, did a complete D’Antoni-style rewind with Alvin Gentry, endured the painful end of Nash’s run and took a shot with interim replacement Lindsey Hunter.
Due to personnel more than philosophy, the Suns have not been nearly as tempo-driven or potent on offense as during any of the so-called glory days. But they’ve also staggered in most attempts to prevent the opposition from scoring.
Hornacek, who played for Cotton Fitzsimmons and the up-tempo Suns of the late 1980s and early ’90s, finished his career working in the structured system of Utah coach Jerry Sloan.
“My philosophy is to blend those two, then push the ball,” Hornacek said. “But to win in this league, you have to be able to play well at both ends.
“I want our guys to play hard-nosed defense, force tough shots, create turnovers and then run.”
But aside from possessing the strategic chops to put players in the best situations for success, NBA coaches must be aware of the psychology involved.
Hornacek, singling out an increasing lack of teaching that today’s young players have been exposed to before reaching the league in recent years, said the message isn’t completely wasted on youth.
“They may look at you funny,” he said, “but deep down, they want to learn.”
And while they’re learning how to play at an NBA level, young players also need structure and discipline. Hornacek, who certainly doesn’t seem like the crabby sort, believes his temperament fits the head coaching requirement.
“I think it’s an advantage that I’m on an even keel, for the most part,” he said.
If you don’t get worked up very often, Hornacek pointed out, it resonates more with players when you do. If you’re always on edge, the players eventually will tune you out.
In that chain of events, the fans will do the same.
It may take a trusted, familiar face to help bring some of them back.