By reportedly selecting Jeff Hornacek as their next head coach, the Phoenix Suns may have been working inside and outside that proverbial box at the same time.
As an NBA guard for 14 years, Hornacek doesn’t exactly fit the mold of new-school basketball whiz whose rise to sideline prominence began as a grinder in the video room — a description that does fit for new Suns general manager Ryan McDonough.
But while he’s been on NBA payrolls for many years, Hornacek doesn’t qualify as a coaching retread, either. The Suns — who, according to multiple reports, agreed with Hornacek on a three-year deal on Sunday — will be providing him his first opportunity as a head coach at any level.
“He’s just a basketball guy who had a feel for the game from being a high-level player and took the time to also learn how to teach it,” said an NBA assistant coach employed by another Western Conference team. “I think the Jazz had their coach of the future on the payroll and waited too long to make that happen.”
Hornacek had spent the past two years as an assistant coach with the Jazz. The starting shooting guard during Utah’s glory years (which featured a pair of NBA Finals losses to the Chicago Bulls), Hornacek also worked as the team’s shooting coach until being elevated to bench assistant in 2011.
Ironically, Hornacek moved up after longtime Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan walked away in early February of that year and was replaced by assistant Tyrone Corbin.
Playing under Sloan – and alongside Hall of Fame-bound superstars Karl Malone and John Stockton – Hornacek became perhaps even more beloved in Salt Lake City than he’d been in Phoenix, where he spent the first six years of his 14-year playing career. But Hornacek still lives in the Valley, and that was speculated to play a role in his interest in the Suns’ job.
So, now that the Suns have their man, what style of play can their fans – who figure to be enthusiastic over this hire — expect to see? Will there be the 1-4 high and flex sets used by Sloan and executed with precision by Hornacek and his famous teammates?
Well, a lot depends on how McDonough is able to massage the roster between now and training camp.
With most coaches picking and choosing the best tactical nuances from those they played for or coached with, we often see an eclectic approach. During his six years with the Suns, Hornacek was a big contributor on teams known for playing fast and scoring frequently.
While in Utah, Hornacek may have played under a bit more conventional structure with Sloan, but those Jazz teams didn’t exactly walk the ball up, either. They were, however, more balanced at both ends of the floor.
During his time as an assistant under Corbin, Utah has played at a relatively slow pace; the Jazz are in the post-Deron Williams era and had more accomplished players on the low blocks. This past season, Utah was 21st in pace (possessions per 48 minutes).
But that may have little or nothing to do with how Hornacek wants to play.
And that’s part of the rub when attempting to assess the slam-dunk potential of a hire who has zero head coaching experience. How much of what Utah did — good or bad — can be attributed to Hornacek?
In Salt Lake City, he has been credited with
greatly assisting the improved 3-point accuracy of young Jazz wingers
Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. But without sitting in on coaching meetings for other teams or having first-hand knowledge of an assistant’s particular impact, how can franchise movers and shakers know if a first-time guy’s interview skills and witness testimonials will translate one seat over?
We can imagine that the vetting – on the court and off – is comprehensive. As a league executive told me recently, “We don’t make these decisions after throwing darts at a dart board.”
Anyway, while we shouldn’t expect anything resembling the Mike D’Antoni philosophy (retained by Alvin Gentry as long as Steve Nash was around), Hornacek figures to promote more of the aforementioned balance.
A check of the final four teams in this year’s NBA playoffs reveals that Indiana, Memphis and San Antonio finished first, second and third, respectively, in defensive efficiency during the regular season. Miami was ninth.
So, with this being the summer of analytics (as promised by president of basketball operations Lon Babby), expect the Suns to emulate the building philosophies of successful teams.
It also should be noted that three of the aforementioned teams have head coaches who didn’t play in the NBA. The notion that NBA players are reluctant to take marching orders from those who didn’t play at their level has been fading for a while.
That doesn’t mean the Suns are behind the curve in their hiring process. But it does suggest that even though franchise leadership is taking a more data-driven approach to how it does some business, it will not handcuff itself by attempting to replicate what’s been popular.