Experience? Suns go for 'jolt' with Hunter
PHOENIX — On the Sunday morning of his team’s midseason revival interlude, Phoenix Suns general manager Lance Blanks provided the crucial "Amen!" moment.
“I think the simple answer is that the organization needed a jolt,” Blanks said. “We needed something that would shock the system.”
For the record, this was a compound jolt administered to the players, coaches and fans of the 13-28 Suns. It began with the mutual decision to relieve Alvin Gentry of his head coaching duties and then bestow the interim tag upon Lindsey Hunter on Sunday.
Hunter, in his first season as the team’s director of player development, played in the league for 17 seasons, retired in 2010 and has never been a bench coach on any level.
“Being a basketball junkie has prepared me for this,” Hunter said. “My entire life has been surrounded by this game. It never gets old to me.”
Hunter's ascension means Blanks — backed by owner Robert Sarver and president of basketball ops Lon Babby — passed on handing the gig to Suns assistants Elston Turner, Dan Majerle and Igor Kokoskov.
While Hunter spent Sunday morning conducting his first practice (it went swimmingly, by all accounts) on the practice floor at US Airways Center, Turner was in another section of the arena. Majerle wasn’t in the arena, according to reports, and Kokoskov was on the floor working.
Blanks said all three were offered the opportunity to remain with the team as assistant coaches, but he left further commenting on the coaching staff to Hunter.
“It’s still up in the air,” Hunter said. “I’m not at liberty to speak about it.”
For now, Hunter will proceed toward Wednesday’s game against the Kings in Sacramento with holdovers Kokoskov, Noel Gillespie and Corey Gaines (head coach of the WNBA's Mercury and a Suns assistant) on the bench with him.
So, with the jolting done, everyone else interested in the Suns now can sit back and wonder why Hunter was chosen.
First of all, actual coaching — believe it or not — isn’t a drop-dead requirement for being good at coaching relatively soon. But it certainly helps. And just having been an NBA player doesn’t guarantee coaching success, either. There are several successful NBA coaches who didn’t play anywhere near this level.
On the other side of this tricky coin we find Mark Jackson and Vinny Del Negro, former players who didn’t have any sit-in-the-chair coaching chops before being hired as head coaches by NBA teams.
They’re both doing well this season, proving that basketball knowledge, however it’s attained, and really good players are key ingredients in the recipe for coaching success.
But the crucial component that’s often overlooked is the ability to command the room, to — through word and/or deed — get the attention of your players.
Without being witness to the nitty-gritty stretches of practice and having zero access to coaches’ chats, we can’t know if the guys the Suns passed over — or the one they hired — possess that quality.
Blanks and Babby, however, seem convinced Hunter has more of it than the others. And they, you may recall, are (like Gentry was) in the final year of their contracts.
According to Babby, Gentry is a goner because of the team’s feel, because a culture of losing was beginning to emerge. Sure, a lot of people believe the front-office guys are more culpable for that than Gentry — and that’s something for Sarver to decide.
So, with their jobs on the line, too, the notion of turning over the team to Turner or Majerle probably seemed like a situation in which the players would be hearing more of the same.
“Risk trumps safety in this business,” Blanks said, “and we felt this was the right person to take the risk with.”
The players have been around Hunter since training camp, too, but none of their X-and-O marching orders have come from him. His voice, for better or worse, will be different. And Blanks said the choice of Hunter received clarity from “listening to the voices of the players.”
So what kind of coach will Hunter be?
That’s a toughie. Since he’s been limited to skill-development work, let’s check with Hunter’s main project, rookie point guard Kendall Marshall.
“He won’t put up with any B.S. at all,” Marshall said. “He has no problem making me stay and work for two hours after practice to get better.”
According to Marshall, Hunter’s first practice was marked by “a lot of positivity ... a lot of energy.”
As a player, Hunter — a former first-round pick of the Detroit Pistons — was one of the league’s best on-ball defenders from his point guard position. When his coaching philosophy begins to emerge, expect certain elements of former coaches Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, Doug Collins and George Karl to contribute.
“I’m a defensive guy,” Hunter said. “I want us to be a tough, nasty, defense-oriented team. But I’m not going to try to build Rome in a day.”
No, he’s simply taking players who haven’t been playing for each other and attempting to have them start doing that after three days.
“It was a good day, first day of practicing,” Hunter said, “and I think the guys enjoyed it. The guys played hard and it was fun.”
That sounds pretty much like how things were right after the Suns fired Terry Porter and replaced him with an interim head coach named Alvin Gentry.
Yeah, times do change. But the seesaw nature of the coaching profession stays the same.