Hunter finds no quick fix for inconsistent Suns
PHOENIX — The rookie coach sat facing three TV monitors parked on the wall of an office he hopes to keep beyond this season.
Two NCAA tournament games and one NBA encounter were on display in high definition. Like many basketball-educated observers, the coach shook his head and admitted the college game has become difficult to watch.
Too much stagnant offense resulting from several variables, he said.
Then Lindsey Hunter pointed to the screen on the far right, smiled and acknowledged a guilty pleasure common to those in the coaching profession.
“I like to watch San Antonio.”
The reporter mentioned ball and player movement usually associated with the Spurs, and the interim coach of the Phoenix Suns nodded again. In contrast to the opinions of critics who are still chafed over the firing of the veteran coach Hunter replaced, the rookie coach has been around long enough to recognize what’s required to win.
“Yeah … ball and player movement … that’s quite a concept, right?” he said in reference to a variable that seems so easy to identify, but so difficult to coax from a collection of young players.
A couple of hours before the Suns would fight back against the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets and lose by two points in an effort that generated several positive signs, Hunter was asked why his team has been so inconsistent.
Now 10-20 (including the Brooklyn loss) since Hunter was chosen — over local hero Dan Majerle and experienced assistant Elston Turner — to replace popular Alvin Gentry, the Suns have been hit and really, really miss.
Under Hunter, they’ve lost seven games by 20 or more points, after achieving this distinction a relatively more reasonable five times over Gentry’s 13-28 run.
But three of those seeming boat races have occurred since losing center Marcin Gortat to injury; with The Polish Hammer/Machine on the floor, the Suns are 8-11 (including the final three quarters after Marcin was hurt during the Toronto game) since Gentry's dismissal. Mix in several absences for backup center Jermaine O’Neal and winning becomes a severe challenge.
Even though the official mandate was “culture change,” the quest to play well and make a positive impression was no hay ride even with a healthy roster.
So, when — after back-to-back home drubbings administered by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards — Hunter was asked to define the reasons for this team’s inability to open games at a high level of performance, he went with this:
“I don’t care why they don’t happen,” he said. “I’m going to keep driving the point home until it does. I’m sure they’ll get tired of me before I get tired of them.”
After checking with several Suns who might qualify as team leaders (the term is very relative), the upgraded attention to detail and demand for focus in practice and game preparation under Hunter is the same now as it was when he took over.
When asking for opinions regarding Hunter's long-term potential as the head coach in Phoenix, the responses from players with local tenure often depend on what happened during the previous game.
The variables of coaching success — command of the locker room, practice court, etc. — are difficult to determine from the outside. Sure, you could look at the uneven game performances and make a conclusion, but the circumstances regarding the roster and maturity level of some of the players on it make this tricky. Should Hunter be expected to demand and receive all-out effort from the entire collection of Suns players? We'd like to believe so, but could anyone?
Is Lindsey Hunter a potentially high-level coach down the road ending in another city? Or is he an alternative in Phoenix if a better candidate doesn't materialize?
One Suns employee who’s careful to assess the overall performance before making judgments on Hunter is president of basketball operations Lon Babby.
“We’ll evaluate at the end of the year,” Babby said during an interview with FOXSportsArizona.com after Sunday’s game with the Nets. “If I parse out the results, then I’m giving an interim report on an interim coach.
“Our approach is to assess the body of work at the end of the year, and that’s what we’re gonna do. To sort of pick it apart before that is going to get us in trouble.”
There are those who insist his continuation next season is a slam dunk. The marching orders for the increasingly divisive notion of culture change, the critics say, is the variable that could provide immunity from the extended fallout after these bad losses.
Babby, in the final year of his contract, is really difficult to read when the issue is Hunter’s future. But instead of lobbing excuses in support of the interim coach, he – like everyone else following the Suns – is perplexed by the inconsistency.
“We have games like we had tonight where we fought back hard and played a really good Eastern Conference playoff team,” Babby said after the Brooklyn game. “It was the same thing the other night with the Lakers and the same thing with San Antonio.
“And then we have other nights when we didn’t bring it.”
When the Suns have brought it under Hunter the results include wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, L.A. Lakers (twice), Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Since the coaching change, Phoenix is 7-12 vs. teams currently sitting on playoff seeds; that’s not exactly cartwheel material, but it does underscore the frustration from the down performances.
“If these young guys can see what the rest of us see so clearly,” Babby said. “That’s Lindsey’s message over and over … then that would be encouraging.”
While keeping an eye on the TV monitors in his office and another on the Brooklyn Nets, Hunter talked about his transition from 17-year NBA player to coach.
The steep trajectory included work with young players – really young players – at extremely lower levels of basketball.
Coaching kids can be important step, he said, because you have to pay attention to detail.
He did stop short of mentioning that -- given the maturity level of some of the players on his current roster -- this experience probably has come in handy the last few weeks. But the irony is inescapable.
A few hours after some of the young Suns rallied to almost knock off the Nets, Hunter is encouraged by the positive step.
“I think tonight everybody that played or didn’t play and the bench … everybody fought in their own way,” he said. “That’s the way we have to play. That is what we are trying to develop.
“That is what we are going to be.”
But everyone involved – one way or another – with the Suns simply has to wait a bit longer to see how long Hunter is part of the “we.”