It has almost been taken for granted how greatly the Phoenix Suns improved from last season, and how much they exceeded expectations, but first year head coach Jeff Hornacek saw good things on the horizon for the team last August. The Suns more than lived up to his bold words.
When Jeff Hornacek spoke with Bright Side's own Jim Coughenour in August of 2013 to discuss the upcoming Suns season, the prognosis for this squad was decidedly modest to the vast majority of NBA analysts. Hornacek's own expectations were quite different, however, and he made a few optimistic statements regarding the prospects for the Suns on the offensive end that, at the time, sounded almost delusional in their bullishness.
There were plenty of skeptics then, myself among them, but the Suns easily achieved the specific performance measures Hornacek mentioned. It's easy to use a person's words in the past against them when they don't live up to those statements, so let's give Hornacek credit here for making confident statements, and then seeing his team deliver on them.
First of all, you really should go back and read all of Jim's piece here because it's a fantastic piece of writing, and a great basketball conversation between two sharp minds.
Are you back? OK, wasn't it brilliant? Now, let's break down a few of those Horny quotes.
In response to Jim's question of how many points the Suns will score this season:
"What did we average last year? (It was 95.2 by the way) Over 102.9, we would hope we can get there. If we can get there, I think that's a good start for us in our first year. So, hopefully, I would say yes.
Horny added the qualifier "hopefully,", but that was still a gutsy statement to say that he thought his team could improve their PPG average by 8. The 2012-13 Suns team was 29th in the NBA in O-Rating, and their new starting lineup for this season featured three players who had never been full-season NBA starters before (Tucker, Plumlee and Bledsoe), and another who was returning from a year off missed due to a potentially life-threatening heart ailment (Frye).
103 PPG? No problem! This season's Suns scored 105.2 PPG, and a faster pace wasn't the cause. The Suns were 9th in pace last season and 8th this season, but they were much more efficient with their possessions this year, taking smarter, higher percentage shots, and rising to 8th in O-Rating as a result.
The subject of greater efficiency and smarter shots leads us to our next quote:
"I think what else will help them is when we really get these guys to buy into the teamwork factor that when you don't have the shot right away, then you can drive it and create and dish it out to someone who is open. When you look at the good teams, that's what they do. They either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks, which will help their percentages. I think that every guy that you saw on this team last year can have a better shooting percentage in the coming year."
And that is exactly what happened.
The only returning players from last season were Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, but I'll extend this view to the Suns entire regular rotation, which consisted of those four plus Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Ish Smith. Effective FG% consolidates raw FG% and 3-point % into one measure, so it's what I'll use here. The Suns rotation, their eFG%s this year as compared to last:
|2012-13 eFG%||2013-14 eFG%||Plus/Minus|
|*Extremely small sample size|
Tucker was basically flat, but anyone watching the way he added the corner 3 to his game this season could see the way he improved as a shooter. Every other player was a big fat plus, with Dragic transforming from a pretty good player to an All-NBA candidate, Green reviving his career with a huge leap, and the Morris twins growing into solid players before our very eyes.
Hornacek made his bones as an assistant by being a shooting coach. As a player, Horny built himself from being a mutt of a 2nd round draft pick to becoming one of the greatest shooters of his era in the NBA. Shooting mechanics are part of that, but so is smart shot selection and total team basketball.
Green still displayed, as the esteemed Scott Howard noted, an "array of crazy-ass shots," but he also showed discipline in getting to his spot above the break to drill 3s in transition. That was a pretty play, and Green ended up making 204 3-point shots, converting them at a 40% rate. Horny was able to get an amazing performance out of Green, an athletic freak whose career had been left for dead after he flamed out in Indy.
Dragic was honored with the NBA Most Improved Player award, the Suns increased their win total by 23 games, and Hornacek finished 2nd in Coach of the Year voting, narrowly losing to basketball savant Gregg Popovich. Who thought all this was possible? Well, Hornacek, in measured language, saw some of it.
Many coaches speak in vague generalities and cliches, fearful that their statements will later be used against them. Hornacek spoke fairly openly in that August interview, and what he said proved to be well worth the listen. The Hornacek report card will be posted later, and this is not it, but you can probably tell what grade I would give him.