When Hornacek took over as coach of the Phoenix Suns it was assumed he would take his lumps. Instead he was the one serving them out as he gained a lot of credibility and job security in his first season.
Let me start with a very transparent example that is a microcosm of Hornacek's performance as a tyronic head coach.
In the 2012-13 season Markieff Morris took 45.3% of his shots from 16' or further away from the basket. Under Hornacek's tutelage that shrunk to 31.9%. As a result of this his eFG% went up from .442 to .507. This tangible improvement isn't anomalous, either, as the team as a whole took better shots and made a higher percentage as a result.
Hornacek coached the players to capitalize on the strengths in their skillsets and eschew their weaknesses... and the players embraced his message. They bought in. That's a very important part of effective coaching. Basketball knowledge can be futile when it isn't complemented with the ability to instill that knowledge in the players. Many good coaches have been tuned out before and lost their teams.
Hornacek seemed to make the Suns self aware... and that may have saved and/or revitalized the careers of many players on the roster.
The inimitable, and our very own, East Bay Ray already did a lot of the heavy lifting for me with his story that detailed how the Phoenix Suns delivered on Coach Jeff Hornacek's August forecasts. It is a testament to a coach's ability when he can get that kind of across the board improvement out of his players.
Here's how stupid the improvement on the team was last season. Eric Bledsoe went from a bench player averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 assists per game to a starter averaging 17.7 and 5.5 while increasing his eFG% from .473 to .522 in the process. That's a bigger jump than most other players will ever experience, but it was basically an afterthought in the wake of what his teammates achieved.
Part of what made Jeff's effort so spectacular was the depth expectations had sunk to after the calamitous state of affairs last season had spiraled into. It wasn't just that the team was abysmal, the organization appeared completely rudderless.
The palingenesis of the team gained notoriety throughout the league as the season progressed, but I think in many ways the people that were most surprised were the ones closer to the team (Jim raises hand).
But maybe not those closest. From the outset those directly within the organization had confidence the team would be much better than the prognostications of peril. Still, I don't even think any of them expected 48 wins.
Instead the team took the stance of letting their play on the court do the talking. There was no bluster or bravado over how much better the team would be than the consensus predictions. There was no indignance over a perceived slight from those predictions. The team even hedged itts bets by alluding to the season as one that shouldn't necessarily be judged by wins and losses. There was no discussion of the team contending for the playoffs after the team had been burned by such statements the previous preseason.
Under Hornacek the Suns (48-34) won 23 games more than they did the previous season (25-57). That is tied for the third biggest turnaround in franchise history behind the 2004-05 SSOL team (+33) and the 1988-89 team (+27) which Hornacek was a member of.
Of course, this doesn't include the 1999-00 Backcourt 2000 squad that went from 27-23 to 53-29 (+26, right?).
When Jeff took the job he said he'd always thought of coaching, like his father, he just didn't think it would be at this level. In a season with a leitmotif of exceeding underwhelming expectations it seems like Hornacek surprised himself again. Not only is he coaching at the highest level, but it appears he is a prodigy.
He's even a really likable guy, even if he's not necessarily dripping with charisma. The abrasive, unpoised nature of Lindsey Hunter feels like a lifetime away.
The players like to play for him. There is a cohesiveness in the locker room and on the court. The Suns never gave up on their coach this season. What evidences this more clearly than the fact that the team was basically never out of a game? When some teams would pack it in and play for the next game the Suns would scrape and claw with palpable desperation. Hornacek rarely ever criticized the effort of his team this season and that's because the team rarely ever gave less than maximum.
When asked about the one positive that stood out in his mind the most this season Hornacek responded, "I think overall, for the team and the organization, it's that we got it back to Phoenix Suns basketball and what that's really like."
Pretty much sums it up for me.
The biggest blemish on Hornacek's inaugural season was that the Suns fell painfully short of a postseason appearance. He facetiously took the blame.
"I screwed up at the beginning of the year. We had this little three game set that we kept track of. I told the guys that if we end up with a plus seven we're going to be in the playoffs, but plus seven over .500 put us right at 48 and we didn't get in. So I guess I screwed that up. It should have had plus eight."
That was just about the only thing Hornacek didn't get right.
Since Hornacek finished second to Greg Popovich in the Coach of the Year voting I guess that makes him Rookie Coach of the Year instead.
Jeff almost got an A+, but in the end the playoffs was the cherry on top. In a way it's like he killed it all semester long, but didn't quite ace the final.
For that reason Hornacek will have to settle for an A.
The Suns were done in by injury this season, losing Eric Bledsoe for 39 games and Goran Dragic at the end for a small handful of season-deciding games. What damage could the Suns have done in the playoffs? A lot.
The Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs. For the fourth consecutive season, they are counting ping pong balls instead of brass balls.
As we enter week three since the Suns last played a game, and approach week four since they last beat a playoff team, it's easy to tuck the Suns season into a corner and forget just how playoff-worthy they were.
As I watch these playoffs, he parity in the Western Conference is quite obvious. The last four seeds in the West - Memphis, Dallas, Golden State and Portland - have all either split the first four games of their playoff tilts against higher seeds or taken the series lead. All four of those teams were within a game or two of the Suns in the last two weeks of the season.
In all four series, the higher seed will need at least 6 games, if not 7, to vanquish their lower-seeded opponent or they will go home early. One series - #7 Memphis vs. #2 Oklahoma City - has set a playoff record at 4 consecutive overtime games!
Why would a Phoenix Suns fan care about this, instead of focusing entirely on the upcoming draft lottery?
Because a healthy Phoenix Suns squad was as good as, or better than, any Western Conference opponent this season. The Suns were 23-11 with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the starting lineup. Even better, they were 22-9 before losing three consecutive games to these teams when Dragic severely turned his ankle and missed one game while playing hobbled in the other two.
I get that. But still, there's a bitter taste in my mouth.
The Suns won 48 games this season to tie the 2008 Golden State Warriors for most wins by a lottery team since going to a 16-team bracket, missing the playoffs by just one win. A good final weekend would have vaulted the Suns into the playoff picture, but Dragic's ankle squelched those hopes.
Hard to believe just a year ago the decidedly-average Los Angeles Lakers squeaked into the playoffs with a 45-37 record. The Suns, in fact, would have been the 6th seed a year ago with their 48 wins, topping the Lakers, Rockets and Warriors.
But we can't bemoan undeserving teams in the West playoffs. Everyone belongs.
These first round matchups, especially the Dallas/San Antonio and Memphis/OKC, have been marvelous and a load of fun to watch. Every game going down the wire. Every game being won by big shots, big stops, big plays.
But I have to wonder what the Suns could have done, had they been able to crash the party. OKC and San Antonio looks very beatable. The Suns could be staring down a chance to pull into the second round right now, waiting for another beatable opponent who survived a bloody first round.
No one in the West is far and away the best team.
I can totally see Memphis and Dallas squaring off in the Western Conference Finals.
Which means I can totally see the Suns going just as far, if not farther.