What has former Jazz great and assistant coach Jeff Hornacek been up to in the 19 weeks since becoming head coach of the Phoenix Suns? Here’s a rundown:
Hornacek’s Coaching Style
JazzBasketball was all over this one immediately after official word broke that Hornacek was leaving. The following day at his introductory press conference, Hornacek confirmed that he envisioned his coaching style resembling a blend between longtime Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jazz Hall-of-Famer Jerry Sloan.
From the AP:
“His coaching style, he said, would be heavily influenced by his days playing for Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix and Jerry Sloan in Utah.
“Hopefully, I can take Jerry’s toughness, Cotton’s enthusiasm and confidence-building and blend them together,” Hornacek said, “and become a great coach like some of the great coaches that have been here in the past.’”
1. In a 1-on-1 interview with Grandland’s Zach Lowe, Hornacek clearly values the effectiveness of the pick&roll in today’s NBA:
“When you look at the game today, with the rule changes — that’s why everyone is going to some sort of pick-and-roll. The rules are, you can’t touch that guy with your hands. It’s not like the old days, where you could hand check.”
2. It’s also clear Hornacek wants to push the tempo:
“If you can get it in the post, or penetrate and kick out, and get that early shot in the first seven seconds, or maybe eight seconds of the shot clock … Statistics say in the first eight seconds, you shoot a much higher percentage. A lot of it depends on what kind of players you have. I knew they had [Goran] Dragic, who can fly up and down the court. And obviously now, with Eric Bledsoe, those two guys jell perfectly.”
3. That answer and several others also demonstarte Hornacek plans to utilize advanced basketball metrics when making strategic decisions:
“We gotta get rid of that long 2. I’m not opposed to the middle jumper, in that 15- or 16-foot range. I think all but two teams that were in the playoffs, their effective field goal percentages were above 51 percent. If you can shoot 15-footers and shoot 52 percent, OK, you’re beating the average. You can’t totally discount those shots.”
While it’s impossible to judge until outcomes and fundamentals are apparent, it’s obvious Hornacek is committed to improving a Suns’ defense that ranked 23rd in points allowed per possession and 25th in FG% allowed.
1. One of Hornacek’s first moves was to hire former Celtics’ assistant Mike Longabardi. Longabardi arrived in Boston in 2007-08 (same year as KG and Ray Allen) and served as a pseudo assistant-to-the-assistant – helping lead-assistant Tom Thibodeau install his vaunted defense that would bring Boston the 2008 title and earn Thibs the head coaching job of the Chicago Bulls in 2010.
In 2011, Longabardi was promoted to the bench in Thibodeau’s old position (Lawrence Frank held it in 2010-11) running the Celtics’ defense as the de-facto defensive coordinator and Boston finished the 2012-13 season ranked 6th in defensive efficiency. Longabardi’s defensive philosophy mirrors that of Thibodeau.
From Fox Sports Arizona:
“We want to protect the paint at all costs. Then we have to get out to the 3-point line and take that away … especially from the corner. Then you want to defend without fouling and finish with the rebound.”
2. From Hornacek’s Grantland interview, Jeff also revealed the similarities he shares with both Longabardi and Thibodeau defensively.
Lowe: You guys hired Mike Longabardi from Boston. I assume this means you’ll run the Tom Thibodeau defense that swept the league — trying to keep all pick-and-rolls toward the sideline, on one side of the floor, and dropping your big men back into help position instead of having them trap up high like Miami does?
Hornacek: I always like to keep the ball on the side. When I played point guard, and I got stuck on the side, it was always more difficult for me than when I could get around and into the middle of the court — where I could see everything. There are so many more things that become available when you get into the middle. That’s what I like to do, and we hired Mike, who has run Boston’s defense the last three years. We’ve looked at a lot of things they do, I’ve watched them, and I see a lot of things I like to do.
From a Jazz-perspective, the teams that cause Utah’s vaunted pick&roll (whether it be Stockton&Malone or Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer) the most problems were Phil Jackson teams (Bulls/Lakers) that forced side screen-roll baseline.
3. Hornacek then echoed defensive rhetoric reminiscent of all old-school NBA head coaches, particularly the one he played for in Utah.
“A lot of it is desire,” Hornacek said. “You can take a guy that’s not very good defensively, maybe like I was, but if you played hard enough and smart enough, you can make up for things. We have some great athletes on this team. Once we get them with the desire to play that defense, to do it the right way and do it in terms of our concepts, that’s an advantage we can use.”
Patience vs Toughness
In the early stages of Suns’ training camp, azcentral.com reports Hornacek has proven to be a patient and calming influence but also was not immune from forcefully getting his point across:
-”The first thing I’ve seen is he’s really patient,” Suns center Marcin Gortat said. “He understands that we have a really young group of guys, and it’s going to take time to learn everything.”
“One of the only questions came from the compliment that Hornacek is one of the nicer people in NBA circles. Could he be firm and jump on a team’s case?
It happened twice in the first three days of camp, the last coming at the end of a scrimmage when a team trailing by three allowed the final seconds to run out rather than fouling. The team lined up to run.
“I know my voice,” said Hornacek, whose demeanor belies his competitiveness. “I’m already hoarse.’”
Hornacek on John Stockton vs Eric Bledsoe
On Tuesday, Hornacek was asked to compare Eric Bledsoe’s penchant for racking up steals with that of former Hall-of-Fame teammate John Stockton – the NBA’s all-time leader.
Matt Petersen, Suns.com: “Stockton used to get a lot of steals because he knew how the plays were going. He had great positioning,” Hornacek said. “Eric gets them in a different way. He gets it with strength. He takes the ball out of guys’ hands.“
1. Hornacek coached the Suns in the Las Vegas Summer League – a rarity for NBA head coaches. Playing the up-tempo style Hornacek desires, Phoenix averaged 93.2 points per game (in 40-minute games) and advanced to the championship game. Although they ultimately fell to Golden State, Suns players walked away impressed with their new coach.
2. The Suns won their first preseason game 130-89 over a completely overmatched Maccabi Bazan Haifa team (the Israeli League champion). According to Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic, Hornacek reportedly is not one to remain seated throughout a game. They faced stiffer competition last night yet still won 104-98 in Portland in a game where they scored 83 points and led by 14 after three quarters.
3. As the AP reports, Hornacek has also drawn high praise from virtually all members of the Suns.
-”Jeff’s awesome,” Suns forward P.J. Tucker said. “I can easily say he’s one of my favorite coaches already and I haven’t even played for him in a game’”
-”He teaches. He’s a teaching coach,” Dragic said, “especially with this group. We have young guys and I think he can teach a lot to them. He’s got a lot of experience and even if you make a mistake, he just tells you the right way to do it and after that he just lets you play.
“He’s a great motivator. When you have a bad practice he tries to lift you up. He’s supportive and I think that means a lot, especially for the young players.”
At Least This Didn’t Happen
I’m on record for hoping that Hornacek could one day (aka this season) be head coach of the Utah Jazz. As upsetting as his departure was, I can take some solace in the relief that this also didn’t happen.
Not sure I could’ve handled that.
How Good Will Phoenix Be?
With both a new head coach and GM (Ryan McDonough) the Suns are in ground-zero rebuilding mode right now. They have two nice building blocks in Bledsoe (acquired in a 3-team deal in exchange for Jared Dudley) at PG, and #5-overall pick Alex Len at center (Len had stress-fracture surgery on both ankles over the summer and is working back into shape).
After that, everything else looks suspect at-best and ugly at-worst. Hornacek is dealing with a roster where his top-12 currently consist of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat, Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown, Archie Goodwin, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee. Even with Len working back into the mix – that’s still only 15-20-win material right there.
The Suns project to be bad this year, but the goal is for Hornacek to begin to instilling his coaching identity on the young players he has to work with. The hope is that the Suns can foster some internal growth this season and then potentially add a few pieces via free agency to gradually work their way back to the top half of the Western Conference.
It’s a multi-season rebuilding process in Phoenix and while Suns are still at the starting gate – as of now they appear to have the right man leading them.