Posted Aug 7, 2013 11:07 AM
Editor's note: This is the latest in a series on first-time coaches in the NBA for the 2013-14 season. Tomorrow: Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.
The good news for Jeff Hornacek is that even the youngest players on the Phoenix Suns aren't too young to remember his playing days.
"Oh yeah, of course," 23-year-old forward Marcus Morris said. "You know they couldn't beat the Bulls. Everybody watched that."
Morris and his twin brother and teammate Markieff were 7 years old when the Utah Jazz, with Hornacek, Karl Malone and John Stockton, lost the first of consecutive NBA Finals to Michael Jordan in 1997 and '98. A decade earlier, Hornacek started his career as a Suns second-round pick, and that's how far back the Morris twins have to go, three years before they were born, to find the Phoenix franchise as bad off as it is today.
Then, veteran coach Cotton Fitzsimmons took over and turned a miracle, flipping the franchise overnight. Fitzsimmons, who coached Phoenix from 1970-72, returned to the Suns for the 1988-89 season and helped them to a 55-win campaign. It was Hornacek's third season as an emerging combo guard on a team that averaged 36 wins in the previous five seasons.
Hornacek, 50, remains one of the most popular players in Suns history. Heavily influenced by his father (a high school coach in Hornacek's home state of Illinois), Fitzsimmons and Jazz coaching legend Jerry Sloan, Hornacek will deserve a statue outside of US Airways Center in Phoenix if he pulls off a Cotton-like turnaround in his rookie season as coach.
The Suns haven't finished above .500 since 2010, when they went to the Western Conference finals. They bottomed out last season -- the first of the post-Steve Nash era -- at 25-57.
Phoenix is in rebuild mode at a time when the West is loaded.
"The first step is to have the mentality that we're going to work hard and that we're going to play together as a team," Hornacek said during the Las Vegas Summer League, where he got an early jump on his new job. "That's the thing that we have to continue to harp on. When you're coming off a 25-win season, you need to cover all the bases. We come out there this year and if all our guys play hard, we're in great [physical] shape, we're pushing the ball, we're playing together, we'll win our fair share of games."
The Suns almost won the Summer League championship, losing in the title game. It's only Summer League, but it was an encouraging start because Hornacek coached several of his key roster players, including both Morris brothers and hard-working forward P.J. Tucker. Last season's lottery pick, Kendall Marshall, and last month's late first-round pick, Archie Goodwin, also played.
The time in Vegas at least gave Hornacek a glimpse into some of the personnel that will surround Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and the recently acquired Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler (who came over in a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers).
"The expectations are, for me, just to establish a culture of work, to get better every day," said first-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, 33, hired after a decade-long stint working in the front office of the Boston Celtics. "I'm not going to measure our success this year in terms of wins and losses, just in terms of: Are we making progress? Are the guys buying in? Are they playing hard and playing the right way? That's what I'm looking for."
Hornacek and McDonough form a rookie tag-team in performing this attempted resuscitation of a proud franchise. Already McDonough has delivered potential star quality in dealing for Bledsoe, a good fit for Hornacek's favored up-tempo offense.
"I felt pretty good about it when I had Goran. I feel even better now that I have Eric and Goran to be able to push the ball," Hornacek said. "We have guys -- Gortat is one of the best running big men in the league, and Markieff and Marcus, Archie and P.J. -- and that's why it started in the summer to get these guys used to that."
One name Hornacek did not mention is Marshall, the slow-footed point guard who was routinely outplayed in Vegas by the lanky and athletic Goodwin. McDonough will be seeking ways to flip the roster for players better suited to execute a faster game.
No veteran player will be under a brighter spotlight than the enormously disappointing Michael Beasley. He was a free-agent acquisition last summer in a curious move made moreso by the three-year, $18 million contract the Suns gave him.
Hornacek has surrounded himself with familiar and experienced assistant coaches including former Boston assistant Mike Longabardi, who figures to grab hold of a defense that finished near the bottom in nearly every statistical category. Hornacek also brought in former Celtics guard Jerry Sichting and two former teammates with the Suns in Kenny Gattison and Mark West.
In the late stages of a Summer League game in which Hornacek's team was self-destructing trying to protect a big lead, the coach looked skyward and rolled his eyes in his disbelief. Tucker, one of the guys he'll lean on this season, grabbed a rebound, was surrounded yet still tried to dribble out of the crowd and lost the ball.
"Sometimes when you played, you expect all the guys on the court to make the same decisions you made as a player," Hornacek said. "For us, what we like to do is make sure we talk about all those situations. You can't assume these guys know it. They may know it, may forget about it, but we just have to keep reiterating."
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