PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough says coach Jeff Hornacek was fired because the players weren't responding to him.
Now the job has gone on an interim basis to Earl Watson, who at 36 becomes the youngest coach in the NBA.
It's a rapid rise for Watson, who retired as a player in 2014 after 13 seasons in the NBA. He spent one season as assistant coach of the Austin Spurs of the NBA Development League before Hornacek hired him as an assistant this season.
Watson moved to the bench coaching job during games only a month ago after the Suns fired Hornacek's top two assistants, He said he asked Hornacek's permission before agreeing to be interviewed for the Suns interim coaching job.
"He told me it's hard to pass up that first opportunity," Watson said at a news conference Tuesday. "Basically he gave me his blessing."
McDonough acknowledged that injuries, particularly to point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, have made it difficult for the team. But he said he and Watson told the players on Tuesday that they were falling short of expectations.
"We told them our expectations are for them to play harder," McDonough said. "We expect them to play harder regardless of how talented our roster is or how talented they think we are. We expect better effort."
To provide help on what would have been an extremely inexperienced coaching staff, the Suns have hired Bob Hill as an assistant. Hill is a former head coach of the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics.
Phoenix has lost 19 of 21 games going into its Tuesday night contest against Toronto.
McDonough said it was his recommendation to owner Robert Sarver to fire Hornacek after the team's Sunday night loss in Dallas, the Suns' 14th road defeat in a row.
Hornacek coached the Suns for 2 ½ seasons. The team won 48 games in his first season on the job, barely missing the playoffs. But the record dipped to 39-43 last season then went into a tailspin about a month ago.
"I realize Jeff was in a tough spot (because of the injuries)," McDonough said, "but at the same time the team wasn't competing how we hoped it would or how we think it is capable of competing."
He said he knows the talent on the roster needs to be upgraded.
"And we'll be aggressive doing that over the next couple of weeks up to the trade deadline and then as soon as the season ends going into the summertime," McDonough said, "but our young players need to learn that they're going to be held accountable. If they don't play the right way, they won't play much or at all.'
McDonough acknowledged he has made mistakes and that his job could be on the line soon.
"I know the expectations and responsibilities that come along with this job," he said. "... I know if we're not better over the next couple of years, I don't need to be put on notice. I know what will happen."
On Monday, McDonough and Sarver interviewed the three remaining assistants for the interim job: Watson, Corey Gaines and Nate Bjorkgren."
"I think Earl's charisma, his ability to inspire and energize and connect with players stood out throughout the process," McDonough said.
Watson talked about the people who had influenced him throughout his career, beginning when he was a teenager at UCLA with weekly sessions in John Wooden's den.
Watson said he will emphasize camaraderie.
"The first order of business for us is to build trust, to build a program, not an organization," he said. "...We want to play selfless. We have to love, we have to nurture, we have to teach. None of us should be here trying to be coaches. We have to teach."
Watson said he will have a set rotation, that players will know when they will be in the game and how long they will be on the court.
He remembered asking Wooden what was the key ingredient to all of UCLA's championships, and he was told "no one cared who got the credit."
"So bringing that, bringing passion, connecting to the city is the most important thing," Watson said, "building young men of character, because if you have young men of character, the ball will move."
Watson mentioned the youngest players on the team, including T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin.
And he called rookie Devin Booker "special" and a potential "superstar."