Jeff Hornacek’s number hangs in the rafters of Vivint Arena, and he was a key piece who helped the Jazz reach the NBA Finals. A few years after his retirement, the Jazz hired him as a special assistant to help mainly with Andrei Kirilenko’s shooting. After four years in this role, Hornacek was promoted to a full-time assistant coach when Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson abruptly retired. Two and half years later he was promoted again but to be the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. But Hornacek was very recently relieved of his duties and is now unemployed. The Jazz need to bring him home.
During his time in Phoenix, what went wrong started with overachieving. In his first year coaching, he took a group of players that many thought would be tanking to the brink of making the playoffs. Then Suns general manager Ryan McDonough started making moves that only hurt Hornacek's chances to succeed as coach of the Suns.
Hornacek inherited a team consisting of Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Gerald Green, an unproved Eric Bledsoe, and the Morris twins, who had just been reunited but both hadn’t shown much to be desired yet. Also on the team were rookies Archie Goodwin and Alex Len, and P.J. Tucker, Ish Smith and Miles Plumlee rounded out the team. Not much was expected from this group.
Hornacek’s Suns surprised everyone by winning 48 games, barely missing the playoffs. He was runner-up as Coach of the Year, losing only to the best coach in the game, Gregg Popovich. Under Hornacek, Dragic blossomed, averaging 20.3 points, 5.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds a game. He won the NBA Most Improved Player Award and was named to the All-NBA third team.
Bledsoe was finally out of the shadows of Chris Paul and was ready to show the NBA world he was for real. That season he averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game. Hornacek started Bledsoe and Dragic together and they thrived. Forty games into the season, Bledsoe injured his shin, which eventually turned into a meniscus injury that cost him two and half months. Dragic had to carry the team solo, and if Bledsoe had been healthy, the Suns probably would have been in the playoffs.
Another key member of that team was Channing Frye. Frye, a center and one of the few who is deadly from 3-point range, had his best season running pick-and-pops with Dragic. That season, Frye shot 37 percent from three, which helped draw out rim protectors so Dragic could feast in the paint. Frye was key to everything the Suns did that season, and letting him go was one of McDonough’s biggest mistakes. Hornacek wasn’t the one who let Frye leave, and he had to alter his offense that he built around Frye and the pick-and-pop.
The next season, the Suns looked to build on their recent success. McDonough let Frye walk to Orlando and signed Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas in the offseason. His contract was team friendly, although his addition was anything but. That signing was the beginning of the end for the Suns. Hornacek’s top three players played the same position and all wanted the ball in their hands. Dragic and Bledsoe learned how to share, but adding Thomas to the mix was asking too much. Hornacek tried making things work by playing a 3-point guard lineup, but Dragic and Bledsoe had to guard bigger players and didn’t enjoy getting beaten up on the defensive end.
The Suns’ best player, Dragic, was a free agent at the end of the year and used this to his advantage. He told the Suns he wanted out and if they didn’t trade him he would leave. The Suns eventually traded Dragic to Miami, getting two future first-round picks and a washed-up Danny Granger. The picks were nice but didn’t help Hornacek and the Suns live up to expectations that year.
After the Suns traded Dragic, they also sent Thomas packing. He was traded to Boston for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick. McDonough basically traded Dragic and Thomas, both very good NBA players, for three first-round draft picks and two players who were washed up. The expectation didn’t change for Hornacek. A year later, Thomas made the All-Star team.
The Suns traded for a replacement when they sent the Lakers’ 2016 top three protected pick to Milwaukee for Brandon Knight. Knight is an average player and not near the same level as either Thomas or Dragic. The cost was also too high. This season the Suns should have a top-five pick. If they had kept the Lakers’ pick and he fell out of the top three, the Suns would be looking at two top five picks. Knight played only a few games for the Suns before he missed the rest of the season with injuries. Even with all the drama, Hornacek guided the Suns to 39 wins and just missed out on the playoffs. To keep Knight from leaving the desert, the Suns handed him a $70 million deal in the offseason, which he isn’t worth yet.
This past offseason, the Suns had big plans as they tried to sign All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. First they signed Tyson Chandler and brought him to the meeting in hopes that would help lure Aldridge to sign with them. They also traded Marcus Morris and a couple of other players to Detroit for cap space to be able to sign Aldridge. That completely backfired on the Suns as Aldridge signed with San Antonio, and trading one of the Morris twins alienated the other.
If the Suns had landed Aldridge, then the Chandler move would have made sense. He is 33 years old on a losing team and isn’t very engaged. Chandler thrived in Dallas as a center, diving to the hoop and finishing alley oop dunks. The Knight-Chandler pick-and-roll hasn’t been as productive as the Suns hoped it would be, mainly because Knight is horrible at throwing lob passes. The signing of Chandler also has slowed the development of Len, who was picked fifth in the 2013 draft.
Now the Suns have a disengaged Chandler who thought he was coming to play with Aldridge and compete with the best teams in the league. They also have less talent because McDonough, not Hornacek, traded away players for cap space (which they didn’t use) and a disgruntled Morris twin (understandably since they took less money to play together). It's not the ideal situation for a lame duck head coach who didn’t have a contract beyond this season.
Hornacek was dealt a difficult situation; he didn’t trade away one of the Morris twins, but he is the one who had to work day to day with him. Morris has been a cancer in the locker room and has made Hornacek’s life difficult.
This year started OK with Knight and Bledsoe playing really well together, but as the season went on the Suns played worse and worse. On Dec. 26, Bledsoe tore his meniscus and things went downhill. Hornacek could only do so much; with their best player injured, a locker room cancer and a roster lacking talent, the Suns started fading.
Two days later things got even worse for Hornacek as McDonough and owner Robert Sarver fired Hornacek’s top two assistant coaches and gave Hornacek an ultimatum to improve or his job would be next. The Suns replaced his assistant coaches, who have 25 years of NBA coaching experience, for Earl Watson and Nate Bjorkgren, who have less than one year of experience coaching in the NBA combined. Seems like Hornacek was doomed to fail after all this.
After the firings, the Suns lost 15 out of the next 17 games and the pink slip Hornacek had been promised came at one in the morning after getting off a flight from Dallas. Hornacek overachieved his first season and then the Suns expected the same results with rosters less talented. It doesn’t seem fair, but that can be the life of an NBA coach. (Just ask Kevin McHale, David Blatt and Lionel Hollins.)
Hornacek dealt with a general manager who didn’t seem to have a plan in place on how to build a team and a very impatient owner who fired four head coaches in 11 years. Bringing Hornacek home to an organization that has a general manager with a clear plan and one of the most stable ownerships is a brilliant option; a bonus is that he’s a beloved figure in Utah.
Hornacek could come back in any role he wants: a part-time special assistant or a full-time “shot doctor” to help the Jazz continue to build a strong culture of development. Gordon Hayward’s free agency is a couple years away, but having someone else on staff he is close with (and who can tell him what it’s like to play for another team) will hopefully help him stay. Hornacek may want to wait till the offseason, which looks to have plenty of head coaching vacancies, to see if he can land another job, but if not, bringing Hornacek home seems like a win-win for both sides.
Follow Kincade Upstill on Twitter @kincade12 or email him at [email protected]