The Toronto Raptors’ Dwane Casey and the Phoenix Suns’ Jeff Hornacek today were named the NBA Eastern and Western Conference Coaches of the Month, respectively, for games played in December.
Casey led the Raptors to an 8-6 (.571) record, including road wins over the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder. The six road wins Toronto posted tied for best in the conference in December (Maurice Cheeks led the Detroit Pistons to six road wins). The Raptors had five players account for double-digit scoring averages on the month, and closed December winning seven of their final nine games.
Hornacek guided the Suns to a 10-3 (.769) record, including wins over the Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. Phoenix recorded a five-game winning streak between Dec. 4-15, the longest winning streak the Suns have had since January, 2011. The Suns, who rank eighth in the NBA in scoring at 103.7 ppg, eclipsed the 100-point plateau in 10 of their final 11 December contests.
Dwane Casey and Jeff Hornacek have more than just their recent hardware in common. Though their paths through the 2013-14 season have differed greatly, where they stand today is largely a result of the same impetus — organizational change.
Things took a little while to trickle down to Casey’s level in Toronto. New ownership hired a new general manager, Masai Ujiri, whose homecoming to the Raptors — where he’d previously worked as an assistant GM — opened the door for two franchise-altering trades. Turning Andrea Bargnani’s presence into Steve Novak would have been enough of a coup; acquiring a 2014 second round pick and a 2016 first rounder was merely the profit of doing business with the Knicks. That trade seemed to have little impact on the court, though. Still saddled with Rudy Gay and a resulting offense that tended more toward viscous than fluid, it seemed like Toronto was in for a long year.
Three weeks ago, Ujiri and the Raptors opened the floodgates by sending Rudy Gay — along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray — to the Sacramento Kings for Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez. The effects of removing Gay from the offensive equation were covered in detail by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, and now Toronto stands poised to win its division by addition through subtraction.* But Patterson and Salmons have played well for the Raptors, providing depth and an added element of spacing to Toronto’s newly free-flowing offense. Their presence and skill sets have allowed the Raptors to perform at a much higher level, amplifying whatever gains were already made simply by moving the ball more effectively — and more often. While Casey insists that Toronto has changed very little of the actions it runs with Gay gone, the fact that they’ve worked so much better with the right players says something about the overall efficacy of their design.
*…I’m so sorry. I’ll be leaving now.
Change was extraordinarily more abrupt in Phoenix, where stagnation took hold last month. The biggest sin a Suns team can commit is not losing games; it’s being as far removed from entertaining as possible. Phoenix fans lust for championships like any other, but short of title glory, aesthetic offenses will suffice. The 2012-13 season provided famine of both kinds, casting the Suns into a dark period.
As quickly as they’d fallen off after the Steve Nash era, however, Phoenix has once again become one of the most fun teams in the league. When new GM Ryan McDonough was hired, he found a coach in Hornacek who fit exactly what he envisioned for the Suns’ future. As Ramona Shelburned detailed recently, Hornacek and McDonough have the type of relationship that defines the very best organizations in the association. So suited, McDonough could feel confident in his next moves. He cleared the deck of ballast and anchors alike, letting players like Michael Beasley* go and trading productive big man Marcin Gortat, alongside Kendall Marshall and Shannon Brown, for a more flexible cap situation and a first round pick. The trade of Luis Scola for Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee (and another first round pick) was less heralded at the time, but its immediate impact has been massive.
*HOORAY FOR BEASLEY IN MIAMI, though. Get that efficiency, Beas!
Both Green and Plumlee are huge parts of what the Suns do and the team they’ve become. The fact that they’ve made their presences felt immediately, and on such a high level relative to expectations, is a testament to the job done by Hornacek and his coaching staff, including the often overlooked Mike Longabardi. One of Hornacek’s defining qualities in his first 30 games as a head coach has been his even-keeled nature. He has confidence in his players to execute the schemes they’re taught, and he’s always instilling that confidence into the team. That’s something Green has made abundantly clear:
“He’s always putting confidence in you,” Green said. “Every shot I take, he makes it seem like it’ll go in. He lets us go out there and play freely. If we make a mistake, he doesn’t harp on it. He’ll say, ‘OK, G, this is what you did wrong,’ or ask, ‘What do you think we could have done better?’ I’ll answer and he’ll say ‘yep’ and we move on. I love that about him.”
Yet none of this was guaranteed, and none of it is certain to continue. The question for both teams, to varying degrees, is how sustainable this all is. The Suns are a game out of first place in the Pacific Division — can that kind of performance last, especially when competing against the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers? For Toronto, the recent bump from trading Gay, and the play of Salmons and Patterson, seems almost ethereal. While the playoffs seem more and more likely every day if for no other reason than the depths to which the Eastern Conference has descended, this level of production, where they’ve been in December — can it last?
Whatever the answer, change has been good to the Raptors and Suns. Some risks pay off immediately; others, over time. But adaptability is its own reward in the NBA.