Jeff Hornacek was never supposed to coach a team to the playoffs, at least not yet. The year he took over the Phoenix Suns they were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the NBA, contending for the top pick of the draft. That he managed to take that Suns team and win 48 games with them is one of the greater accomplishments of his short head coaching career. Some of the players he had on that roster turned out to be better than we previously believed — P.J. Tucker, Goran Dragic, and the Morris twins — but their breakout seasons can be greatly credited to Hornacek. It was his system that brought out the best in them, and it was his coaching that allowed their best attributes to shine.
Two years later, he’s out of a job. Hornacek had lost the locker room to the point where he was just a voice that the team would occasionally listen to. The players didn’t seem to care and their 27th ranked point differential was a reflection of that. When a coach loses his team, and the players lose their intensity, it’s just a long slog to the end.
The real shame in all of this is that Hornacek wasn’t able to grow organically with a team, and really showcase himself as a coach. The Suns wildly exceeded expectations in year one, and immediately made moves to try and become a playoff team. They signed Isaiah Thomas to experiment with three starting caliber point guards on the same roster. They convinced the Morris twins to take a paycut so the two could stay together, and they brought in some decent young rotation players like Miles Plumlee to fill out the roster. Phoenix bit off more than they could chew and their attempt to skip some steps in the rebuild blew up in spectacular fashion.
Phoenix lost two of their point guards when Thomas and Dragic both demanded a way out mid-way through last season. They once again tried to make a push at the playoffs by signing Tyson Chandler and trading away Marcus Morris to Detroit this summer. This angered Markieff Morris and caused him to go sour all offseason about how he wasn’t going to be in Phoenix anymore. The smoke was building up, and everybody in the Suns organization was adamant there was no fire. They didn’t want to take a step back after so quickly moving forward, but in retrospect this was their undoing.
In the middle of all of this drama stands Jeff Hornacek. The perfect fall man for the mess that is the Suns. They gave him a roster to win the lottery, and he gave them a fringe playoff team. They gave him what was supposed to be a playoff team, but the drama that came with that roster’s construction engulfed the team.
Jeff Hornacek will get another chance somewhere. He was a highly regarded assistant before his time with Phoenix, and he did work some magic that first year. Maybe when he’s given a team that grows a little more organically he’ll be able to show what kind of coach he really is. For now, Hornacek leaves Phoenix as the fall guy for a mess he never created. Could he have done a better job managing personalities? Most likely yes, but he lacked a consistent roster or key players that he could set a culture with. Without that, Hornacek was doomed from the start. We just spent too much time ignoring the smoke.