Analytics Art: Suns fire coach Hornacek, but core issues remain


VIDEO: NBA TV Update on Jeff Hornacek

By Ben Leibowitz, special to NBA.com

Jeff Hornacek began his NBA head coaching tenure with the Phoenix Suns by guiding the team to a completely unanticipated 48-34 record — finishing second in Coach of the Year voting behind Gregg Popovich as a result. Two years later, after Phoenix lost 19 of 21 games and went 0-4 on their latest road trip, Hornacek was relieved of his coaching duties.

From 48-34 to 39-43 to 14-35 (including two losses against the hapless Philadelphia 76ers), the Suns are in an uncontrollable tailspin. Hornacek was made the scapegoat for the team’s failings, but pressing issues go far beyond the man patrolling the sidelines.

So, how did the desert dwellers get here?

Hornacek’s 48-win squad was led by the two-pronged point guard attack of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The pair combined to average 38 points, 11.4 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 3.0 steals. Their leadership, combined with the three-point shooting prowess of Gerald Green and Channing Frye, helmed Phoenix’s ship.

From there, however, personnel decisions orchestrated by general manager Ryan McDonough undermined team chemistry within that foundation.

After the season, McDonough acquired Isaiah Thomas via sign-and-trade to a modest four-year, $28 million contract, teaming him up with Dragic-Bledsoe in a point guard lazy Susan. The idea was to roster three reliable floor generals so the two-headed monster in the backcourt wouldn’t have to take a breather.

The move had unintended consequences.

Dragic told MassLive.com’s Jay King the following of the situation last year:

“It was tough. It’s only one ball, so all the point guards, they need the ball so they can create or do something for the team. It was tough because most of the time I was guarding position 3s, too, so that was not my game. But at the same time, you have to sacrifice for the team. I thought I did that, but unfortunately, at the end, that was not me. I was not happy. That’s why we made that decision (to ask for a trade).”

Phoenix ultimately decided to trade Dragic to the Miami Heat, as the addition of Thomas threw a monkey wrench into an already promising situation.

It seemed the Suns were poised to move forward with a new tandem in Thomas and Bledsoe, but Thomas was also traded in a three-team deal that sent the 5-foot-9 guard to Boston. Phoenix then acquired Brandon Knight from the Milwaukee Bucks in a separate three-teamer in exchange for the Lakers’ top-three protected first-round pick.

Knight was a promising, fringe All-Star with the Bucks, but his brief stint in Phoenix has been marred by injuries thus far — which has prevented him from getting into a steady rhythm.

Knight’s numbers aren’t bad, but his 3-point shooting prowess has regressed since joining the Suns (33.3 percent this year compared to 40.9 percent in 52 games with Milwaukee throughout 2014-15). Isaiah Thomas, meanwhile, was named to his first ever All-Star berth this year.

Of course, perhaps the most underrated change occurred when Frye left for the Orlando Magic. As a stretch 5 — a center who can shoot from long range, create necessary spacing for slashing guards and run pick-and-pop sets in the halfcourt — the University of Arizona product held plenty of unsung value. Instead of retaining him (Orlando signed him for four years, $32 million), Phoenix eventually replaced Frye with 33-year-old Tyson Chandler.

The former Defensive Player of the Year was inked to a four-year, $52 million deal — $20 million more than what Orlando paid Frye. Considering Chandler is playing just 23.5 minutes per game and has actually been a net negative on the defensive end, the decision to let Frye walk is tough to justify with hindsight.

Hornacek’s Suns have no doubt played below expectations this year, but past personnel moves and the season-ending knee injury to Bledsoe didn’t help his case. In fact, according to a Twitter poll posed by AZCentral Sports, only 4 percent of voters feel Hornacek deserves the most blame for the Suns’ woes.

These are dark times indeed for the franchise in the Valley of the Sun. It’s fair to assume more changes are coming for an organization in complete disarray.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA PlayersNBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

4 Comments

  1. Harriethehawk says:

    Sometimes, when you replace a new and fresh coach into a stinky team, you get great results. Look at Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons….

  2. Ken says:

    Should Hornacek have been fired – yes. The fact that so many players have been swapped out and still the defense stinks shows there is a problem with the scheme, not just the players. In fact, watching Phoenix “guard” the pick and roll, the most basic basketball plays, is infuriating. Almost every time, the guard gets free run to the paint where he either scores or dumps it off for an easy shot to a player at the rim or at the three point line. Do something different! Further, the offense is so poorly run, whether it be on a fast break or in the half court that some of it has to be blamed on the coaching.

    Does the firing of Hornacek solve the problem. No way. The player moves by the GM has been terrible. Drafting has been ok, but the trades and some of the signings have been truly terrible. Whether it was trade of Gortat, Dragic, Thomas, Knight, Morris and Chandler, I question if a single one is any good. This is such a poorly constructed team with so much money dedicated to a fragile, turnover prone and questionable defensive backcourt that only wholesale trades will solve the problem.

    What a mess.

  3. Aeddi says:

    These days in the NBA when something is wrong with a team, just fire the coach…

    I think this might be the case because it is easier to get rid of your coach than to get rid of your players or to trade them for players which will fit better into your system.
    But in my opinion Hornacek was not the reason why the Suns play so bad. It was just bad management moves.
    Hard for a GM to say “Ok, I messed up. I will fire myself.”