When the season was at hand, a number of distinguished correspondents on this site and many others offered predictions that ranged from serious to absurd.
Preseason predictions are a little like Donald Sterling utterances – they’re made to be forgotten. But one I would have remembered if anyone had ventured it was this:
After the month of December, Jeff Hornacek will be named Coach of the Month.
Now that would have been impressive, particularly since the only handicapping involving the Phoenix Suns was their chances of making the lottery and having Andrew Wiggins join the Morris brothers as former Jayhawks on the roster.
Instead, the Suns had a 10-3 December and at 20-12 after Saturday’s win against the Bucks. They are in seventh place in the robust Western Conference and much more competitive for a playoff berth than the No. 1 pick in the college draft.
When you look at the Suns’ roster, their success is hard to figure. The top seven scorers are Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, Channing Frye, Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee. That sounds like a list of the Who’s Who . . . of Who?
But the Suns seem to mirror Hornacek, their coach, who was hardly a flashy player but still managed to play 14 years in the NBA. They were good years, solid years. He did, in fact, make the All-Star team once. And he was also named Player of the Month once in his career, meaning he now has as many coach of the month honors in two months as he had player honors in 14 years.
Hornacek has always been the quiet sort, so he wasn’t necessarily one of those players who was projected as a coach. He obviously knew the game well enough, but “dynamic” was never a word that described him. He has, however, implemented an effective system and proven his leadership abilities.
“Relative to the expectations coming into the season,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told the Arizona Republic, “I’d say it’s hard to say anybody has done a better job than Jeff has.”
Hornacek has paired point guards Dragic and Bledsoe, and they are the catalysts for the offense.
Dragic admitted to reservations when the Suns acquired Bledsoe in a three-team trade in July, but Hornacek was confident that two point guards would work because for 13 of his 14 NBA seasons, he played in a two-point guard backcourt – first with Kevin Johnson in Phoenix and later with John Stockton in Utah.
“When Ryan asked me about (the trade), I said, ‘Hey, Eric looks like Kevin Johnson when he was here playing in Phoenix, and Goran is kind of like I was,’ ” Hornacek told USA Today. “We turned a team that was winning 28 games (in 1987-88) to winning 55 (in 1988-89).”
Well, that’s partially true, although Hornacek left out one fairly significant fact. In 1988, the Suns also signed unrestricted free agent Tom Chambers and did not have to part with any players. Chambers, in fact, was the franchise player who led the team with a 25.7 scoring average.
They also had a prolific scorer in forward Eddie Johnson, who averaged 21.5 a game, and Kevin Johnson averaged 20.4 in his first season as a starter. Hornacek added 13.5 points a game and, more importantly, he was a sure thing when the Suns needed one. As a player who scored mostly from the outside, he shot 50 percent from the field.
Those were some of the greatest of Suns teams, but the current one is making its own history — although the season is not yet at the halfway point.
Hornacek, however, sees a work ethic that can sometimes make up for a lack of experience, or even of talent. The current Suns have no one like Chambers, or even Eddie Johnson, who can fill it up on any given night. But they play hard.
“Once we started [playing hard] and had some success,” Hornacek said, “the guys realized that’s how we have to play. We’re not the most talented guys so they have to play that way. They’ve had their lessons a couple times. When they haven’t played that way, we’ve gotten beat.”
McDonough is a 33-year-old rookie GM who worked for the Celtics for 10 years.
When he began his tenure by trading veterans Martin Gortat, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola, it seemed the Suns were entering the Riggin’ for Wiggins derby. But Phoenix won only 25 games last season, so McDonough was not reluctant to part with veterans and give young players a chance.
The Suns have six first-round picks in the next two years, and maximum cap space, and Phoenix in the Valley of the Sun has always been an attractive place for players. They also have Emeka Okafor waiting in the wings, and a big fellow like that — if he ever gets healthy — can mean the difference between a second-round appearance and a first-round exit.
The Suns are in position to build a contender quickly but not the way others projected for them.
Andrew Wiggins would be a nice prize, but the Suns are playing well enough to ensure that Wiggins will start his career someplace else.
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Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.