Everybody probably should have seen this coming. Jeff Hornacek, the coach’s kid, the smart basketball player, the calmest guy on the court, would make an ideal NBA head coach.
Sure enough, that theory is playing out this season in Phoenix, where the formerly downtrodden Suns are the surprise of the league. But how do you know, really? Even if Hornacek seemingly had all the makings of a successful coach, who can safely forecast such results for anybody?
Well, “I knew he’d be a good head coach,” said former Phoenix teammate Dan Majerle, and he’s not the only one. Even so, Hornacek is exceeding expectations.
With a thrown-together roster and their best player having missed nearly one-third of the season, the Suns should be contending for the worst record in the Western Conference. Instead, they’re inside the playoff cut, taking a 20-13 mark into Wednesday’s game at Minnesota after a phenomenal December.
So the ex-Jazz guard, whose No. 14 jersey hangs in EnergySolutions Arena, has gone on to do big things. It all makes for a good story in Utah, except for the little detail about him doing it somewhere else. That may always be the lament around here, how Hornacek went from being the The Jazz’s Guy to The One Who Got Away.
It’s unfair to Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin, who’s doing good work with a team that’s 11-11 since its 1-14 start. The reality is that when Jerry Sloan resigned in February 2011, there’s no way the Jazz could have hired Hornacek, then only a part-time shooting coach.
Corbin made him a full-time assistant. And last summer, there was no justification for firing Corbin just to hire Hornacek, who also was interviewed by Charlotte before rejoining his original franchise.
Majerle remembers coming to the Suns as a rookie and having Hornacek help him, even though they competed for playing time. “Being a coach’s son, he was always kind of a coach on the floor,” said Majerle, now Grand Canyon University’s head coach. “He was always one of the smartest guys on the floor.”
The Suns benefited from having a vacancy at the right time. Of course, if everyone knew what Hornacek would become, some other franchise should have hired him before Phoenix did.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough deserves credit for transforming the roster, but Hornacek’s responsible for making it all work. Phoenix went 25-57 last season and was supposed to do worse in 2013-14. The team’s 20th win should have come about April 4, not Jan. 4.
Hornacek is competing with Portland’s Terry Stotts for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, after receiving December’s monthly honor in the Western Conference.
None of these names should jump out as franchise-changing players: Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff. They’re all thriving under Hornacek. So is guard Eric Bledsoe, the one guy who was likely to emerge — although he will have missed 13 of Phoenix’s first 37 games with injuries, by the time the Suns complete their current trip.
Hornacek’s steady demeanor suits him well in this position, yet he cites some Sloan influence in making him sufficiently demanding of his players.
He was born into the profession as a son of John Hornacek, a high school basketball and baseball coach in Illinois. Yet not even his playing experience and those 176 games as Corbin’s No. 2 assistant could fully prepare him for this job. A month into the season, while visiting ESA, he marveled about not having realized how much coaching was involved in a game with 10 automatic timeouts and four end-of-quarter sequences.
The truth is nobody knows how an assistant will do, until his opportunity comes. And Jazz fans should enjoy Hornacek’s success, rather than regret having lost him.
Jeff Hornacek file
Age • 50
Hometown • La Grange, Ill.
College • Iowa State
NBA career • Phoenix (1986-92), Philadelphia (1992-94), Utah (1994-2000)
Prominent teammates • Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson (Phoenix); John Stockton, Karl Malone (Utah)
Coaching career • Jazz part-time shooting coach (2007-11); Jazz No. 2 assistant coach (2011-13); named Phoenix head coach May 28, 2013
Key projects • Andrei Kirilenko, Gordon Hayward
Coaching influences • John Hornacek (father), Johnny Orr (Iowa State), Cotton Fitzsimmons (Phoenix), Jerry Sloan (Utah)