Suns mercifully axe Jeff Hornacek as franchise continues to spin aimlessly
The NBA’s biggest disaster finally reached its comically cliché ending early Monday morning, when the Suns fired coach Jeff Hornacek and later tabbed assistant Earl Watson as his interim replacement. Hornacek scurries off stage left with a 101-112 (.474) record in Phoenix, a three-year tenure that breaks down neatly into the Good (2013–14), the Bad (2014–15) and the Ugly (2015–16).
If the Suns are to begin reversing their terrible slide, it’s time for the franchise to explore its many failings and confess its many sins. By the end, Hornacek was a powerless, often emotionless pawn, undercut by an owner who was unwilling to commit to him and a GM who was unable to craft a workable core. His firing is merely a white flag to the critics and red meat to fans who are savvy enough to appreciate a good tank: The Suns are shouting “Uncle” to those voices documenting their many mistakes while whispering “Ben Simmons” to whoever is left from their fan base.
How, exactly, did Phoenix get here? The key plot points combine to make a truly disgusting recipe. Owner Robert Sarver allowed Hornacek to enter the season as a lame duck. GM Ryan McDonough fashioned a core comprised of two ball-dominant guards (Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight) and an aging center (Tyson Chandler) before burning assets to launch a failed bid for LaMarcus Aldridge. Over the last 12 months, the Suns traded away Isaiah Thomas (a 2016 All-Star), Goran Dragic (starting for the East’s No. 4 seed Heat), Tyler Ennis (a 2014 first-round pick) and the Lakers’ prized 2016 first-round pick while also further alienating the perpetually-disgruntled Markieff Morris by trading his twin brother, Marcus, to the Pistons.
Along the way, McDonough swiped at the players he moved out, only to receive return fire from the Dragic, who directly questioned the franchise’s loyalty to its players, and Marcus Morris, who seems to enjoy nothing more than digging at his former team. Even Bledsoe, the current face of the franchise, had to endure a months-long negotiation to get his contract, a process that led to unnecessarily ugly headlines and banter back-and-forth.
But, wait... there’s more.
Markieff Morris was fined for publicly requesting a trade and then later suspended for throwing a towel at Hornacek. The 33-year-old Chandler’s game has fallen off a cliff since signing a four-year, $52 million contract over the summer. Bledsoe was lost to a season-ending knee injury in December. Knight hasn’t played in nearly two weeks due to a groin injury. Hornacek’s favorite, veteran guard Ronnie Price, was lost to foot surgery earlier this month. Sarver responded to the developing mess by firing two of Hornacek’s assistants and calling out Markieff Morris for being a millennial who doesn’t respond well to adversity, rather than finding a way to trade him.
On the court, Hornacek’s deteriorating squad failed in every conceivable manner. Over the last six weeks, they have posted the league’s worst offensive efficiency, its worst defensive efficiency, its worst point differential and its worst record. During this magical 2–19 stretch, the Suns have lost to the Sixers twice, to the Lakers in blowout fashion, and to the Timberwolves by 30 points. Hornacek was finally fired after a four-game road trip in which Phoenix lost all four games by double digits. How many times can one team hit rock bottom? Great news: Eight of Phoenix’s next 10 games will come against playoff teams, including contests against each of the West’s top four teams. This ship be plunging.
The grotesque present is made worse by the lack of inspiring youngsters. Look at this list of the Suns’ recent draft picks (but don’t stare too long or you might go blind). Morris, a 2011 first–round pick, has become so toxic he will need to be given away. Phoenix gave up on 2012 lottery pick Kendall Marshall after 48 games. Alex Len, a top–five pick in 2013, has hit an unremarkable plateau in year three and hardly looks like a savior. Ennis played a grand total of eight games in Phoenix before he was traded to Milwaukee, while fellow 2014 first–round pick T.J. Warren has flashed some scoring ability but hasn’t been much to write home about. The brightest spot, 2015 lottery pick Devin Booker, looks like a keeper, but wasn’t even selected to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge.
Granted, the cumulative result of those five drafts was influenced by Phoenix’s desire to remain as competitive as possible without bottoming out. That’s fine, but those the Suns' skeleton roster made serious losing inevitable once Bledsoe went down and Chandler disappointed. Hornacek was left with no choice but to give big minutes to minimum-salaried, largely inexperienced nobodies, the surest path to suffering in the NBA.
Remember when a grandstanding Sarver was so eager to offer his fans a refund when the Spurs dared to rest some of their players during a 2014 preseason game? No word yet on whether the Suns will be compensating their season-ticket holders for this 14–35 abomination. Maybe the checks will be in the mail if Phoenix goes 2-31 the rest of the way and ties for the worst record in franchise history?
This isn’t like Cleveland’s firing of David Blatt, where the mere act of dismissal can have a cleansing effect. In fact, Hornacek’s firing doesn’t change the Suns’ dismal outlook one bit. His departure won’t inspire Phoenix's roster to reach new heights because it doesn't have the talent to do so. His departure won’t open up new opportunities for overlooked players because he tried everything, including playing Chandler and Len together. His departure won’t bring back Dragic and Thomas, it won’t reengage Markieff Morris, it won’t prevent Chandler from getting rim-checked, it won’t remove Chandler’s contract from Phoenix’s books, and it won’t help Booker develop more quickly into something resembling a passable defender.
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Most importantly, firing Hornacek won’t create what Phoenix so desperately needs: a positive culture of mutual respect and trust between the organization and ownership. Instead, his departure only fuels the underlying sensation that the Suns are a constantly spinning turnstile.
Phoenix’s best plan at this point is to pray. Pray for a reprieve on the soap opera–style drama. Pray that someone will part with assets for some of their vets at the deadline. Pray that Bledsoe can put his injury issues behind him. Pray that Bledsoe and Knight can stumble into some chemistry next season. Pray that Len turns a corner. And, most importantly, pray for the chance to draft Simmons, who represents the exact type of franchise-changing talent that this organization needs.
As the Suns try to keep their heads down over the next 30-plus games, Hornacek exits with the burden lifted off his shoulders. In time, he should look back on his first coaching job as a mixed bag: he proved he could establish an identity and lead an exciting winner in 2013–14, he received a master’s degree in personality management thanks to the roster cycling and ego issues in 2014–15, and he surely developed a set of priorities for what he will be looking for in his next job.
There is an obvious consolation for Hornacek here: Thomas, Dragic, Marcus Morris, Marshall and others all moved on to better situations after leaving the Suns. Why should Hornacek, today’s convenient scapegoat, be any different? Everyone’s heard that old line about how, “Getting fired will be the best thing that ever happened to you.” Usually that’s just shoulder–patting and ego–massaging. But when it comes to Sarver’s Suns in recent years, an ejection should inspire relief and, ultimately, elation.
The worst is over for Hornacek, and he survived.