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Better Know a Coaching Candidate: Jeff Hornacek

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Get to know one of the Grizzlies coaching candidates with a blog that knew him well, Bright Side of the Sun

Phoenix Suns v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In Adrian Wojnarowski's article on the Grizzlies coaching search from last weekend, he mentioned a list of potential candidates that the Grizzlies have reach out to. One of those is former Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek. To catch us up on just who Coach Hornacek just is, here is Dave King, managing editor over at Bright Side of the Sun, an SB Nation Suns blog.

GBB : What was the Jeff Hornacek Era in Phoenix like?

Dave King: Hornacek was hired in part to help the Suns recapture their past. He was an inspirational player in the late 80s when the Suns last had to revive the franchise after a drug scandal. As a Suns icon, was an incredible competitor who succeeded - even becoming an All-Star - as a 6'3" shooting guard in a league that sported players like Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and a number of others who towered over him. And he never backed down. Off the court, Hornacek is an everyman who connects with regular people because he shows them respect and doesn't try to talk over their heads. On the court, he's innovative and engaged in the game and constantly teaching/instructing the players in an encouraging way. His problem is that he'd much rather coach the 1996 Jazz than the 2016 Suns. While he got along famously with the players, he wasn't strong enough to keep them in line when they started doing their own thing off the court. And, he just simply expected the players to sacrifice for the good of the team, and these days the younger players don't always want to do that. He expects and appreciates maturity, and I need to say is that 19-year old Devin Booker was probably the most mature person he's had a chance to coach since Channing Frye left after the 2013-14 season.

GBB: Do you think Jeff is a good coach? What are his strengths and weaknesses?

DK: He's a great coach when the players are all bought in and no one feels slighted. In 2013-14, every single player was handed a larger role than they'd ever had in their career and put up a magical season of fun and hope. But when the roster got deeper, players' natural feelings of entitlement started to come out. And Hornacek handled it like an adult would - he shrugged his shoulders, told the guys to deal with it, and walked away. And he never connected with them on a level that made them buy in when the "buy in" wasn't entirely to their favor.

As a tactician, Hornacek and his staff devised an 8th ranked O and 13th ranked D in 2013-14 with a roster that, preseason, was supposed to win maybe 20 games but ended up winning 48. He finished second to Popovich for COY in 2013-14 as a rookie coach. Over his first 1.5 years, his under-talented Suns teams were 76-54. His playcalls were often designed to get the ballhandler into a decision-making role where the player would have 2-3 options on each play and just had to pick the right one based on the defense's reactions. Unfortunately, he wasn't blessed with good decision-makers in that area, so he improvised by running a two-point guard system to share the decision-making duties and rise the hot hand. Give him a good PG and the world might find out that Hornacek isn't married to that goofy two-point system.

But then everything fell apart. The same coach who started 76-54 went 25-58 with just about the same, if not better, talent. So what was the turning point, you ask? Basically, the problem was that once the players, like Morris brothers and Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, started thinking for themselves, Hornacek couldn't rein them back in and actually might have tuned them out. To me, it all started when Hornacek got so sick of them drawing T's for no good reason that he decided to put his foot down and bench them for the rest of the game if they drew another T. The players, somehow, could not handle it, kept drawing Ts, lost 2-3 games because of it, and forced Hornacek to back off. Literally, everything fell apart after that.

At the same time, the players were bristling at being asked to sacrifice their games. To this day, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris all still say some variation of complaint about not getting the ball enough. He just wanted them to be mature, and they couldn't do it. Remember, he came from a league where most players matured in college before coming to the NBA. He was an underathletic 6'3" point guard who shifted to shooting guard in a much bigger, tougher league and succeeded for 14 years. So he couldn't understand why Dragic was having trouble with a similar transition after just three months. Same with Thomas. And to this day, while Hornacek and the Morris brothers like each other a lot, they butted heads on the court and couldn't make it work.

GBB: What was the general fan opinion of Hornacek as a coach?

DK: Every fan loved Hornacek when he won games, but when the team started losing he started getting a lot more criticism. I'm sure you guys have seen this among fans of the Grizz - when the team wins regularly, the rotations are spot-on and decision-making is good. But if the team loses a lot, the coach is usually the one who suddenly got real dumb. But all in all, most fans realize Hornacek suffered from a poorly constructed roster and is still a good coach who deserves a good opportunity.

GBB: Would he be a good coach in Memphis?

DK: Frankly, Hornacek is a good coach who needs a mature roster. The players don't have to be old or anything. 19-year old Devin Booker was the most mature person on the Suns roster last year. Let that sink in. While Hornacek is a great teacher and really gets the respect of the players as a person and coach, he loses patience with their inability to grasp simple concepts after months and months of practice.

On a team with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, I'd expect Hornacek would have an incredibly fun time and will probably make Suns fans wonder how he got so smart again so fast.