As of this moment, the Suns are teetering on the playoff precipice. Every game for this final month of the regular season is pretty much going to be a playoff atmosphere as the difference between being in and being out of the “second season” will likely be one victory.
As the story unfolds, there has been a consensus brewing that Jeff Hornacek is among the frontrunners for NBA Coach of the Year. Before the season, the Suns were picked to compete with the Utah Jazz for last place in the West and were candidates for a top lottery pick in the upcoming talent-rich NBA Draft. But a funny thing happened on the way to that draft; nobody told the Suns how bad they were supposed to be. Rather, the play-hard approach of Hornacek got a group of talented but role playing athletes to come together and play team basketball. In that regard, this team’s sum has been far greater than its parts.
The other top candidates for coach of the year joining Hornacek are Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers and Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers. Stotts has the Blazers playing quality basketball, and they are 20 games over .500 with just 18 games left to play. If the season ended today, they would be seeded fifth in the West, playing the Rockets in round one of the playoffs. That would be one of the best matchups of the first round. Up and coming NBA stars are flourishing under Stotts, such as LeMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews. However, when compared to Horancek, there is no doubt that Stotts has a far greater talent pool to work with and has not done anywhere near the same job as Hornacek in developing younger players or going further into his bench to create depth. Stotts seems to overly rely upon his starters, and that is a factor that can and should be considered against him when determining Coach of the Year honors.
Vogel has done phenomenal work with the Pacers, but come on; they’re the Pacers! They are the only Eastern Conference team that has presented a legitimate challenge to the Miami Heat supremacy over the past few seasons and were predicted to be at the top even as early as the opening of training camps for this season. The Pacers are within one-half game of the best record in the NBA and, despite a recent four-game skid, Vogel has the Pacers’ attention on both ends of the court. Paul George and Evan Turner make up a formidable scoring front court and Roy Hibbert has been a dominating presence in the paint on the defensive end. Winning isn’t easy but the task is far more manageable with a roster like the one with which Vogel gets to work his magic.
Admitting to being somewhat of a “homer,” neither Stotts nor Vogel have done the coaching job that Hornacek has done this season. First and foremost, even Hornacek’s own roster of players knew they were not talent rich. So did we. Who on the Suns’ roster would you take over players like Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Damian Lillard and LeMarcus Aldridge? Yet Hornacek was able to convince his roster of role players from day one that they could win. Guys like PJ Tucker, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee have either over-achieved or Hornacek has brought out their true potential. Dragic has become a star and Bledsoe, when healthy, is now a coveted potential free agent rather than seen as a strong back-up point guard. The Morris brothers have proven that two is better than one, and Hornacek’s focus on getting them to be consistent in their effort is starting to reap benefits.
So I will tell you who the real opponent is to Hornacek’s bid for coach of the year. It is not Stotts. It is not Vogel. It is the playoffs. In the past 25 years, 96% of the Coaches of the Year lead teams that made the playoffs. Only one Coach of the Year was from a team that did not make the playoffs and that was Doc Rivers, following the Orlando Magic 1999-2000 season. Predictions for that Orlando team before the season were about as dismal as those voiced about the Suns before this season. Yet Doc got the team to a 41-41 record, and the Magic just missed qualifying for the playoffs.
The other 24 teams over the past quarter-century that had Coaches of the Year not only qualified for the playoffs, but also were among the favorites. The teams from the Western Conference who had Coaches of the Year averaged a playoff seeding of 3.5, while Eastern Conference teams with Coaches of the Year had a 1.8 average playoff seeding. Clearly, the award is given to the coaches of teams with winning results and high expectations leading into the playoffs. While Hornacek has provided results far above expectations, the Suns are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff expectations this season.
Hornacek should be the runaway winner of NBA Coach of the Year for this season, playoff qualifying or not. If the Suns finish out of the top eight in the West, he more than deserves to join Doc Rivers as the only other non-playoff Coach of the Year over the past quarter-century. Hornacek has defied expectations. He has rebranded basketball in the Valley of the Sun. He has forced fans to take notice, and both attendance and television ratings are significantly higher than this time last year. He has basketball pundits from around the country talking Suns Basketball, and marveling at what may be in the future with the stockpile of draft picks that Hornacek and McDonough control. He has done all of this in the same fashion as he played the game: hard-work, commitment to team, humility and vision. When the Suns fail, Hornacek makes no excuses, and voters for Coach of the Year honors will have no excuses for naming anyone other than Hornacek as this year’s recipient.