It’s been a tried-and-true formula for the Phoenix Suns of old: Look to a former NBA guard, preferably one with a Suns pedigree, and give him his shot to be a head coach. Use his offensive mind to steer an exciting brand of basketball and protect your home court enough to be a consistent playoff team.
During the two worst losing valleys in franchise history — prior to this one, of course — the formula worked wonders with the hires of Paul Westphal (hand-held by Cotton Fitzsimmons) and Mike D’Antoni and led to the two most successful championship windows in franchise history.
With Danny Ainge, the success was more tempered. With Frank Johnson and Scott Skiles? Not so good. With Terry Porter and Lindsay Hunter? Don’t get us started.
So this week’s hiring of Jeff Hornacek was a pleasant development and very much a pattern hire for this franchise, one that has and will be met with an approving smile from fans. Even though he’s been away from the organization for 20 years, even though he was traded for one of the most popular Suns ever (Charles Barkley), even though his coaching resumé is as thin as it gets in the NBA, there doesn’t seem to be a downside.
Hornacek is affable, well-liked by the fans and media. He is a coach’s son who decided to raise his family before resuming his basketball career on the bench. With the Suns a long way from relevancy, rebuilding will take time and patience. Hornacek appears to have the right temperament for a steady step ladder back to respectability.
Those who were in Dan Majerle’s camp will point to his similar resumé and familiarity with the roster and wonder why he was passed over. Hornacek is popular in the Valley, but he can’t compete with Majerle’s local star power and “Thunder Dan” would seem to lean more toward the defensive philosophy that the front office has said it craves.
Hornacek was a Sun, but far enough removed to feel like a purely Robert Sarver/Ryan McDonough hire. Majerle was more of a type of link to Jerry Colangelo that Sarver always seems to avoid at all costs, usually with unfortunate results. Hornacek’s time spent as an assistant in Utah gives him enough defensive chops to check that box without trying to pound a square peg (Porter and Hunter) into a round hole (Suns basketball).
The question remains as to whether McDonough and Hornacek will be given enough room to do the jobs they are now paid to perform. As much as we hear about Sarver and Babby taking a step back, the recent past compels you to see it before you believe it.
The Heat is on LeBron
Meanwhile, the good teams are still playing out this NBA season and the script for the NBA Finals in an interesting one. As gallant as Indiana has been, we’re looking at a Miami-San Antonio matchup and an opportunity for LeBron James to really solidify his perch among basketball royalty.
Last year’s title (and that group had to win one, right?) was a cakewalk compared to what The King is now faced with. The Big Three is down to a Big One. Chris Bosh is injured, soft and an overpaid bit player (rumors are he’s headed elsewhere in the off-season and good luck to whomever is stuck with that guy) while Dwyane Wade is but a shadow of the player he once was.
That leaves LeBron to reach for bailing wire and duct tape and try to win a title with creaky Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen (who so defies a physical description I won’t even take a shot at it). Dennis Rodman made more sense, at least on the floor.
Cleveland fans have to be watching and thinking, “LeBron, you left us for this?”
San Antonio is aging and doesn’t have an answer for James, but the Spurs have to be watching James kill himself just to beat the Pacers and like their chances in a showdown with the Heat. The Spurs don’t have a Big Three anymore either, but they have backfilled with just the kind of roster that will make the Heat sweat.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.