What his departure means for the Suns’ franchise will be covered in detail here at Valley of the Suns over the next few days. For now, let’s not dwell in the past. The front office is expected to announce an interim head coach soon, but in the meantime, we’ve compiled a list of candidates who could be Phoenix’s head coach in the long term.
Any list of possible coaching candidates has to start internally, especially in Phoenix. Hunter is thought by many, including recently “retired” VotS chief Michael Schwartz, to be the frontrunner for not only the interim job, but the long-term one as well. Hunter was hired as a team scout last March and later became the coordinator of the team’s development department. He has no previous coaching experience at the NBA or collegiate level. What Hunter does have to his credit is a 17-year NBA career. Combine that with his age (he’s only 41), and you get a coach who is both credible and relatable with his players. When Gentry’s departure was announced, the team stated its new direction would be focused on player development. If that is indeed the course for this season and the foreseeable future, then Hunter, who is in charge of the Suns’ Player Development Department, may just be the man for the job. Hiring him would be a similar move to the Magic’s hiring of Jacque Vaughn. While Orlando has struggled this season with a completely revamped roster, Vaughn has been praised the job he has done developing and integrating his players.
The Suns’ defensive coordinator cannot be overlooked as a possible candidate to take over the team. Turner has been a coach in the NBA for nearly 15 years. He spent most of that as an assistant to Rick Adelman in Sacramento and Houston. Hiring Turner would be an unmistakable change of direction for the franchise. Since Steve Nash arrived, the Suns have been known for their focus on offense and their treatment of defense as an afterthought. Tapping Turner would signal that Phoenix is ready to shed that identity and commit to being a defense-first team like the Bulls and Pacers. The biggest obstacle confronting Turner’s candidacy is the Suns’ complete lack of defensive success. Since he was hired, the Suns have been in the bottom 10 of the league according to John Hollinger’s defensive efficiency rankings. Some of that failure can be blamed on roster age and turnover, but some definitely must fall on Turner. The truth is this roster lacks athleticism and defensive acumen, and if appointed head coach, Turner might just be banging his head against a wall trying to emphasize defense to an incapable roster.
Stan Van Gundy
Big Stan is a long shot to become the Suns new head coach. By all accounts, he is the biggest name currently available in the market. SVG has more than 15 years experience as an NBA coach. He started out in Miami as an assistant to Pat Riley. He was named the Heat’s head coach in 2003, but resigned to make way for Riley in 2005, Stan was ten hired by Orlando. He took the Magic all the way to the NBA Finals in 2009 where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Stan was fired by the Magic in May of this year in a misguided attempt to please Dwight Howard. During his time in Orlando, Van Gundy helped mold Howard into one of the league’s best defensive players. The Magic were a Top 5 defense for three straight years under Van Gundy, and never worse than 13th in the league during his tenure. Offensively, Van Gundy’s pillars – floor spacing power forwards, emphasis on three point shooting, and pick & roll – closely mirror what the Suns have done over the last several years. There’s no doubt that Van Gundy could be a great fit in Phoenix, but whether the Suns can lure him is another question altogether.
Jeff Van Gundy
Stan’s brother Jeff is another candidate who would be great as the Suns’ head coach. Jeff has 10 years of experience as an NBA head coach with both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. He led the Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals where they lost in five games to the San Antonio Spurs. Since he left Houston, Van Gundy has worked as a color commentator for ESPN. Anyone who has watched a telecast featuring Van Gundy knows he has incredible basketball knowledge. While he may rub some people the wrong way, there is no doubt that Jeff Van Gundy knows the game inside and out. He has a long history of getting the most out of his players. His Knicks teams were incredibly tough and very physical. Those are two qualities the Phoenix Suns are very much in need of. Bringing in Van Gundy could help the Suns shed their soft reputation. Jeff has long had a policy that he will not interview for head coaching jobs with teams who have some one in place already. This is why Jeff refused to interview for the Brooklyn vacancy. The Suns have a five day break before their next game which could be a large enough window to meet with and hire Van Gundy if he and the team were so inclined.
The problem with available head coaches in the NBA is that most candidates were fired from their previous position because their team did not succeed or meet expectations. Teams searching for a head coach must find ways to explain or overlook those failures when making a decision. In this situation, Nate McMillan is the rare example to the contrary. In 2005, McMillan took over a Portland Trail Blazers team which had gone 27-55 the previous year. Three years later, Portland was a .500 team, and in each of the next three seasons, Portland made the playoffs. McMillan was fired from Portland midway through 2011-12 season as the organization responded to ownership’s desire to clean house. Aside from turning around the Blazers and the SuperSonics earlier in his career, the best part of McMillan’s coaching resume is his service with the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing and London. Being included on a staff that features two of the best college coaches of all time as well as current Lakers’ head coach Mike D’Antoni a significant honor. One which McMillan has earned being a great basketball coach. At 48, he is still young enough to connect with players, and having played 12 years for the Seattle SuperSonics, he’s accomplished enough to earn their respect.
It’s only a matter of time before somebody gives this guy a head coaching position. Why not the Suns?
After a 14-year NBA career, which included three World Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaw was hired as an assistant coach by Phil Jackson in Los Angeles. After being passed over in the wake of Phil’s departure, Shaw took an assistant coach position under Frank Vogel in Indiana. Several prominent Lakers including Kobe Bryant, stumped on Shaw’s behalf to become the Lakers’ head coach. Shaw is one of the most respected assistants in the league. His youth, energy, and Championship experience as both a player and a coach would be huge assets to a Suns team looking to rebuild itself into a contender once again. It’s unlikely Shaw would leave Indiana mid-season, but he could definitely warrant a look from Phoenix’s front office this summer.
Though he might have the least recognizable name on this list, Mike Malone may be a prominent candidate to take over the Suns this summer. According to CNNSI’s Ian Thomsen, the Warriors’ assistant coach is on a short list of candidates due in small part to his previous relationship with Suns’ GM Lance Blanks. Malone was lead assistant in Cleveland when Blanks worked in the Cavaliers front office. The fact that a source has proffered that the Suns might hire externally this summer points to the front office promoting an assistant like Hunter or Turner to interim head coach for the rest of the season. In addition to working for the Cavs and Warriors, Malone was also lead assistant under Monty Williams in New Orleans. He has been a coach at the NBA level for 10 years. Working under Mark Jackson at Golden State, Malone is getting a great deal of experience developing young players like Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green. Young player development as well as integration with established veterans will be key for the Suns moving forward. Malone might not be the flashiest name available, but with Phoenix staring down the barrel of a sub-30 win season, substance and experience will be far more important that name recognition and flash.