PHOENIX — After sleeping only five hours Sunday night, interim head coach Lindsey Hunter admitted that the reality of his somewhat surprising promotion still had not sunk in.
While Phoenix’s practice facility was buzzing with energy Monday nearly 24 hours after the 17-year NBA veteran was named the team’s short-term replacement for Alvin Gentry, when the reality finally does set in for Hunter, odds are he’ll come to terms with the fact that five hours of pillow time might be on the high side for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.
Although he’s only been with the organization since 2012, the first-time head coach appears to grasp the severity of the situation around him, and that he inherits a team bordering on disarray.
Often times teams take on the attitude of their coach, and if Hunter has his way, the current cellar dwellers of the Western Conference (13-28) will hit the ground running and embrace the traits that once made him a successful player.
“Of course, I want us to be a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team,” Hunter said. “That’s what I want. And that’s what we are going to work towards being.”
That sentiment might fall on deaf ears at this point, after all it’s the same one which has been thrown around aimlessly over the last few seasons.
Hunter recognizes that such a culture shift won’t occur over night — after all the Suns enter Wednesday night’s game at Sacramento as the fifth-least efficient team defensively in the league (104.9 points per possession) and dead last in opponent three-point percentage (38.9 percent) — but the 42-year-old believes the coaching move signals a need to make notable changes.
“Personality-wise, I think we need to find an identity,” said Hunter. “That’s what this whole search is. We’re trying to establish that now with a work ethic. Once we get an identity, then I think you’ll start to see things happen.”
With 41 games to go and a mixed bag of parts dressed up as an NBA roster, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that Hunter can generate such results overnight.
He, however, doesn’t agree that such a transformation requires star power.
“I think establishing an identity doesn’t have anything to do with superstars or things like that,” said Hunter. “It has to do with culture, the kind of character you bring in and the type of leaders that you have.”
Leaders might be hard to find in Phoenix’s current locker room, and arguably the only voice left that garners any level of credence is that of fifth-year forward Jared Dudley.
While Dudley revealed that Hunter was more of a player ally than a teacher in his role as the development coordinator, he suggested that the two-time NBA champion has a vision of what he wants the team’s identity to be and hasn’t shied away from trying to change bad habits right away.
“In terms of on-ball defense, he says we are playing too soft in a sense of not touching it,” said Dudley. “On pick-and-rolls, he says we’re not being aggressive enough. ”
Over his final seven seasons in the league, Hunter never averaged more than 5.0 points per game, but Dudley said his new coach’s knowledge at the defensive ends lends itself to instant credibility.
“I remember watching him, and he was one of the best on-ball defenders,” said Dudley. “That’s probably what allowed him to play in the league for so many years, when maybe he wasn’t that good offensively.
“I mean he was a point guard that played 17 years in the NBA, so he must be doing something right. It would be like Kurt Thomas or Grant Hill being the coach. So for not having that coaching experience, I think being a player makes up for that.”
While starting point guard Goran Dragic realizes that neither he (14.0 points and 6.1 assists per game) nor his team (15 games below .500) are playing at the level he expected when he signed a four-year deal back in July, it’s rather apparent that no player has more job security on the roster than the 26-year-old.
Although the team drafted Kendall Marshall with the 13th overall pick in last June’s draft, back-up Sebastian Telfair (6.3 points and 2.6 assists per game) played well in stretches throughout the first half of the season and Diante Garrett made the roster coming out of camp, Dragic’s long-term contract worth $30 million combined with his projected ceiling makes it unlikely he’ll be unseated any time soon.
Oddly enough, that bothers him to some extent.
“I want all my teammates, especially the younger ones, to develop as much as possible,” Dragic said. “If they develop more, they’re going to be able to help us more, and we will be better than we are right now.”
When asked specifically about increased playing time and even practice opportunities for the likes of Marshall (21), Markieff Morris (23), Wesley Johnson (25) and Luke Zeller (25), Dragic said he wasn’t opposed to the idea moving forward this season.
“If they get more time and develop, then our practices are harder and more challenging,” said Dragic. “It also means that for guys like me, we don’t know what could happen and who could start instead of us. And, I think that’s a good thing. Having a group of hungry guys creates better competition and better competition pushes [the starters] to protect their spots.”
Assistant Coaches Watch
Day 2 came and went inside the US Airways Center, and still no sign of assistant coaches Dan Majerle and Elston Turner, who were both passed over by Lon Babby and Lance Blanks for the interim head coaching position.
Majerle, who played eight seasons with the organization and had his number retired in the “Ring of Honor” back in 2003, has every reason to be upset. After all, he has served as an assistant with the team since 2008 and has been as loyal as they come dating back to his days as a player and even a broadcaster.
While Turner doesn’t have as lengthy of a connection with the Suns as Majerle does, his résumé speaks of a man with nearly 16 years of experience as an NBA assistant coach, who like Hunter, made his living in the NBA (eight seasons) at the defensive end.
When pressed with questions regarding the future of both as it pertained to his staff, Hunter reiterated that the situation would eventually play itself out. However, he did take time to acknowledge that the organization’s decision could not have been easy for either Majerle or Turner.
“I’m sure being a coach and wanting to be a head coach and not getting an opportunity hurts,” said Hunter. “And I understand that and am compassionate about that part of it. I don’t know what will come from any of this, but you wish the guys that are not with us the best and the guys that are with us, we’re going to work.”