PHOENIX — Nearly three months after being named the Phoenix Suns interim head coach, Lindsey Hunter looked thoroughly beaten Thursday. Gone was the self-described fighter. Gone was the wide-eyed smile. Gone was the passionate coach speak that had become a common fixture during his pre and post-game press conferences.
For the first time during his tenure in Phoenix, Hunter’s body language spoke of a man who was worn down in the face of repeated defeat. His tone was rather withdrawn, his face noticeably sullen at times and his desire to remain as the team’s head coach appeared to be apathetic at best.
“I don’t feel any urgency at all,” Hunter said regarding when he hopes his future with the Suns will be decided. “I trust they know what they’re doing upstairs, and they will make a decision when they need to.”
The former 17-year NBA veteran might not have a sense of whether the Suns will make a quick decision or not, but given Thursday’s activity around the league, the coaching search — whether internally or externally — is already underway. With three teams parting ways with their coaches (Cleveland’s Byron Scott, Detroit’s Lawrence Frank and Philadelphia’s Doug Collins) less than 24 hours after the final day of the regular season, the clock has started ticking for Lon Babby and Co., as well.
Hunter, however, said he hasn’t’ had a single discussion with management about his future and that his focus in the coming weeks will be less on a decision and more on taking some time away from the office.
“I’m not even really pressed to think about (the decision),” said Hunter. “I’ll sit back and reflect, think about things. Of course, I’ll constantly be putting together things in my thoughts and on paper, but it’ll just be the typical basketball summer.”
It certainly wasn’t the typical winter or spring for the two-time NBA champion. Hunter took over for Alvin Gentry on January 20 and in the process inherited a team with a 13-28 record and a roster full of players that didn’t exactly fit his defensive-minded philosophy.
There were notable wins over the Hawks, Grizzlies, Lakers (twice), Rockets (twice) and Spurs, but there were also 20 double-digit losses, many of which came on nights when the team collectively looked disinterested with the notion of competition.
In all, Hunter finished with 12-29 record. Knowing that his predecessor was fired with slightly better numbers (13-28), the first-year coach admitted he might be out of a job if results drive the organization’s choice.
When asked if the decision should be made based on more than wins and losses, Hunter momentarily broke out in a smile.
“It better be a lot of it,” said Hunter. “If it’s about wins and losses, I don’t have a chance.”
Accurate as that might be, if management has a desire to keep some of its current veteran players happy, Hunter might not have much of a chance anyways.
CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger wrote the following on Hunter’s future in the Valley:
The Suns conducted their exit interviews a week ago, and a person familiar with the process told CBSSports.com that interim coach Lindsey Hunter did not fare well in his player evaluations. The Suns went 12-29 under Hunter — one game worse than the first half of the season under Alvin Gentry — and there’s a feeling among some players that the team regressed. “Players don’t want him back,” one league source said. President Lon Babby received a two-year extension earlier this month. GM Lance Blanks, who was instrumental in appointing Hunter as interim coach, has one year left on his contract.
Although there is probably plenty of validity to Berger’s report, outside of closed doors, players spoke somewhat highly of the job Hunter did.
“When you have a veteran team, it’s fine because guys know how to handle the business,” Jared Dudley said. “We had a lot of guys that weren’t use to winning. When you give them a lot of freedom it can backfire, and Lindsey tried to get guys to stick with (the system).”
Goran Dragic added that after the mid-season coaching change, Hunter brought a level of accountability and was relentless in his effort to try and instill it.
“He’s a tough coach,” Dragic said. “We practiced every day hard for two hours or one hour and 45 minutes. Before, we had a lot of days off, but when Lindsey took over we didn’t have that. He was really strict, fining players if they didn’t do their jobs. I think that was a good sign.
“We are a young team, so we need that. Maybe in the past we have so many veteran players like Steve (Nash) and Grant (Hill). They’re professionals and know what they have to do. But with young players, you have to be on them all the time.”
Phoenix was 8-11 under Hunter until Marcin Gortat went down with a season-ending Lisfranc injury on March 6, but the Suns center admitted that if there was some pent up anger towards Hunter, it likely stemmed from that disconnect between an old-school coach and new-school players.
“There was a situation during a game where players were saying they were confused, and the only thing coach was saying was, ‘I was asking you to play hard,’” Gortat said. “Some people said they were confused, and I don’t understand what’s confusing about playing hard.”
The Polish Hammer went on to say that he doesn’t think the problem is Hunter so much as it’s the kind of players that filled the Suns’ roster in 2012-13.
“We are just weak,” said Gortat. “We are mentally weak, basically. I would say we need more talent. We need more athletic, energetic guys and people that want to compete and fight.”
Whether Hunter lives to fight another day in purple and orange remains to be seen, but the main takeaway from Thursday is that he’ll be just fine whether he’s employed by the organization or not.
“Whatever happens, happens guys,” said Hunter. “I’m not above or beneath anything.”
After getting a taste of life as an NBA head coach, Hunter has clearly changed from the eager player development coach who first took the clipboard 89 days ago. As he left his post-season interview in the bowels of the US Airways Center, Hunter did so with a hint of resignation, yet contentment in his voice.
“Maybe I will see you again, maybe I won’t.”
The waiting game has officially begun.