This is not a piece meant to admonish Lindsey Hunter in any way.
Hunter went 12-29 as head coach of a Phoenix Suns team which was seriously lacking in talent, chemistry, and motivation. Coming in as the head coach midseason was the equivalent of taking over as pilot of a plane with dead engines. There was no way to prevent a crash. And yet Hunter took the controls anyway.
There is a quiet honor in the way Hunter did his job over the last few months. He preached effort vigorously and consistently. He developed young players like Wes Johnson and Kendall Marshall. He praised players like Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and P.J. Tucker for their effort and moxie. And he stuck to his guns while all his optimism was being demolished by the Suns’ mountain of losses.
In his piece yesterday, Dave Dulberg said of Hunter on Thursday, “Gone was the self-described fighter. Gone was the wide-eyed smile. Gone was the passionate coach speak…” Yet, in the wake of the team’s dismal results and the negative statements made by some players in their exit interviews, Hunter still believes he is the right man for the job.
Hunter has done nothing to warrant being replaced. His fortitude and self-belief in the face of failure are both great qualities to have in an NBA coach. The one thing he is missing is also the biggest reason the Suns need to move on from him and find a new coach. Hunter doesn’t command the respect of his players.
The Suns have had more roster turnover over the last three years than nearly every other NBA team save the Houston Rockets. The squad, as it stands right now, is a hodgepodge of underperforming young players, capable but declining veterans, a potential star point guard in Goran Dragic, and the enigmatic Michael Beasley. Hunter, who is only a few years removed from being a player himself, is not the man to coach this group. Like Avery Johnson before him, Hunter’s youth gives him passion, fire, and a desire to compete (or still be out on the floor in a jersey.) But like Johnson, Hunter’s unwavering mantra of defense, effort, and fight doesn’t garner respect from his players. Eventually, some or all of the players tuned him out this year. Especially Michael Beasley.
There is a reason most former players spend a decade or more as an assistant before becoming a head coach. To be effective, they have two cross two boundaries – one internal, one external. Internally, they have to divest themselves of their desire to play – not their desire to win and compete, just their desire to play. Coaches who were once players were almost always the type of players who gave 110% every night. This is definitely true of Hunter. Often that prevents players-turned-coaches from being able to understand, connect with, and get through to players who don’t give that type of effort. The problem that arises is that players who don’t always give maximum effort are the ones who need the most coaching. Former players turned coaches have to internally transition from being disappointed with those players to taking on the challenge of motivating them. Hunter’s comments in this piece by Kevin Zimmerman make it clear he is was still in the former state of mind.
The external boundary former players turned coaches have to cross is in the eyes of the players. Some guys in the NBA will respect whoever sits in the first seat on the bench because he’s their coach, and that’s how they roll. Others won’t respect a coach until he earns it. In the NBA, coaches earn respect with consistency, fairness, and above all, winning. Hunter, by all accounts, was consistent and fair. But the Suns were horrible this season. Hunter’s 12 wins didn’t gain him any respect.
This is why the Suns need to make a splash and hire a big name coach. Not because a big name will come in and instantly transform the team into a contender, but because a big name will command respect from every corner of the roster. A big name will be a cornerstone, like Goran Dragic, that the team can build around. He can provide consistency amid all the upheaval of the rebuilding process. Just like last summer, this upcoming free agency period will likely bring more new faces to Phoenix. A coach with a great reputation and track record of winning can make Phoenix a more attractive destination for free agents looking for a new home. The Suns may not be a playoff team next year, but a season under a coach who commands respect is a solid foundation for building a perennial contender. From a building standpoint, this year was a total waste. The Suns built almost nothing for the future. All they did was get a high draft pick. That pick, along with a coaching hire that will grab headlines, could be the spark that gets the Suns burning bright once again.
When Alvin Gentry left the team, I touched on a few potential replacements. Those candidates – Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, Nate McMillan – are still more than viable options for the Suns, should Babby, Blanks, and Sarver deem a new coach a prudent investment. Recent history indicates that Suns’ management will stick with Hunter. But the Suns’ recent history has been dismal, disappointing, and utterly devoid of winning. A move for a big name coach, while possibly out of character for this franchise, would go a long way to gaining respect from the players, the fans, and the league in general. One thing the Suns have always had is the respect of the league. It’s time to command it once again.