Lindsey Hunter's status: The case for a coaching change

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.

Tags: Coaching Lindsey Hunter Phoenix Suns Phoenix Suns Analysis

  • http://none @Mike_hAz

    Well said! Respect is the name of the game

  • DBreezy

    Solid ideas for sure, but I doubt it works when the rubber meets the road. The Suns have never paid big money for a coach, and that’s what it would take for any big name to even listen. Given the state of the team, it may even take more than the standard 3 year deal Sarver prefers. A big name coach is probably going to want some heightened level of roster control as well, which is unlikely and part of the reason we have Blanks now. Additionally, sports is a world heavy into trends and fads and the trend for this type of situation isn’t good. Guys like Scott, Saunders, Johnson, McMillan, Collins, etc all got early pushes out of rebuilding situations better than this one when patience wore thin. The Bobcats honestly could have not expected to be better than they were, and yet Dunlap is in trouble after one season.

    Most of the big names have voluntarily kept their names out of openings and its hard to see the Suns job moving the needle on that especially without a big time prospect coming in the draft. In any case I’d expect the big names to wait until after the playoffs to see what jobs are available before deciding. Most of the top assistant candidates are in the playoffs as well and unlikely to be available for interviews. Lon wants to make his decision quickly on Hunter, and I can’t blame him since he isn’t a basketball mind. He needs to get his team in place and working ASAP whomever they may be. Perhaps in a season or two we hear about big names, but I can’t see it this summer.

  • Scott

    Having a coach with a positive reputation helps garner respect in the locker room. Rather than looking inward and holding oneself accountable, as all the top players do, many players look outward for accountability and validation, and new coaches may not be as credible or convincing as established coaches. It doesn’t necessarily matter how good the coach is, those first few years can be rocky. Players, fans, and the media will question new coaches more.

    So that’s one thing. Another thing is that some players are more resistant to coaching than others. These are your semi- or full-on coach killers. I have no way of knowing for sure, but while I assume Scola, Dragic, Dudley, and Johnson are very coachable, Brown, Beasley, and Telfair seem to me to be less so. The Suns GM needs to be sure he’s picking players who are going to give coaches the benefit of the doubt, buy in, and otherwise cooperate.

    The last thing to mention regarding Hunter is that – like Porter a few years ago – he came in as a drill sergeant demanding effort and accountability, right on the heels of a somewhat permissive coach. That is inherently a difficult situation, prime for rebellion. Gentry, like D’Antoni, tended to run light practices aimed at keeping the veterans who already knew the routines sharp, but this wasn’t always so good. Other players – even veterans – coming to the team seemed to struggle for a long while, because the few short practices weren’t enough to ingrain the system, so the players frequently weren’t in their proper places and as a team they typically failed to execute.

    So I believe some of the backlash against Hunter comes from starting the season with a comparatively lazy, permissive coach, and then switching midseason to a tough, demanding coach. Some of the backlash comes from the GM having selected so many players who are difficult to coach, or maybe (as in the case of Shannon Brown) putting them in needlessly difficult positions. And some of the lack of faith in Hunter’s leadership comes from his newness and unusual promotion (from minor coach, over the heads of more established coaches).

  • that dude

    Hahahaha why pay Jeff Van Gundy when Sarver can give Hunter a raise to $400/game LMAO .. Sell the fu**ing team Sarver!!!!!

  • Azbballfan

    Someone has to pay for this disaster of a season, and if its not blanks or babby it sounds like Hunter is the fall guy.

    New coach, no other head coaching experience or assistant coaching experience

    The Suns FO couldnt have honestly thought Hunter was some kind of savior right?

    not even Phil Jackson would have gotten much out of this team

    Barring the Suns front office actually look at themselves this time, i can see Hunter getting canned. easily.

    Except, who is going to want this team?

    Hunter may be the guy next season because no one else wants this team

    Veteran, big name coaches rarely seem to touch rebuild projects

    but the Suns arent in rebuilding mode, there in tear it down to the foundation mode

    literally every other team in the NBA is 3 years ahead of us in the process

    what coach is going to want that? i dont know! but babby and blanks and sarver (who is most responsible for this mess in the 1st place) better figure that out quick

    I dont really like Hunters coaching style, and i think he came in the worst possible way, people can deny it all they want but it looks like he got the job because he was buddy buddy with blanks, and majerle and turner werent hired because they were gentries guys.

    or something like that, the whole thing is a mess and they all better figure it out in the next week or two

    if Hunter gets sacrificed at the altar, Blanks should go along with him

    we need a total reset, not a repeat next year of this waste of a season

    Losing is fine, i dont care what the record is as long as we are developing a future

    cause we sure as heck didnt do that this season

  • Tony

    It’s silly to speculate about the Suns bringing in an established winning coach because what established head coach is going to want to work for the Three Stooges?! As Dbreezy correctly stated, high profile coaches want more money and more roster control. Has Sarver ever given any indication that he’s willing to overpay a head coach? No.

    Next season the Suns will likely continue with Hunter as head coach, or some other no-name unproven “coach” and the team will win about 30 games.

  • Azbballfan

    Btw, i thought Mike Dunlap did a good job this season for the Bobcats

    He was able to get them to play hard

    They went from 7 wins to 21 wins thats pretty good considering the talent didnt go up hardly at all and their rookie Gilchrist put up only decent numbers in his 1st season

    They have a good front office behind them now too, and they are going to add a good player to the Biyombo, Walker MKG triumverant

    The Suns could just go to the college ranks to, to find the next coach, i mean hey if Hunter got the job and had no coaching experience what so ever, then hey a guy who coached in college is theoretically more qualified

    if Hunter is gone, good luck to him

    But we need a vision, a plan, a future with this team and hopefully this is the season where they stop screwing around and try this half assed rebuilding crap and just get young players they can turn into rotation guys

    make some trades, go young, and see who develops

    Wes Johnson looks like a legit player, and no one but a few thought he was worth anything and he ended up giving you 13 points 4 boards a few assista and a steal

  • hawki

    The Over/Under on Hunter is next year’s All-Star Game.

  • Ty-Sun

    I think the Suns most realistic choice would be to look at some of the best assistant NBA coaches to replace Hunter. I just can’t see any way for the Suns to lure a big name coach into taking the job.

  • Azbballfan

    Good point, assistant coaches i didnt think of that

    I honestly cant think of many that would come into this situation

    someone mentioned mike malon who i think is an assistant with the golden state warriors (or somebody)

    you know i wonder if Eddie Jordan would be interested

    i think he hasnt coached since Washington or Brooklyn i cant remember which

  • foreveris2long

    Eddie Jordan accepted the Rutgers Univ head coaching job.

  • Jude

    We go for broke and give Phil what he wants…He can build us from scratch

  • Ty-Sun

    Brian Shaw (Indiana) and Mike Budenholzer (San Antonio) are the first two assistant coaches that come to mind. I doubt anyone can pry Budenholzer away from SA but I believe he’s an Arizona native which might make a little difference. Shaw might bite.

  • Shake daddy

    Dallas owner Cuban stood up and accepted responsibility for the Dallas dive. No suns front office person has admitted mistakes or failure for this tragedy…. The downward spiral from western finals to least talented team which continues with mistakes and fumbles. Sarver needs to sell the team and we need a set of winners in front office. This is embarrassing. This won’t be fixed until the clowns admit their errors and eliminate failure modes. Who did Beasley, and Marshall, and Brown , and Morris’s … We have accumulated talent free team without shooters , defenders, or rebounders. Hard to do even if you were deaf, dumb, and blind. It started with Childress and Hakeem and brooks Shake it up now

  • foreveris2long

    Absolutely Shake Daddy

  • Azbballfan

    Hey, i am blind and i could probably run this team!

    yeah i totally agree with shake daddy 100 percent

    if Cuban stood up and took responsibility why cant Sarver?

    Building a winning team cant be all about random luck

    the Clippers got rid of Elgin Baylor after 17 years of futility, and look where they are now?

    that team spent decades in the lottery!

    rebuilding a team isnt exactly about winning on the court, atleast at first

    the Suns have to build a foundation, with new players and new front office people

    i would keep babby though, he seems like he is the face of the Suns so he gets dumped on

    he got rid of Warrick, Childress, Turkoglu

    he may have broght them in but he cut them loose once it became clear it didnt work out

    i have been in that situation before myself where i only had a little bit of influence at my job but i got all the hate while the other people responsible were no where to be found

    We cant keep missing on these drafts, this will be the highest suns pick since 1987 when we had the 2nd overall choice (yeah, we lost a coin flip for david robinson)

    I cant wait for the draft and late july, thats when we should see some real movement going on

  • Shake daddy

    I agree with you too. Suns FO talks about process and finding right character and skill. They have failed at that. Blind leading blind … it’s time to trade blockhead Gortat who is slow and not athletic, keep dragic, tucker , Dudley, and johnson and Haddad and oneill and do some shooting skill trading for Marshall and Morris twins. We need a center and two real sure shooters. And a real coach So we get one real draft choice and 2 late draft maybe’s. we need to sign 2 sure fire free agents. Servers needs to open up check book. Frye is a maybe but high risk to come back Suns need to win 45 games or more next year to keep any reasonable fan following. Best action would be to sell or give the team back to the colangelo family.

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  • anthonylerma

    hunter doesnt know how to coach….

  • anthonylerma

    suns need to get some players who want to win not just get payed,keep wes johnson dragic,morris bros,pj tucker,gortat talked about the team being weak, hes a marshmellow,he has no toughness,jermaine oneal out played him,i hope gortat ant on the team next season…..dudley is to slow he cant defend.

  • john

    I’ve seen a lot of people say they want the Suns to keep Wes Johnson. A lot of those people are the same ones always criticizing the FO for their terrible choices.

    I just want to let you know, you’d be making the same mistakes as them, apparently, if you were in their shoes. Wes Johnson is bad at basketball. Just plain bad. There is no reason to keep him. Not even as a 12th man to warm the bench. He is bad. Bad basketball players don’t get on the court for good teams. If you want the Suns to be good, you don’t sign bad players.

    I could keep going with the redundancy, but I think you get the point by now.

  • Rick

    How about Bernie Bikerstaff? He was the best Lakers coach this year.

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