It’s hard to break from the belief that Lance Blanks brought Lindsey Hunter to the Phoenix Suns to eventually become the coach. And while I often don’t jump on board with the argument of “he’s not the new front office’s guy,” Alvin Gentry probably wasn’t Blanks’ man. Gentry was a coach who could connect with veterans in a way few could. To start from scratch and rebuild a team is another animal, one that didn’t fit Gentry’s personality.
So in comes Hunter, who first appeared in the hallways of U.S. Airways Center during the end of last season, causing reporters such as yours truly to do a double-take.
Is that Lindsey Hunter? Is he working for the Suns now?
Yup. There was no formal announcement of any restaffing to build a player development squad until the summer, when Blanks only mentioned the behind-the-scene guru’s role of pushing the young players that Phoenix had yet to draft. That development core would be led by Hunter, and by the beginning of this year, it included former Arizona big man Sean Rooks and Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson. Rooks has since left for a coaching gig, and Sampson’s role only increased on the atrophied coaching staff.
Whether or not Blanks fills in the holes on that now-purged developmental staff remains to be seen, but it will be quite telling.
And as it is, Hunter is still in charge. He’s not at fault for any favoritism that fans might accuse the front office of holding, either. As such, there’s reason to believe that while many might call for his interim tag to be the end of his time in Phoenix, especially for reasons Ryan Weisert pointed out on Friday, his style does fit well for a rebuilding process.
Respect from those that matter
Goran Dragic was the bright spot this season, and though he was signed this summer because of his very close bond to Gentry, the Suns point guard showed no displeasure toward Hunter in the media or in his play. In fact, Hunter squeezed everything out of Dragic, who after the coaching change only got more aggressive as a scorer.
Dragic battled tooth and nail for Hunter, and the coach always glowed about Dragic fighting despite looking like he’d been in a boxing match. Hunter, a fierce competitor himself, even mentioned that he often needed to protect Dragic from getting caught up in individual battles with the NBA’s best opposing point guards – such was the reason P.J. Tucker was often assigned defensive duties on point guards.
On Dragic’s end, there was always a postgame mention of following Hunter’s pleas to fight hard each night. If there was any disagreement with Hunter, Dragic at the least hid it to the utmost degree.
So if the Suns best player – not to mention Luis Scola and Tucker – is indeed capable of following and working to succeed under Hunter’s coaching, why shouldn’t everyone else be able to do the same?
Is it only wins and losses?
Sure, Hunter joked that wins and losses won’t get him a permanent head coaching gig in Phoenix. His 12-29 record was a game worse than Gentry’s 13-28, but it’s easy to say Hunter’s incremental implementations of his style was indeed ground up – and midseason.
“There are a lot of things I would change that was kind of here all along that, not particularly I was a big fan of,” Hunter said before the final home game, alluding to his very different ways compared to Gentry. “But it’s been that way, so you can’t tear the entire house down when you move in halfway through the year.”
Further pressed on specifics, Hunter only said it was, “just a lot of small things, like the way we dress. How we do certain things in the locker room. Certain things I think need to be uniform, be a certain way.”
That right there is the sign of an approach of starting from the ground up.
Seeing the schematic process through
Where Gentry was a motivator and in-game tactician, Hunter’s role is at the very least similar to Mike Dunlap’s in Charlotte. He’s had to revert to teaching basic basketball principles such as defensive rotations, and he’s even been reduced to teaching effort. His wacky rotations were OK in the sense that, not only did they tank the Suns by disallowing a rhythm, but rightly punished the young players who couldn’t handle any amount of success, as brief as it might’ve been.
Strategically, it was obvious that assistant Igor Kokoskov was primarily in charge of the offense, and it’s of reasonable concern that Phoenix often looked lost – though they were often lost on both ends.
But Phoenix’s offense did improve in the final few weeks of play. And though there was a huge offensive slip after Gentry was let go, the Suns did rebound as they built upon the basics.
Phoenix was scoring 96.3 points per game in December as they got deep into using Gentry’s offense. But in February as Hunter built the offense to his liking, the Suns put in 91.2 points per game. That improved steadily through March (94.6 points per game) and peaked toward the end of the year. Phoenix averaged 101.3 points per game in April and was the 10th-best scoring club in the league during that span.
“We’re much more fluid in our secondary offense,” Hunter said. “Not to have to come down and call plays every single time and be stagnant, and not running through drags every time – we’ve gotten better in that aspect.
“It’s helped Goran a lot, in not having to worry about getting stagnant,” he added. “There a lot more parts to it that we haven’t been able to add.”
No, the improvement didn’t amount to wins. But the easy reason for the similar records under two very different coaches is …
A depleted roster
Like Gentry before him, Hunter simply was at the mercy of the roster the Suns front office gave him. Dragic is the only high-caliber piece of a roster not young but not ultra talented in any respect. And considering Hunter apologetically threw Scola to the dogs by playing him at center at the end of the year in place of the injured Marcin Gortat, it’s a wonder what his record might have been with the Polish center.
Simply put, the situation clouded much evidence of improvement under Hunter. Though it’s fair to argue for a new face in the next head coach, it’s silly to dismiss that this rebuilding season was bound to look bad on anyone involved.
Tags: Lindsey Hunter