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NBA Sunday: Suns Overcoming Contract Issues

Jeff Hornacek explains how the Suns overcame contract issues and inexperience to have a great year… Houston’s Achilles’ heel exposed?

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Suns Overcoming Contract Issues

The Phoenix Suns were not supposed to be in the playoff discussion this season. Period. They were not supposed to be anywhere close to good enough to compete in the brutally tough Western Conference. Even when they were very good early on, the general feeling was that sooner or later they would come down to earth and be the rebuilding, mediocre team that most believed they would be. However, that wasn’t the case, and even though last night’s crushing, last-second loss in Dallas puts the Suns’ postseason bid in serious jeopardy, they have been an impressive team from start to finish this season.

“It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said of his rebuilding process. “The chemistry part is big and we have 10 new guys and you never know how that’s going to come together. They’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning that they were a bunch of new guys and there’s a lot of guys that had contracts end this year or they end next year. That’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual and are worrying about their contracts. I told them stories about some guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you. That’s when they’ll pay you bigger bucks, if you’re on a good team. For a good team, all of that stuff will come. Don’t worry about it and just play and try to win games and that’s what the guys have done. They’ve put all of that stuff aside and just played.”

Despite the fairly low expectations coming into the season, Hornacek saw signs early on that he might have a better group on his hands than people were giving the Suns credit for.

“The whole part of the rebuilding was you’re going to have steps from the team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games,” Hornacek said. “We thought if we can get to 30-35 [wins] and start establishing things and then maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get into playoffs. Those kind of stepping stones that you have to go through, maybe we just skipped a round. One thing I saw early on, we came out there early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place. When you’re in a rebuilding mode, a lot of times guys are talking about moral victories. ‘Hey, we played well.’ Our guys were all ticked off and were mad about it. To me, as a competitive player, I took that as a sign that we can be okay this year because these guys really care and they want to win.”

Sometimes NBA head coaches fall into the trap of emphasizing their system over the abilities of their players, but that’s not something Hornacek did. He designed his system to fit his personnel, and that’s why a player like Gerald Green, who has had trouble finding a long-term NBA home, can be such an important part of the team’s success.

“Gerald is a guy that can get a shot off anywhere and he does,” Hornacek explained.He’s got great confidence in his shooting. The guy has done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improving in terms of his consistency; it’s not where he’s jacking up 10 threes and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them then he moves and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement has come from.”

The Suns have had a great deal of success running two point guards together in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The idea to do that came from Hornacek’s experience playing alongside Kevin Johnson as a member of the Suns’ backcourt.

“I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through back in the day when you have two guards out there and we wanted to be on an up-tempo team and we felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to,” Hornacek said. “We don’t need it in one guy’s hands, you can throw it to anybody. When we talked about do we think we can work and [Dragic] said, ‘Yeah, I think it’ll be great getting him from one side to another.’ Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone is going to have an advantage, as good as those two guys are, and just try to take advantage of one of the two.”

The NBA game has changed quite a bit since Hornacek retired, but the biggest change he sees is the new emphasis on three-point shooting.

“The emphasis on the three is much bigger now,” said Hornacek, himself quite a marksman from downtown as a player. “We kind of always laugh because I always talk about the threes, but really it’s really all about the effective field goal percentage. When I came in over the summer I looked at it and every team that was over 51 percent in the effective field goal percentage is in the playoffs except for two and those were the two best defensive teams in Indiana and Memphis. That’s a good goal to aim at, but back in the day we all, as a team, shot over 50 percent, so you mix in four or five threes rather than 10 of them your effective field goal percentage is probably about the same. It’s just a different way to get to it.”

When it comes to establishing himself as an NBA head coach this season, Hornacek has leaned heavily on some advice he got from former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan.

“We went into it and I just tried to take a little from all of the coaches,” Hornacek said. “From Jerry, it’s just going out there and trying to play every play like it’s your last. That’s what Jerry always stressed. We’re constantly talking about that and we’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly on how to do that night in and night out and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh, I forgot,’ or, ‘I spaced out,’ because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that ‘play every play like it’s your last’ and we try to get that to these guys, too.”

Whether or not the Suns make the playoffs, the 2013-14 campaign has been an extremely positive one for the team and their rookie head coach. It’s clear that Hornacek’s vision is a good one, and that he can get his team, even a team full of guys with every reason to put their own stats over the team’s success, to buy in and play a very competitive brand of basketball every night.

Houston’s Achilles’ Exposed?

The arrival of Dwight Howard in Houston was supposed to herald a new era of contention for the Rockets, who have not been among the NBA’s elite teams since Hakeem Olajuwon took off No. 34 for the last time. When Howard has been healthy, he’s been a solid inside presence for Houston, as good as they could have hoped when they paid the big bucks to bring him to town. Unfortunately, having the defensive juggernaut down low has only further exposed a growing concern for the Rockets.

Going back to just the beginning of April, we can take an in-depth look at Houston’s biggest issue heading into the playoffs. James Harden dropped 29 points and dished nine assists against the Brooklyn Nets, but the Rockets were -17 with him on the court that night and lost 96-105. The reason? Harden’s man, Joe Johnson, scored 32 points while connecting on 13-21 from the field.

Sure, but that’s Joe Johnson, right? Plenty of players have struggled to guard Johnson over the years.

Houston’s next game was against the Toronto Raptors, a team that boasts no established Hall of Fame candidates and wouldn’t be in the playoff picture out West. The Rockets dropped that game 103-107 despite Harden’s 26-point night. Of course, the Rockets were -14 with him on the court and his man, DeMar DeRozan went off for 29 points on 10-for-19 shooting.

What about some really bad, players, though? Surely Harden dominates the bad players on the defensive end, right? Against the hapless and tanking Philadelphia 76ers, Harden recorded a triple-double and the Rockets won easily. Unfortunately, his man, journeyman James Anderson, had one of the best games of his NBA career, dropping 30 points while connecting on 11-of-18 from the field.

More recently, as Houston’s playoff position has started to slip, the Rockets dropped a game to the injured and struggling Denver Nuggets thanks in large part to Randy Foye, who had a stunning 30 points and 18 assists while being defended – and that word is used loosely – by Harden. For the record, Foye is averaging 12.8 points per game on the season and had managed 30 or more just once this season before the Houston game. Next up, the Rockets took on a Minnesota Timberwolves team that will not make the playoffs and was missing Kevin Love. As you may have guessed by now, Harden’s man had a career night. Scoring phenom (cough, cough) Corey Brewer recorded a career-high 51 points in leading the Timberwolves to a 112-110 win.

There’s no question that the Rockets are an improved team with Howard patrolling the paint, and they have a shot at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs with him in the mix. You can be absolutely certain, however, that whoever the Rockets play in the first round will run plenty of their offense through the two-guard position, and Harden’s inability/unwillingness to play defense might just be the difference between Houston advancing and an early vacation for the boys in red.

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Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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