Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an analyst with ESPN, says replacing coach Jeff Hornacek is not going to solve the Suns’ woes this season.
“They don’t need a specific coach, they need better players,” Van Gundy said. “They need to continue to build an attitude of work, unselfishness and sacrifice.”
The Suns named assistant coach Earl Watson interim head coach in the wake of Hornacek’s firing Monday. Watson becomes the 17th head coach in franchise history and the fifth in the past eight years. Watson was one of three reported interim candidates, including assistant coaches Nate Bjorkgren and Corey Gaines, a former coach of the Phoenix Mercury.
Watson takes over a 14-35 team that lost its 14th consecutive road game in Dallas on Sunday and is headed for its sixth straight non-playoff appearance, the longest drought in franchise history.
The coaching change marks another restart for a franchise stuck in rebuilding mode.
“If all you do is change the culture, which the Suns have done a lot recently, nothing changes at all,” Van Gundy said. “It’s going to start with better players that fit together better committed to excellence.”
Van Gundy has experience taking over a team in the middle of a season. Following the Knicks’ firing of Don Nelson in 1996, Van Gundy took over as head coach after serving as an assistant coach for nearly seven years. He guided the team to a 13-10 finish and coached New York for seven seasons, compiling a 420-248 record.
“Being an interim coach has a number of challenges,” Van Gundy said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about your status going forward and your chances to keep up on a full time and permanent basis for next season. The interim coach needs to be very focused in and locked in to just get the guys you have right now playing as well as they can.”
Watson will face an uphill challenge at the head of the Suns bench, beginning with Tuesday’s home game against the Toronto Raptors. Suns guard Eric Bledsoe is out for the rest of the season after suffering a torn meniscus in his knee. A season in which the Suns were expected to contend for a playoff spot after signing Tyson Chandler also got off to a rocky start when forward Markieff Morris asked for a trade.
“Obviously record-wise this year, they really struggled for a number of factors,” said Van Gundy. “I think the Markieff Morris situation set them back to start the year.
“They had some injuries and they had some losses where they had games in hand and couldn’t close them out. Jeff Hornacek is a terrific coach. It’s not coaching. It’s circumstance that led to him, unfortunately, losing his job. They have some work to do but they also have some talent in place and if they make a couple good adjustments they can be back in that playoff hunt very soon.”
Hornacek was hired before the 2013-2014 season, and led the surprisingly competitive Suns to a 48-34 record, just missing out on the playoffs and Coach of the Year honors.
The Suns, however, have struggled the past two seasons following the trade of guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas.
Van Gundy expects Hornacek to land another NBA coaching job.
“I think certainly Jeff Hornacek will get another opportunity. I thought he had an incredible first year, probably should have been Coach of the Year.”