During the preseason we had anticipated that the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz would both be having tough years in 2013-2014. The fans of these teams, expecting to root for Western Conference cellar dwellers, were readying themselves to push through this necessarily poor season. Only the knowledge that there were vaguely Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker shaped lights at the end of the tunnel made the impeding 82 game beatdown palatable. As the season approached the rosters looked incomplete at best and non-competitive at worst. There would also be bright spots to cherish and cheer for. Fans could swallow the bitter medicine of losing if given enough sugar to offset it. And with Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Derrick Favors, and Gordon Hayward there was plenty of sugar to go around. These two franchises would take their turns to be beat on in their respective Post- Steve Nash / Post- Deron Williams marches back up the standings. But it would take time. Or at least that's the story we were told from reading preseason prediction posts. With March only a few days away we now know that this isn't really what happened at all. The surprising Suns had to deal with trades, injuries, and a rookie head coach in Jeff Hornacek, yet are still holding onto the 8th seed in the Thunderdome-like Western Conference. The Jazz favored stability and held onto Tyrone Corbin, now in his fourth season at the helm, and were supposed to look much better with their young core assuming control. Sadly they are instead having one of the worst ever seasons in franchise history.
So the question is: what would have happened if Corbin was the coach of the Suns, and if Hornacek was the coach of the Jazz?
Let's play around with this idea.
The Phoenix Suns announced that Jeff Hornacek was their next head coach back around the end of May last year. The NBA calendar quickly called for pre-draft preparation, interviews, work outs, the Draft itself; and then free agency a short while later. Both teams were also involved in three-team trades this offseason. For this exercise in speculative fiction, or if you are a Jazz fan, self-flagellation, the difficult part is identifying a starting point. Just when do the Jazz let go of Tyrone Corbin, and what changes happens as a result? For the sake of simplicity, let's presume that the front offices do not alter their plans much and the NBA Draft goes as it did. During free agency the input of the head coach may matter more, and as a result, some alterations are made to the rosters as a result.
The Utah Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey has an obvious plan to fast track improvement in the San Antonio Spurs way. That means younger players get better with responsibility on the court. Hornacek is cool with that, and there are no conflicting opinions here. Hornacek wants to win, and it's up to him to make this team do that while tracking with the greater goals of his boss.
The Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough also has a plan, but it's a plan that is slightly hampered by Robert Sarver's penny pinching. Over the last few seasons the Suns have had Mike D'Antoni, Terry Porter, Alvin Gentry, and Lindsey Hunter as head coaches. Obsessive loyalty isn't a comfort Corbin will be insulated by in the Valley of the Sun. Corbin wants to win now, and win enough. Winning enough is good enough for Sarver it seems. McDonough wants to build something though. It is going to be an interesting season.
The Jazz let Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, Randy Foye, and DeMarre Carroll all walk. Hornacek is being dealt a young hand, and he will have to grow with his team, and they with him. The Jazz add John Lucas III as a UFA, and Lindsey makes a three team trade with the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets that brings in Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, and Brandon Rush. Yes, there are picks too - but those may not matter to Jeff if he's not with the team by the time those egg hatch.
The clear emphasis here is that the Jazz front office want to evaluate the young guys, and have constructed a roster that should not get in the way of that at all.
The Suns also take part in a three team trade, with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. The bounty Phoenix gets isn't in mediocre vets and future picks but actual players. Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler join the team and Corbin is pleased by receiving a player of the caliber of Butler, a small forward in his prime. McDonough continues to make moves and Luis Scola is sent to the Indiana Pacers for Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, and a future 1st. Losing the vet Scola is tough, especially in a win now mode, but Gerald Green is a 28 year old small forward playing for his 7th team - with a few years under his belt playing internationally. Ty tries to play it cool and dabs his forehead with a hankie.
The season nears:
Summer league, late free agency, and preseason games have started now. The Jazz have a bunch of injuries to deal with now as Trey Burke, Marvin Williams, Brandon Rush, Jeremy Evans, and Andris Biedrins are all hurt and can't play. There is help on the way, though, as the Jazz are in talks to re-sign Jamaal Tinsley. And there's better news on the way for Jazz fans too: Hornacek's relationship with the young players he stayed late after practice with to develop has paid off. Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward both reach agreements with the Utah Jazz. Gordon doesn't have to go through a ‘contract year' situation as a restricted free agent now.
Out in Phoenix things are going well as well. Bledsoe looks good, but he's not really a veteran, so his minutes are limited a bit. But he looks really good. Corbin strongly campaigns against a proposed Caron Butler / Viacheslav Kravtsov + Ishmael Smith trade. He also pleads to keep Michael Beasley around. Giving their new coach the benefit of the doubt the Suns are forced to waive Malcolm Lee and Kendall Marshall. Corbin is a win-now coach, and will prove it.
Opening Day Rosters:
Jeff Hornacek has to start the season off with five players injured. Tyrone Corbin recognizes the greatness still untapped in Green and Butler.
|Phoenix Suns||Utah Jazz|
|1||Goran Dragic||x||x||1||Jamaal Tinsley||x|
|2||Gerald Green||x||x||2||Alec Burks||x||x||x|
|3||Caron Butler||x||3||Gordon Hayward||x||x|
|4||Michael Beasley||x||x||4||Derrick Favors||x||x|
|5||Marcin Gortat||x||5||Enes Kanter||x||x|
|6||Eric Bledsoe||x||x||6||Richard Jefferson||x|
|7||Channing Frye||x||x||7||Rudy Gobert||x|
|8||Shannon Brown||x||8||Ian Clark||x||x|
|9||Marcus Morris||x||x||9||John Lucas III||x||x|
|10||Markieff Morris||x||x||10||Mike Harris||x||x|
|11||Miles Plumlee||x||11||Trey Burke - INJ|
|12||Alex Len||x||12||Marvin Williams - INJ|
|13||Archie Goodwin||x||13||Jeremy Evans -INJ|
|14||Dionte Christmas||x||14||Brandon Rush - INJ|
|15||P.J. Tucker||x||x||15||Andris Biedrins - INJ|
Act I: First impressions
Jeff Hornacek puts guys out there who can help one another and experiments freely. There are usually always at least two starters on the floor as players come in and out. With so many players injured it would be silly to try to use hockey line-shift substitutions or pigeonhole players into certain spots. Newly added guard Diante Garrett helps with the point guard spot in spots; however, the greater idea is to test out the capabilities and mentalities of the players brought on in the summer. Tinsley, Burks, Lucas III, Clark, and even once in the third quarter of one game, Hayward, played the role of lead distributor to mixed results. Clark and Burks play with the ball in their hands looks good at times, but defensively it's a mess. Hayward as a point forward seems to be the role he was born to play.
While the team tries to get healthy the losses are piling up. But some wonderful things are happening too. Rudy Gobert is an effective rim protector and defensive savant in 20 minutes a game. Alec Burks and Richard Jefferson live at the line when cutting against opposing teams' benches. And somehow, we don't know how, but Enes Kanter is shooting 29 3pt% with a shot every two games from out there. It's just barely good enough to be a viral thing on the internet as his childish reactions to makes and misses become a feature on TNT's Inside the NBA.
The team is having fun, taking chances, and start the season off 4-6.
In Phoenix Tyrone Corbin has almost the perfect roster. Dragic is a great point guard with amazing range and finishing ability. The three headed monster of starting Green, Butler, and Beasley means that everyone can really switch a bit on defense and there's small forward depth and quality that he never had in Utah. Gortat isn't an overt offensive force, but he does enough around the basket to make things work. Bledsoe is great off the bench as a 1 or a 2, but needs to get better.
Corbin has them playing a slow game where there's a lot of emphasis put on screening and running a play to perfection. If perfection can't be had then Butler just holds to ball from 20 feet from the basket and tries to Paul Pierce his shots to go in. If that doesn't work then he can try to do it with any of the other four small forwards on the roster. For the most part the slow down, half court game works.
The Suns destroy the Jazz in the second game of the season, but at the end of 10 are at 4-6 as well. It looks like Alex Len and Miles Plumlee are both in the doghouse. Archie Goodwin has yet to play in a game. And Channing Frye isn't allowed to shoot three pointers anymore.
Act II: Adjustments
With better health Hornacek has better parts to play with. Wins happen more frequently, but that doesn't mean the team is perfect. Trey Burke still isn't shooting well, but after a two week stint of poor performances Hornacek starts to work with him personally on his shot. Hayward and Burks join in on these extra sessions and stumble upon some new plays to add to the playbook. Burke's shot isn't fixed, but it's getting there.
Favors fouled out of his last two games, and the team keeps losing close games. The Jazz are competitive but not finishing games well. In the last game, December 9th at home against Portland, Rudy Gobert has to play the last five minutes because of the Favors ejection. He is fouled relentlessly and the Blazers win by 6. Free throw shooting practice becomes mandatory. It's long, and happens after every practice. The only thing that can save them from this is if a player can beat Jeff in a FT shooting contest. Three days into this scheme Gordon and Trey both challenge Jeff. As Burke takes his last shot Hornacek taps him on the elbow and he misses badly. He turns to face his coach and Hornacek just smiles and says "you're out." With all the pressure on Hayward to eliminate the draconian practices he takes a deep breath, and takes the shot . . .
. . . and it hits rim, stays on the rim . . . and rims out.
Everyone has to shoot another 30 free throws before they can go home. But they have to shoot it with Jeff as he gives pointers.
Over in Phoenix all the road games are causing some problems. The schedule has done no favors for this veteran club. Since splitting a home and home with the Jazz Corbin's club has lost six of their last 9 games. The offense looks stagnant and for defenses it is very predictable. There is great floor spacing with all these guys who can hit three pointers, but it's not nearly used as well as it can be without a good bigman inside. The defense looks overmatch as well at times against teams with size.
Dragic is hounded on defense when Bledsoe isn't in the game. To change things up Corbin moves Gerald Green to the bench and starts Shannon Brown in his place. Fans are not pleased.
Over all the Jazz are winning slightly better than before, but are still a bad team. The Suns focus on outworking the other team in the half court, but do not take the best advantage of their players' talents. For example Frye is being used mostly as a top of the key screener for dribble penetration, and not as a spot up shooter.
Phoenix is gritting out some wins, but the games are not very fun to watch. But there is no evidence to convince Corbin to make any big changes. It may be ‘trendy' to try different things, but stability is important. When you know Caron Butler is the best player on your team why should you change the game plan?
Act III: The All-Star Break
In mid-January the Suns took a nose dive because of Caron Butler's injury. The offense had to be changed, but instead Corbin just replaces Butler with Green back into the starting lineup. Bledsoe has been outplaying every single player on the team - fully healthy because of the low minutes - but Corbin just doesn't trust him that much to start. He is now playing 28 minutes per game though, all at shooting guard. That hasn't done much for Goran, his shot is lost with all of the extra defensive pressure he faces in the first quarter now that there's no Butler to game plan for. Len looks worthless in the garbage time minutes he gets, and P.J. Tucker is now the backup point guard. But at least he's playing now.
Phoenix is 11th in the Western Conference, and falling fast at the break.
In Utah the cushy January schedule and all the extra work on actual problems have paid off. Gordon Hayward defeated Jeff Hornacek in free throw shooting (48 to 44) a few weeks back but most of the players still stay after to work on this aspect of their games with coaches. Alec Burks is shooting over 80% from the line, which is huge because he's getting to the line 7 times a game.
Marvin Williams is having a very efficient season off the bench as a compliment to the starters. When he's in the game with Kanter he plays as a stretch big. When he's in the game without a strong post presence he is posted up against small forwards. He's getting a chance to show his versatility to support the starters.
Across the league Gordon Hayward is regarded as a Western Conference snub after averaging 18/6/6/1/1, but he takes the time off to be constructive. The Jazz are represented well at the All-Star Weekend by Trey Burke (Rookie Game, Skills Challenge) and Rudy Gobert (Rookie Game). Gobert is also asked to be a prop in the Dunk Contest. Enes Kanter, who is reveling in his re-discovered greater NBA presence, laughs it up courtside. Oh yeah, he had a great All-Star weekend too down in New Orleans.
Utah is 13th in the Western Conference, but looking better each day.
Act IV: The Trade Deadline
The Win-now Suns need an inside presence badly, and despite not giving a chance to Len or Plumlee, Corbin has gone so far as to try starting the Morris twins and Frye at the 3, 4, 5 spots. Gortat is being shopped around heavily and there are no takers. He's averaging a double double but seems mentally checked out of the games he is in. Gerald Green's agent talked to Corbin, and now he's starting again at shooting guard. The team is still a good draw, but fans seem very worried by the reluctance of the coaching staff to deviated from inefficient and easy to defend game plans. Phoenix looks like the lesser than the sum of their parts.
Bledsoe is enough to keep their head slightly above water and the playoffs are still not out of the question. But it will take some help.
Corbin is pressured into accepting giving away some small forwards for a back to the basket big. Amir Johnson is now a member of the Phoenix Suns. The fans do not go wild.
Utah stands pat at the deadline, but come to terms on a buyout with Brandon Rush who was not being used. The space on the roster is used to snatch up Kyrylo Fesenko, if for no other reason than the fact that I'm writing this post. It remains to be seen if the Jazz will pick him up for another 10 day contract.
The teams' internal structures are very different. The Jazz players are frequently seen smiling, laughing, and the coaches seem happy but focused. With the Suns this is not the case. There isn't enough of the ball to go around to feed all these small forwards when you play at a slow pace. The reduction of stretch bigs to being screen setters while small forwards play the role of stretch big seems like mismanagement. Bledsoe finally started a game at point guard after Dragic was sick from ‘gastric distress' the night the deadline passed.
Corbin's offense isn't working anymore, the team is losing more, and veterans can't get it done every night. Worst of all, he's not playing any young guys so he can't blame the losses on them. And he just suspended Amir Johnson for spending the first 20 minutes of shoot around on just corner three pointers.
Act V: The future
The Suns hold a players only meeting after a 5 game losing streak, which galvanizes the team in their course of action. They have to de-Corb the game plan. For the sake of the team. Phoenix immediately starts winning games, which coincides with the return of Caron Butler. They remain in striking distance of the Western Conference playoffs with a month to play. The other way to put it out there is to say that they are most likely on their way to a #12 or worse pick in the NBA Draft.
The Jazz aren't a threat for the playoffs, but they put a lot of eggs in the development basket. Hornacek wants to win, but knows enough math to figure out that winning 50 games in your first year can be evened out by winning 45 and 50 and 50 in the next three. It's more wins than winning 35 every year for four years. Trey Burke, not playing just 30 minutes a game, is having a Rookie of the Year season. The Jazz, at a fast pace playing a game that works with their strengths, are filling out their home arena more and more as the season goes on. With a month to go the Jazz have gotten some good wins, and sold out (like really) four straight home games. The won last night against the Atlanta Hawks in over time on an Enes Kanter two hander with 0.4 seconds on the shot clock. Hayward inbounded the ball to Alec Burks, and Gordon then ran through two screens to the opposite side of the floor. Alec dribble handed off the ball to Trey Burke who took off in the opposing direction. Alec then set a backpick on Kanter's man. Burke got the ball crisply to Hayward. Gordon ran pick and roll with Derrick Favors (who had scored 3 straight buckets in OT off the pick and roll), and the defenders stayed on Favors. Gordon goes for the one handed / one legged floater (something he stole from Jeff Hornacek), but it rims out. Favors gets the offensive rebound, is triple teamed, and gets it to the cutting Kanter. Game.
Asked about the play call after the game Hornacek explains "Yes, of course that went perfectly as planned. We did get a little lucky, sure. But passing the ball around three or so times when the ball is in play on a last shot does prod the defense a bit. It keeps people involved more than just isolating after the inbounds and hoping for a three pointers to go in."
Nice Story, but it's meaningless.
Yes, it's all about as meaningless as fan fiction can be. The Jazz don't have Hornacek. The Suns do. They have a hard working coach who is actually winning now. We have a hard working coach who isn't winning now. Perhaps the difference is that Hornacek is working smartly and Corbin isn't? I wish I knew. Jeff is maximizing what he can from the Suns right now and they are holding onto a playoff spot. The Jazz, with a vastly better roster, aren't even in the discussion. This fantasy isn't accurate, but it's hilarious to imagine a Suns team where Channing Frye wasn't allowed to shoot threes, or one where Bledsoe (un-injured because of health) can't even get off the bench.
Corbin is a great guy. He spent some of his off-season promoting the NBA brand and doing charity work in South Africa. Corbin may be one of the best assistant coaches in the NBA. Right now we're seeing that Jeff Hornacek, a rookie head coach, is out coaching him. He's getting more from his players. He's putting them in situations to succeed. He's dealing with mid-season trades, and injuries to two potential starters (Bledsoe and Emeka Okafor), and doing a great job. He's taking the punches and being great with the media and giving good answers to tough questions - on and off the court.
Hornacek is who we wanted. Instead we have Tyrone Corbin, in a no win situation, who is acting increasingly stand-offish as a product of what's happening this year. He's a good guy. So is Jeff. Right now only one of them looks like a good Head Coach.