Suns Hope Chemistry Remains Through Changes
There were times this season when the Suns showed the kind of breakthroughs that are the ultimate rewards for coaches.
The extra pass to the open man. The instinctual cut to an open space off the ball, immediately recognized by the teammate with the ball.
In short, that level of play when it seems all five players on the court are thinking as one.
“When you’re together for a long time, it’s kind of a sixth sense of ‘you know where everybody is,’” Hornacek said. “Just the flow of everything.”
The Suns’ head coach appreciates that team-wide consciousness better than most. He experienced it first in Phoenix, where he was part of two conference finals appearances that included overcoming the ultimate “sixth sense” team in the Magic Johnson-led Lakers.
Later in his career, Hornacek was the third-leading scorer for the unflappable Jazz teams that made back-to-back NBA Finals.
Now fresh off his first season as a head coach, Hornacek’s main goal is to establish the same consistency and teammate awareness for his relatively young team.
“As a coach, it’s hard to coach that,” he said. “We can do stuff in practices. I probably learned that you need to do more of it. The hard part is always finding the balance between wearing guys out in practice and being able to play 82 games.”
Variables also come into play. Roster turnover is inevitable. As many as seven players from this season’s active roster could be free agents this summer. Phoenix also holds at least three first-round draft picks and upwards of $20 million in cap space this summer.
None of that takes into account the fact that next season would be different even if the same roster was brought back unchanged and intact.
“Circumstances change. Contracts change. Players want to demonstrate that they’ve improved,” explained President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby. “I always say it’s like another school year. You come back. You’re friends are a little different. It’s not the same every year. I think we’re not going to delude ourselves into thinking that when we come back in October, we’re picking up exactly where we left off [April 17].”
That doesn’t mean management will discard the Suns’ unique chemistry when offseason decisions need to be made. General Manager Ryan McDonough is widely considered an “analytics guy”, a label he refutes simply because it overshadows his primary experience as “a sports guy.”
More often than not, McDonough has a tablet with hundreds of scouting reports and notes available at a moment’s notice. In his head, however, is the more intangible awareness of basketball in general and the team he’s running.
“There’s no perfect formula for chemistry,” he said. “You’re never sure exactly how it’s going to go...I felt like in a lot of ways our locker room was more like a high school team. Our guys only cared about winning.”
The reality is what one party wants to do is often dependent on someone else, particularly in an NBA offseason.
Channing Frye has the option to decline his player option for next season and enter free agency. Yet rather than make it an awkward case of “I want, they want,” the veteran big man recognized the rights of both sides – and captured the delicate balance of the offseason in the process.
“It’s a business, so you have to allow them to make an assessment of what they want,” he said. “I have to figure out what I want and what’s going to work for both of us.”
There’s no mistaking that the Suns’ chemistry worked out for everyone in 2013-14. There’s also no doubt everyone would like to see its sequel in 2014-15.
“That’s what I think makes us lean toward bringing the majority of guys back next year and trying to add to that group,” McDonough said.