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Phoenix Suns guard Ish Smith, center, drives to the basket between Sacramento Kings' Ray McCallum, left, and Travis Outlaw during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- His players believed he deserved the honor and said as much as they cleaned out their lockers late last week.

"To me, I think he's Coach of the Year, by far. It's not even close," Gerald Green said.

"Not being biased but I think he should be Coach of the Year easily," Ish Smith said.

Jeff Hornacek, however, did not win NBA Coach of the Year. He placed second behind San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who won for the third time in his career.

Hornacek's career on the sideline is just getting started.

And while yes, much was accomplished in his 48-34 rookie season -- the Suns' 23-win improvement over last year was the largest turnaround in the league -- Hornacek pointed beyond the win-loss totals as to what stood out the most to him.

"We got it back to Phoenix Suns basketball and what it's really like," he said during the team's season-ending media availability on March 18. "The exciting brand of basketball. The guys that are going to go out there and play hard. We know that the fans want to watch guys that lay it out there every night. If you do that, you have great support of the community and I think we accomplished that through the way these guys played this year. They laid it out there every single game."

For the players, a collection of 10 new faces from a year ago, it was easy to bring it each and every night, especially for a coach who had their backs -- good or bad -- and gave them every opportunity to enjoy on-court success, where others perhaps had not.

"He's just got a great feel, a great balance of when to get on us, when to back up, when to let us play, when to kind of tighten up and run some offense…and he's a players' coach," Smith said.

Added Goran Dragic of Hornacek, "He understands the game because he played that game and that makes it even easier for us because he understands us. He's not only a coach for us; he's a friend, too. He talks with us a lot. He communicates with us. He's making jokes; and that's what brings players and coaches closer and then you would do anything for the coaches."

The Suns just missed the playoffs, finishing one game back of 8th place Dallas in the Western Conference. That, according to Hornacek, who spent his first six seasons in the NBA with the Suns after they drafted him 46th overall in 1986, should serve both him and his players as motivation heading into the offseason.

"They had their sights set high," he said. "And it's great to have players like that from day one who, they're zeroed in on their goal. It's disappointing, but guys really do have to look back in the beginning of what was predicted and say that they had a great season. And the disappointment from not making it will only, I think, drive them for next year."

"Hopefully we can look in a couple of years and say, ‘you know what, that started this run to this championship.' That's the ultimate goal for all of us and you got to start somewhere."

Craig Grialou, Reporter

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