It has been an eventful last couple of days for Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough.
Following the Suns’ 91-78 loss to the Dallas Mavericks Sunday, the team announced it had relieved head coach Jeff Hornacek of his duties, and then Monday evening it was announced Earl Watson would be promoted the role of interim head coach.
Tuesday morning, McDonough took some time to talk to Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Doug and Wolf about what led up to the Hornacek firing and the direction of the Suns, who currently have a record of 14-35.
Why is Jeff Hornacek no longer coaching the Phoenix Suns?
“Well guys it was a very difficult decision for us. Jeff did a tremendous job for us over two plus years. We got off to a great start winning 48 games that first season. Unfortunately it’s a tough business. The team hasn’t been responding as well lately. We are struggling in terms of wins and losses and we have had a lot of injuries. Beyond that the team wasn’t responding to Jeff they way we hoped they would. We weren’t as competitive as we hoped they would be and that’s why we decided to make a change.”
Did something un-anticipated happen that forced you to fire Jeff? Was there something personal? Was there a confrontation?
“No. Jeff is a tremendous person and I think that’s what makes it so hard. We were willing to give him every opportunity to be successful, keeping in mind that we won 48 games the first year and we were the most improved team in the league. We have had a tough go of it lately with the injures and playing guys that haven’t had a lot of experience, to haven’t played a lot of minutes in the NBA. We felt it was time to make a change. It’s something that we deliberated about for a while and really struggled with and decided to do it the other night after the Dallas game. But Jeff is a tremendous human being, he’s a great guy, he did well here and I think he will do well again in the future. I think he will be a head coach in the NBA again someday, at least I hope he will and there was nothing personal. He always carried himself with dignity and respect and always worked as hard as he possibly could for this organization to be successful.”
What did you expect was going to happen after letting go two of the chief assistants for Jeff Hornacek? Were you surprised it didn’t go any better?
“It’s a fair question and I think if you look at what happened after we made the changes, there was a short term bump. We were undermanned without Eric Bledsoe and we played some of the elite teams in the league in Cleveland at home and at Oklahoma City that very next week.
Obviously a lot of this is on me. I take responsibility for the state of the team right now and the roster. I need to do a better job. I know that. My staff and I know that. We know we are on the the clock and we need to step it up and improve our talent level.
Now getting back to your original question, the team competed that week after we made those changes through the assistants. We thought giving some of the guys behind the bench who are assistant coaches more of a voice on the bench would help spur some change and bring some new energy. I think in the short term it did. We had a couple of tough losses, a couple of close losses that week against Cleveland and Oklahoma City and I feel like our group is lacking a little confidence right now, like they lost their spirit a little bit and that’s why we decided to make a change and bring in Earl Watson as the interim head coach.”
Did you think that by firing his assistants that Jeff would resign on the spot?
“Did I think there was a chance? Yes. Did I think it would happen? No. I didn’t think it would happen and it didn’t happen. It was a bit unusual. I understand that. Other NBA teams have requested a head coach to make changes with his staff. Usually that happens in the summer time, but we were searching for answers and we still are. That’s what happens when the team doesn’t perform up to the level of our expectations in the preseason. As I have mentioned, it was difficult to let go of the assistants. It was difficult to let go of Jeff. We’re all realistic of where we are. As I mentioned, my staff and I need to do a better job. We need to bring more talant. I think we are capable of it, but we need to get this thing turned in the right direction.”
Do you feel like you have the trust and the support of the organization?
“I do. I do. Robert’s been very good to me, giving me an opportunity to be a general manager in the NBA at 33 years old. He’s been supportive throughout this process. Obviously he’s frustrated as we are all are with the way the season has gone or with the way it has turned. I thought we got off to a decent start when we were 7-5 three weeks into the season. Unfortunately since then, I think we’re 7-30. None of us could’ve have foreseen this. I think we have had a lot of bad luck due to the injuries, especially to our better players in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. But it’s our job to coach the players that we have to the best of our ability and to fill out the roster with as much talent as possible. Obviously we have fallen short in a few of those areas.”
How long does it take to rebuild a NBA franchise?
“That’s a good question. I have only been here for about two and a half years. We won 87 games the first two years. It’s a process though. It’s a process and we have tried to do two things at the same time in drafting and developing young players and also fielding a competitive team that is capable of winning and making the playoffs. I think the past two years we have done that pretty well, obviously this year we have fallen short. I hope the silver lining with all of this is our younger players get a chance to play and develop and improve. We have been really happy with what we have seen from our younger guys like Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren and Alex Len. Those guys are all 22 years old and under so we think they have bright futures. At the same time it’s tough to win when you are playing college-aged players in the NBA and you’re missing some of your better players in Bledsoe and Knight.
We understand all of that. But let’s put it this way: The best team in the NBA is the Golden State Warriors and they have tremendous fans as we do here in Phoenix. Those fans suffered for a long time, a lot of playoff droughts, a lot of frustrating years. And Golden State; by virtue of drafting and developing very well, it took a while but they have put together a tremendous team that is not only playing well now, but is capable of sustaining that for a number of years. So hopefully the silver lining in all of this is we get another draft pick this year in the Top 5 or Top 10 which looks like we may. If we do well in that and as I mentioned, my staff and I are working as hard as we possibly can at that, then ultimately we can have the foundation and the core of a team that can be successful for a five-10-15 year period. That’s what we are going to try and do.”
Why was Earl Watson the right guy for the job?
“Earl Watson has a tremendous amount of basketball experience. He does not have a lot of coaching experience, but I think he was in the league for 13 years. He has played and studied underneath a number of legendary coaches going back to John Wooden when he was at UCLA. He would go and speak with coach Wooden and talk about basketball and life and coaching philosophies. Then he played for Hubie Brown in Memphis and I know Hubie made a big impact on Earl and shaped his coaching visions. I know he uses a lot of Hubie’s teachings today. So he’s a guy who has played for a number of teams and coaches. He probably wasn’t the most skilled guy or the most talented guy when he played, but he maximized what he had. That’s why he’s stuck around for a long time. I think he’s one of those guys when he was playing that you realized that he was a little bit different that he was a little bit special and that he had the ability to connect with people and we are going to give him a chance to see what he can do.”
As you look back at the beginning of the season, did it make the job of Jeff Hornacek difficult or did it undermined his authority to keep Markief Morris on the roster? Do you wish you would’ve made that move in the offeseason and sent Markief somewhere else after a lot of his Twitter and social media comments?
“I don’t want to talk about specific players on the roster in that matter. But what I will say is these decisions, these decisions to trade for players — either coming and going, to sign players as free agents, to draft players. Those are organizational decisions. They are not made by just me or just by one person. The way I do my job as a general manager is to get input from my staff or front office staff from ownership and from the coaching staff especially the head coach and strongly weigh those opinions.
We made an organizational decision this year to go forward with Markief Morris on the roster. It obviously hasn’t worked out the way we hoped it would. We are still optimistic that he can turn it around and start playing to the level that he’s able to play in the last few years. But it wasn’t something that we just made the decision and the coaching staff fought it. That was not the case of the situation.”
You wanted Markief Morris back for this year? You thought that there was something salvageable for Markief Morris this year?
“We hoped there would be. We hoped that he would play up to the level that he was capable of playing in the past couple of years. He would be professional and he would be one of the better low post scorers in the league and one of the better posts of the league. Obviously it hasn’t gone great so far but we are optimistic that there is still a lot of games left in the season and he will get it turned around.”
Do you feel like you are in a bunker right now with all the losing?
“I try and not go into a bunker. I think it’s easy to disappear and hide when things aren’t going well and step forward and take credit when things are going well. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I was raised. Obviously we haven’t done well lately and as I mentioned I take full responsibility and accountability for that. This is a tough business. The fans are passionate and that passion cuts both ways. Obviously it’s great when you’re winning and when you’re struggling you feel some of the brunt of that but that’s what we all signed up for in pro sports, whether you are a coach, an executive or a player. A lot of attention comes with that. There are a lot of accolades and we are all well paid to do a job, but at the same time criticism is a part of that job and is one with the territory when things aren’t going well.
If the organization is going to find its way out of that bunker, what is going to have to happen? What do you have to do?
“We need to continue to develop the players that are on our roster. The young players in particular. I mentioned those four 22 and under players, Booker, Len, Warren and Goodwin. Those guys are very talented young guys. At the same time they are college-aged players who need to grow and develop, gain experience and learn from those experiences and that comes with failure. I mentioned Golden State earlier. If you look at Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant’s first couple of years, they won 20 and 23 games. It’s a growing process that comes with playing young players. You are going to compete but sometimes you are going to stub your toe and fail and not execute late in the game. But by virtue of having been in the arena and by having gone through those experiences, I think that builds character. If Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin or Alex Len is attempting a game-winning shot, make or miss, that’s a great experience for those guys. So what we are going to try and do is put them in a position to be successful and watch them grow and embrace the process because those are talented young guys with high character and a tremendous work ethic.
I think over the course of the next few years, the fans and you guys will be excited to watch them grow and develop and we will check back in a few years to see how that is progressing.”
When you say, “I take full responsibility,” what do those two words mean to you?
“It means that the team that is currently constructed isn’t good enough. We did start 7-5 this year. We struggled a little bit and then we stabilized ourselves and we got to 12-16 and then we had three or four winnable games coming up. Unfortunately we lost all four of those games around Christmas time and that’s when the season began to deteriorate. But in terms of full responsibility, as I mentioned, I need to do a better job. My staff and I need to do a better job in bringing in players to upgrade our talent level who play together and play the right way. Again I take responsibility for it. We need to empower our coaches starting with Earl Watson today to be able to coach these guys the way they see fit. I’m confident that Earl will be able to do that — a new voice — a new direction. The players have told us they are looking for more structure, more accountability and more discipline so that’s what we are going to give them.”
Have you received any guarantee that you will have the opportunity to re-build this and to fix this situation?
“I haven’t received that and nor have I asked for that. The way I view my job is I show up everyday and try to do it to the best of my abilities and if at some point it’s time to make a change, then I thank everyone for the opportunity and move on. I haven’t received any guarantees nor have I asked for any of them nor am I looking for them.”
Is Earl the interim and are you going to continue to search throughout the season or are you going to wait for the offseason, or is this guy your guy and the search is done?
“Earl is the interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns. We are going to have a coaching search. Honestly we are in the very early stages of figuring how that process is going to go. Earl will be a candidate in that process, but it’s too early for us to speculate on if he is a front runner or how significant he is in that mix. I don’t know. We will see how he does over the next 33 games. We hope he does great and I value stability and continuity. I come from an organization that already had that with the Boston Celtics with Danny Ainge and Doc. Rivers. Unfortunately we had to make a change here, but we are looking for that. We are looking for that going forward and we are going to try and figure out over the next few months who the next coaches for the Suns are going to be and Earl is a candidate for that position.”
Robert Sarver does not have a great reputation, other people label him as a meddler. If a head coach comes in and says, “I want Robert Sarver at bay,” or has an opinion about Robert Sarver, what are you going to tell them?
“I’m going to tell them that Robert gave me a tremendous opportunity. I think the narrative of Robert does not match up with the record. If you look at his track record, I think he’s in the Top 5 or Top 10 of winningest owners since he’s been in the NBA. As far as finances, I believe he’s paid the luxury tax three times which a lot of teams haven’t been willing to do.
When a team struggles like the Suns have struggled lately, we’re all targets. Robert is a target as am I as is the head coach. That’s just the way it is.
I feel badly for Robert, I feel badly that when we came in, we got off to a great start and we felt like we would be able to turn it around quickly and keep building toward that championship level. Unfortunately it’s not always a straight line and we have taken a step back. I appreciate the opportunity that Robert has given me and I have appreciated working for him over the past two and a half years.”
Have you reached out to Mike D’Antoni?
“No. As I mentioned we haven’t started that process of contacting coaches and setting up interviews or anything like that. Our priorities over the last 24 to 48 hours have been obviously meeting with Jeff, letting him know that we are going to be making a change and then interviewing the assistant coaches. Yesterday we interviewed the three bench assistants, Corey Gaines, Nate Bjorkgren and Earl Watson. All of them did very well in the interviews and it was a tough decision for us but we went with Earl.
But over the next few days and weeks when things start to quiet down and we make sure that Earl and his staff is up and running, then we will sit down and formulate a list and a game plan for the coaching interview process and how the search will go.”
Do you want the famous tag, “players coach,” do you want defensive disciplinarian? What are you looking for in the next head coach?
“That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s about a style of a play as it is much about installing a culture. Again I think we have fallen short as an organization. That we have been a little too lose lately. We have been a little too unstructured and undisciplined. So we need to create a culture where we are developing our young players. Where guys come in and play hard and play the right way and are learning good habits. Whether that’s a coach that is good offensive minded guy, or a defensive minded guy. That’s not really important to me. I think the elite coaches are good at both. The great coaches that I have been around and worked with have been great offensive and defensive. They might have a reputation as a specialist on one side of the ball, but I think all of the elite coaches do all of it. We are going to start that process soon. I think we will have more clarity over the next few months by the end of the regular season and we will evaluate our own and see how he does and hope he does extremely well.”
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