NBA PM: Lindsey Hunter’s New-Look Suns
Lindsey Hunter’s coaching style is best described as intense, physical and in-your-face, which isn’t a huge surprise to anyone who watched Hunter during his 17-year NBA career. Hunter, who took over as the Phoenix Suns’ interim head coach in late January, approaches his new job with the same mentality that he approached every game during his playing days, and his goals aren’t too different either.
Hunter wants his players to mercilessly harass ball handlers. He wants them to develop a reputation as one of the most physical teams in the NBA. He wants an active and swarming defense from the opening tip until the final buzzer. If the Suns aren’t doing these things, Hunter has shown that he’s not afraid to get in faces and call people out. Hunter is aggressive, and expects his players to be the same way.
The 42-year-old is a firm believer that defense wins championships, and he has two rings – from the 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers and 2004-05 Detroit Pistons – to support his argument. The Suns aren’t exactly known for their defense, but Hunter wants to change that.
“The biggest thing that I stress a lot is impacting the ball,” Hunter said. “That’s like a pet peeve of mine; I hate to see the ball handler not being harassed. I hate to see guys pick their dribble up and nobody is pressuring them so they just make passes. Those are some things that take some getting used to, it’s tough to do because it takes a lot of energy, but that’s something that I dwell upon and harp upon. Hopefully our guys will continue to get it.”
The Suns are adjusting to Hunter and trying to implement his system, but it hasn’t been easy. Trying to change a team’s philosophy and style of play in the middle of the season is extremely difficult, as Hunter has learned. It’s much easier to teach these lessons and make sure players are adequately conditioned during training camp rather than during the final stretch, but Hunter is doing his best.
“You always think about that,” Hunter said. “You always want more practice time. You always want more hours. That’s just part of it. It is what it is. I’ve got to work as hard as I can to get us as close to where we need to be.
“It’s tough, but to be really good I think you have to be able to do those things. There’s no easy way to get there. You just have to go through the hard part of learning, and we may lose some games because of it, but I think in the long run we’ll be better for it.”
The Suns are 8-11 since Hunter took over as head coach, and the team has played very well in spurts. With Hunter at the helm, they have beaten the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve also had a number of games come down to the wire. Even though the Suns have had some success with Hunter, the head coach believes the real results will come next season, once he’s had a summer and training camp with the team. Some of the problems that Hunter has run into as he implements his system wouldn’t be occurring if the Suns team had been prepared and conditioned to run this style of play from the beginning of the season.
During a recent game, Hunter barked at Suns point guard Goran Dragic to continue pressuring the opposing ball handler, but Dragic was exhausted. “Coach, I get tired,” Dragic said. Hunter nodded his head and replied, “Yeah!” as if to say that means he’s doing something right.
“It’s different,” Hunter said of his defense. “It puts different demands on your body. But when you’re conditioned to do it and you know that’s how we’re going to play, I think it’ll be second nature.”
Hunter has already won over the veteran players in Phoenix, which is sometimes half of the battle for a young head coach whose playing career just concluded. Take Suns power forward Jermaine O’Neal, for example. O’Neal is just eight years younger than Hunter, but has nothing but praise for the head coach.
“I think he’s going to be a really good coach in this league,” O’Neal said of Hunter. “He isn’t afraid to get in a guy’s face. That’s his mentality. That’s what makes teams really good. That’s what makes young teams better, because it holds you accountable and you learn from your mistakes. But at the same time, he pats you on the back too, when needed. I think there has been a lot of focus on ‘no experience,’ but his experience is that he played 17 years. Basketball doesn’t change. The X’s and O’s don’t change. The mentality and intensity that he brings are going to have this team moving in the right direction.
“We’ve gone all the way back to drills that I haven’t seen since high school, literally. He’s gone back to the bare basics of basketball and that’s what this team needs, with our youth and our experience.”
Prior to becoming interim head coach, Hunter was an assistant on Gentry’s staff. Because Hunter has been in Phoenix for the entire season and worked closely with the players, the team understands what the coach wants from them.
“He was with us for the whole season so everybody has that knowledge of what he expects,” Suns small forward Wes Johnson said. “We’ve been seeing him all season so him sliding over to be the head coach, it hasn’t been any different. The only [difference] is he has the label of head coach now. Other than that, it’s been the same. He’s the head coach, but he still talks with people the same way, jokes with people the same way. It’s just now he has the head coach label. That’s about it.”
“He has grown a lot,” O’Neal added with a laugh. “In the beginning, I remember the first game, where he couldn’t even really draw the X’s and O’s on the board. Now, he’s in there drawing it up and putting guys here and there. To me, there’s no better way to learn than in the fire. He has done a great job implementing his style. He’s very aggressive with everybody on their attention span and their approach. If you don’t bring it, he’s going to let you know about it. That’s what this team needs. This team is very young and they need that aggressive nature to put them in the right direction.”
Dragic can confirm O’Neal’s assessment. Because Hunter is a former point guard and his system relies on pressuring the ball defensively and moving the ball offensively, he expects a lot out of Dragic. While Hunter has been hard on the 26-year-old floor general, Dragic has welcomed the constructive criticism.
“It’s a little bit different,” Dragic said. “We run more and Coach Hunter is emphasizing defense, which is totally opposite. It was fun playing for Alvin and it’s fun now playing for Lindsey. I like him because he makes everybody engaged,” Dragic said. “If you don’t do the job right, he’s going to get into you. He’ll tell you straight to your face. I think that helps everyone, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the starting five or coming off of the bench. Everybody has to do the same things. If he’s yelling at me, it’s only because he wants to help me. He has a lot of experience. He has two championship rings. I can only learn from him.”
Hunter is enjoying his transition to the head coach’s seat and he’s hoping to have his interim label removed this offseason. When the Suns promoted him, they did so because they viewed him as a long-term answer so it would be surprising if they didn’t bring him back next year. However, if the Suns don’t retain Hunter, he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job elsewhere. He was nearly hired to become the head coach of the Orlando Magic last summer, but the team ultimately went with another young, former point guard in Jacque Vaughn because he had more experience as an assistant coach.
Now, Hunter is proving that he’s capable of coaching a team and implementing a system that can once again make Phoenix a scary team. Hunter’s situation is similar to that of Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel a few years ago. Vogel was one of the youngest coaches in the league when he became the interim coach of the Pacers, but he implemented a physical, defensive style that he called “smash-mouth basketball,” which allowed him to become the full-time coach and propelled Indiana from an up-and-coming team to a contender. Hunter wants the same intensity and physicality from his players, and he’s having fun as he pulls the strings.
“I think [with] anything you do that you’ve never done before, you face challenges, but for me it’s been a welcome challenge,” Hunter said. “It’s been a learning experience every day. It’s been fun for me. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but coaching or being involved with basketball. When you get a situation like that, you try to embrace it, you attack it every day and you try to learn. That’s how my approach has been.”
That approach is the reason Hunter’s playing career lasted for nearly two decades and why his coaching career should be just as lengthy and full of success.
Jefferson Prepared to Test Free Agency
Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and he’ll weigh his options this summer. He’s going to consider all of the potential destinations available to him this offseason and make a decision based on what’s best for him.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” Jefferson told RealGM.com. “I know both sides, me and Utah, are going to do what’s best. Utah is going to do what’s best for the team and I’m going to do what’s best for my family.”
With that said, the 28-year-old has enjoyed his time in Utah. He improved significantly and experienced success with the Jazz, proving that he can be a focal point of a winning team.
“In Minnesota three years there, [we] lost and had three very bad losing seasons, and then I came to Utah,” Jefferson said. “And just how the [Jazz] do things as far as on and off the court, how they teach their players not only to be a great basketball player but to be a great man in life off the court, I just think at that point in time, that’s what I needed – for me to mature as a person and as a player. [Karl Malone and John Stockton] let you know that the Jazz were a winning team and they always have been and always want to be. … To be a part of last year’s [playoffs] and be one of the leaders on the team, it was a hell of an accomplishment.”
While the Jazz appreciate everything that Jefferson has done for the franchise, they have two lottery picks that are ready for increased roles in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Utah may decide not to offer Jefferson the lucrative, long-term deal that he’ll be seeking since they have up-and-coming big men on the roster. However, the fact that they didn’t trade Jefferson at the deadline may suggest that they aren’t ready to part ways with him just yet. Jefferson’s name surfaced at the deadline, but that didn’t bother the veteran.
“I know how to handle it, because nine out of 10 [times], nothing ever happens,” Jefferson said of trade rumors. “And once again, nothing happened this year either. I never think about it, never let it get to me and never listen to the media at all because of that reason.”
For now, Jefferson is only focused on winning games during Utah’s final stretch. The Jazz are currently 32-28 and hold the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Jefferson has been on enough lottery-bound teams and hopes to return to the postseason for the second year in a row.
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