SALT LAKE CITY — Judging by the reaction to my column last month, that said Tyrone Corbin deserves another year, I might as well have been endorsing Edward John Smith.
Smith was the captain of the Titanic who failed his original navigation test, years before the famous 1912 shipwreck. Likewise, a lot of NBA teams could use some navigation help. There could be as many as 10 new coaches next season.
Although Corbin’s name hasn’t arisen in connection with any of those vacancies, here’s one that has: Jeff Hornacek. The Jazz assistant has reportedly been scheduled for interviews with Charlotte, Phoenix and Philadelphia, with more to come.
Whether Hornacek gets any of the jobs remains to be seen, but Arizona Republic columnist Bob Young wrote this: “Hey Ryan McDonough, congratulations on your new gig as Suns general manager. Here’s what I suggest for your first move. Hire Jeff Hornacek as the club’s new coach before somebody, such as the 76ers or Bobcats, beat you to him.”
Is this the same unassuming Hornacek that can be seen lobbing lead passes to Gordon Hayward during practice? The guy whose job is to keep the head coach from getting technical fouls? The very same.
But he’s not going to be under the radar much longer.
As Lady Gaga once said, “I’ve always been famous, it’s just no one knew it yet.”
Hornacek’s name is everywhere lately, and in some ways it’s not a surprise. He was a wonderful player, and has been able to translate that skill into coaching. Remember, this guy actually improved Andrei Kirilenko’s 3-point shooting. He is a calming influence to players in close games.
Now he is getting close to having his own team. It’s bound to eventually happen. Yet he still has little overall experience. Curiously, teams such as Milwaukee, Charlotte and Philadelphia have shown interest in Jerry Sloan, who was a head coach for 26 years and is in the Hall of Fame, but at the same time those teams also considered Hornacek.
That’s not to say Hornacek won’t become a fine head coach. But if hired, he’ll be on an even steeper learning curve than Corbin. And he’s likely to have the same problems. Corbin was an assistant under Jerry Sloan for seven years before getting the top spot; Hornacek has been a full-time assistant for less than three full seasons.
As early as 2004, Chicago and Phoenix interviewed Hornacek and even the Boston Celtics considered hiring him, despite having zero coaching experience. Boston’s interest made sense, considering president Danny Ainge was hired to coach the Suns in 1996, after being an assistant for just eight games.
Magic Johnson was hired without coaching experience, but only lasted 16 games before quitting in disgust. Larry Bird was hired without experience and won 147 games in three seasons in Indiana. Mark Jackson was hired without experience to coach the Golden State Warriors, but was just 23-43 in his first season, following the lockout. This year he led his team to the Western Conference semifinals.
Occasionally experience doesn’t matter, but more often it does.
Truth is that Corbin hasn’t been perfect, but he hasn’t been terrible, considering his personnel. There wasn’t an All-Star on the team this year.
If Hornacek is hired as a head coach, he’ll go through the same things. He’ll waffle with substitutions and misuse a few timeouts. He’ll butt heads with players, the way Corbin did with Raja Bell. He’ll sometimes have legendary coaches like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Denver’s George Karl make him look bad.
This isn’t a condemnation, just a reminder that Hornacek will have his growing period, same as Corbin. Some have suggested Hornacek become the Jazz’s coach instead of Corbin, or have the Jazz swap Corbin for Sloan. Yet Sloan was fired by Chicago halfway through his third season as a head coach, with a 94-121 record (.438). Corbin is 87-89 (.494) at roughly the same place in his career.
Moral to the story: You never know when a “failure” will end up in the Hall of Fame.
Hornacek has a bright future; one day he’ll be a winning head coach.
The same could be said for Corbin, who has two winning seasons in his three years. The only non-winning year was in 2011 when he took over midstream.
He too could be a fine coach just waiting to break out.
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