Last week, I re-watched the 1998 Finals between Utah and Michael Jordan’s Bulls for what was the first complete time since my childhood, and “live-blogged” the retro experience, if you will. It was a fun exercise, both as a flashback to my youth and as an educational experience highlighting the many contrasts between the way the game was played just under two decades ago and today. I had such a good time, in fact, that we’ll jump in my trusty 90’s time machine for another trip down memory lane.
If those ’98 Finals were my first tangible basketball memory, Jeff Hornacek was undoubtedly my very first favorite player. Certainly the marksmanship was likely what drew my eye initially – before I knew the significance of shooting percentages or efficiency, Hornacek was just “that guy who never misses.” The half-trendy, half-hipster nine-year-old Ben found an enjoyable niche with him, preferring to (attempt to) emulate his sharp-shooting profile while other kids in recess pickup games predictably picked Stockton or Malone1. He was crowd-friendly, endearing, and came across to the public just as he would to NBA front-offices years later: relatable and smart beyond his years. And just like that Finals team, taking a look back through my current analytical lens brought whole other areas of enjoyment while refreshing what drew me to Jeff in the first place.
While true Jazz fans know he was much more than just a marksman (more here later), the sharp-shooting was his calling card and deservedly gets first mention in any player profile. Hornacek is among the elite in NBA history as a raw shooter, a retro Steph Curry in the way you simply expected every shot leaving his hands to swish through the hoop. He was known for his talent of making ridiculous shots look pedestrian:
He had seven different seasons where he shot above 40 percent from 3-point range on at least 90 attempts, one of just 15 players to accomplish such a feat at least that many times, a list that includes most of the greatest shooters of all time2. His patented free-throw routine must have been working, too – excepting his rookie year, Hornacek never posted a figure under 82 percent from the stripe and had nine separate seasons over 87 percent, including a 171-180 (95.0 percent) showing in his farewell year of 1999-00 that ranks as the fifth-highest of all time for guys with 125 or more attempts.
But while his skill as a shooter set the foundation for his success, it was the details around the margins that propelled him from bit player to a vital cog on a Finals roster. Hornacek’s feel, court awareness and basketball IQ were as elite as his marksmanship. Many forget that he played point guard for the entirety of his collegiate career at Iowa State, and even had a brief NBA stint at the point when traded to Philadelphia in 1992. Flashy dimes like these were more common than some might remember:
Hornacek averaged over four assists a game in all but one of his Jazz seasons, no small feat given the all-time assist leader playing next to him every night. Much was made of some comments from then-Warriors-coach Mark Jackson last season about employing the greatest shooting backcourt of all time in Curry and Klay Thompson – not only could Stockton and Hornacek make a pretty decent case for themselves here3, but they could also do so for “best passing backcourt of all time” and have a fairly convincing resume to back it up.
Hornacek’s feel for the game went far beyond just his passing skill, however. He was gifted in every spatial element of basketball, with or without the ball. While guys like Reggie Miller and Ray Allen typically are the first ones mentioned when discussing this style, Jeff was on either’s level as an off-ball threat, smartly utilizing a bevy of screens provided for him by Jerry Sloan’s scheme to cut up opposing defenses. He wasn’t afraid to break off sets early if he saw an opening, and his instantaneous connection with Stockton upon arriving in Salt Lake City fueled their ability to confound even the league’s most stringent defensive units.
Perhaps my favorite element of Hornacek’s game upon revisiting his career, however, is the footwork he displayed. Again, it’s an area he’s not recognized enough for historically; greats at his position like Michael and Kobe deservedly see the most praise here, but Jeff’s precision rivaled theirs throughout his entire career. He was never the most explosive athlete on the floor, so Hornacek leveraged the advantages he did have. He was uncommonly patient, particularly near the hoop – where most smaller guys would panic when surrounded by size and invading limbs, Jeff took his time, utilizing his elite understanding of his positioning and angles:
The connection between his smarts and on-court performance was a masterpiece to behold. He had a savant-level skill for feeling his defender’s positioning even when he wasn’t facing him, then seamlessly exploiting whatever small advantage he discerned with his flawless technique:
Whichever era and lens you did it through, Jeff Hornacek was a true joy to watch play the game of basketball. He understood his biggest strengths and augmented them with useful secondary skills, forming a game that was at once both fundamentally superb and skillfully awe-inspiring. It’s no surprise to anyone in Utah to see him excelling so quickly as an NBA coach, nor would it be for him to eventually match or even exceed his playing success. And to top it off, he’s a class act all the way, liked and respected in circles around the league. Whether or not he ever returns to the organization, Hornacek will always have a well-earned place in the hearts of Jazz fans everywhere.