After the initial rumblings late last month, the New York Knicks officially settled their head coaching vacancy. Former sharpshooting guard for several Utah Jazz NBA Finals-caliber teams, Jeff Hornacek, was announced as the 28th head coach in franchise history last week.
Hornacek and team president Phil Jackson gave the customary statements, singing each other's praises and their excitement to work with one another. However, if Jackson’s attitude and involvement remain the same, Hornacek’s job description in New York will involve a lot of independent work.
"I am extremely excited and honored to be the next coach of such a historic franchise,” Hornacek said. "I look forward to working with Phil - a coach and teacher of the game I have admired for many years - and collaborating with him and our staff to take this team to the level that Knicks fans expect."
The problem is, since Jackson joined the Knicks as team president in early 2014, he has done little to improve the team. He hired his former player from the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty years, Derek Fisher, to coach the Knicks despite having zero prior coaching experience. That resulted in a 40–96 (.294) coaching record for Fisher through one-and-half seasons at the helm.
Fisher failed to executive the triangle offence – a key part of Jackson’s championship-winning seasons with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls – and the “Zen Master” only recently acknowledged that running that style in today’s NBA needs adjustment.
Speaking with ESPN’s Ian Begley at a recent event, Jackson said that three-point shooting has changed the spacing in today’s game. Until that is adjusted to factor in the perimeter shooting, it will not work the way it’s intended to.
Jackson has been cashing cheques from his five-year, $60 million deal to run an offence through two mediocre coaches. By many accounts, Jackson's Plan A was to keep Kurt Rambis so he could continue to run the triangle. The Knicks’ top star, Carmelo Anthony made it clear that a new coach is needed.
That’s where the hiring of Hornacek can help get the Knicks on track.
Before his own exit from the Phoenix Suns, Hornacek showed he can be an effective head coach. In his first season as the Suns’ coach during the 2013-14 season, he led the team to a 23-win improvement. They finished 48-34 – one game from making the NBA Playoffs -- and despite missing the postseason, Hornacek finished as the runner-up to the legendary Gregg Popovich for NBA Coach of the Year honours.
However, once the Suns began trading away assets, including from their surplus of point guards (Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas), things quickly went south.The signing of Tyson Chandler to a mega deal did nothing to help a team that became a laughing stock last season.
“Hard to see how this is his fault, though,” Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote on Twitter following Hornacek’s departure from Phoenix.
Coming into the world’s largest and most unforgiving media market, every one of Hornacek’s decisions will be second-guessed and micromanaged. Mistakes that may have gone unnoticed in Phoenix will make for excellent back-page tabloids on all local newspapers.
That’s not to say all of the 53-year-old's decisions will have to be as smooth as his jump shot over the course of his playing career. Fortunately, the Knicks’ roster offers the former shooting guard a lot of flexibility. Anthony is still one of the NBA’s most dynamic scorers and, entering his second season, Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis can only improve.
The issue will be giving Hornacek the right point guard to run the offence through. With Phoenix, guys like Dragic, Thomas, and Eric Bledsoe saw their strengths accentuated as Hornacek put them in situations to succeed.
While Thomas' score-first mentality didn't mesh with that ideology -- reportedly leading to Hornacek demanding he was traded -- it was clear that Hornacek knew how to utilise a certain core of players.
“I’ve had good success with points guards in Phoenix to get them to new levels as younger players,’’ Hornacek said during his introductory press conference (via New York Post). “Our team in Phoenix was really geared for up-tempo. I had a lot of little guys. I’d like to push it as much as possible to get easy buckets and you can always get into sets after that.”
With New York, there’s not a lot of options. The team signed Tony Wroten but his injured knee remains a huge question. Veteran Jose Calderon is not a starter on a legitimate playoff contender and youngster Jerian Grant, a solid role player, is in the same boat.
Hornacek, an Illinois native, explained that he believes New York will be able to attract marquee free agents. The point guard class, however, offers little excitement as Rajon Rondo, Mike Conley, and the Knicks' old friend Jeremy Lin headline the class.
Hiring a contrasting opinion can help the Knicks but giving Hornacek the right mix of players will be more important than anything.
“He had three years left so he wanted to make it as mine,’’ Hornacek said of Jackson’s contractual standing with the Knicks. “Phil wants to bring winning basketball back to New York. I’m excited he brought me along to help do that.’’