Phil Jackson’s strange, rambling journey to name the New York Knicks’ new head coach seems to be nearing its completion.
According to Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, the Knicks are closing in on naming Jeff Hornacek their new coach. “It’s ‘as close as humanly possible,’ per source, [though] not official. Deal is expected soon, barring any unforeseen snags.” Beck tweeted on Wednesday evening.
The are plenty of potential pros and cons to this decision from a Knicks perspective. Let’s take a quick look at a few of each.
Jeff Hornacek is not Kurt Rambis: Knicks fans can breathe a sigh of relief for this reason alone.
Simply put, Rambis has proven to be an ineffective NBA head coach. During his two years in Minnesota and his short stint with the Knicks last season, Rambis seemed to be in over his head.
Just as importantly, Phil choosing someone other than Rambis demonstrates that he is willing to bring in a coach that is not 100 percent committed to running the Triangle offense. This is an important turn of events, as it seemed Jackson was wedded solely to the Triangle and would only consider bringing in someone with a like-minded allegiance to this antiquated offensive system. Last night, on SiriusXM radio, Jeff Van Gundy stated that Hornacek would not be required to run the Triangle.
If this is true, it has a far-reaching ramifications beyond just this one coaching hire. If Phil had brought back Rambis, and correspondingly made it abundantly clear it was “Triangle or bust” in New York, that would impact the type of players the Knicks targeted in free agency this summer and beyond. If Phil surrounded himself with Triangle acolytes from the front office down through the coaching staff, New York would likely search solely for players who fit into one particular system. Now, it would seem, Phil and company are open to infusing the Knicks’ offense with some concepts more suited to today’s style of play. And, if Jackson walks away a year or two from now, the Knicks won’t be stuck with players that are pigeonholed for one particular scheme.
More three-pointers, less mid-range jump shots: As has been detailed in this space previously, the biggest issue with a reliance on the Triangle is it reduces the number of three-point attempts and pick-and-rolls – two components of many of the most successful offenses in today’s NBA.
Per Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, under Hornacek “the Suns went from No. 25 to No. 5 in three-point attempt rate. They went from a league-average 13.5 points a game in fastbreak scenarios to a league-best 18.7. And they jumped from 29th in offensive efficiency to eighth.”
The Knicks finished last season dead last in fastbreak points. New York ranked 23rd in three-point attempts.
And it wasn’t as if Hornacek had a roster stacked with elite long-range shooters. Gerald Green led the Suns in three-point attempts during Hornacek’s reign in the Valley of the Sun.
Good news for Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant: Hornacek is not afraid to have his centers and/or his stretch power forwards step out behind the arc. During the 2013-14 season, Suns big men Channing Frye and Marcus Morris attempted a combined 696 three-pointers.
Rambis raised eyebrows last season when his stated his belief that Porzingis would be most effective on the low block, as more of a traditional center. Quite the contrary, Porzingis’ remarkable skill set is perfectly suited to today’s brand of positionless basketball, which should allow KP to float freely inside and out. With Hornacek calling the plays, it’s far easier to envision Porzingis being involved in countless pick-and-rolls and doing damage from the perimeter as well as down low. Porzingis will be able to thrive in an offense built around him, one that properly values three-point shooting and spacing. And make no mistake, the growth and development of Porzingis should be the number one priority in New York next season and beyond.
The other big winner on the Knicks’ current roster would appear to be Jerian Grant, the team’s other first-round pick from 2015. Hornacek has had great success with athletic point guards. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe had the best years of their respective careers under Hornacek. Grant is nowhere near those two players in terms of talent, but the hope is Hornacek would be far more capable of utilizing Grant’s abilities to their full potential (i.e. plenty of pick-and-pop action with Porzingis).
Defense: While much is made of the Triangle Offense and all that it entails, the Knicks’ poor defensive play has doomed them for the better part of a decade now. The Knicks have found intermittent success on the offensive end of the floor over the years, but rarely produced consistently on the defensive end.
New York has posted a Defensive Rating below 107 (allowing fewer than 107 points per 100 possessions) only three times over the past 13 seasons. Unsurprisingly, they made the playoffs each of those three seasons, which is noteworthy because they qualified for the postseason a total of only four times during that entire 13-season stretch.
While Hornacek’s offense in Phoenix was imaginative and efficient, he certainly did not build a reputation as a defensive guru. His Suns teams were, at best, average defensively. However, to be fair, he had a roster that was lopsided with guards, and lacked a dominant low-post defender. With Robin Lopez and Porzingis patrolling the paint, theoretically his team should be in a better position to succeed.
If Rambis wasn’t the guy, why not Frank Vogel or Tom Thibodeau? If Phil was willing to hire someone other than his buddy, then why not go with a more experienced and respected head coach? Thibodeau, Vogel and Jeff Van Gundy were among the marquee free agent coaches.
Van Gundy seemed like an extreme long shot due to his rocky relationship with James Dolan and Knicks hierarchy. However, Thibs was clearly interested in the job before he agreed to a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves. And Vogel surprisingly shook loose after the Indiana Pacers decided not to bring him back. Both Vogel and Thibodeau had the resume and defensive chops that excited Knicks fans.
We will likely never know the reasons why Phil passed on these two in favor of Hornacek, and speculation leads us nowhere.
Unproven track record: Hornacek had a phenomenal first season (2013-14) in Phoenix, leading an undermanned Suns to team to 48 wins. He finished second in the NBA’s Coach of the Year voting after that campaign. The team buckled under the weight of higher expectations the following season, and bottomed out at 14-35 before Hornacek was fired this past February.
Did the Knicks pounce at just the right time to land a young, up-and-coming coach? Will the relatively inexperienced Hornacek be able to handle the drama and media attention he’ll encounter in NYC?
The question of who Phil will hire seems to be resolved, but many interesting questions remain unanswered.
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