This is in defense of Jeff Hornacek.
It’s not a popular stance because the Knicks have lost 14 of their last 15 games and are settled in the septic tank. But there are coaches who are given an opportunity to succeed, and there are those like Hornacek – handed the keys to a vehicle aflame without a fire extinguisher.
In two seasons, Hornacek has overseen a depressing roster upheaval. Consider this: three of the big acquisitions in the summer of 2016 – which was just before the Knicks were supposed to compete for a top-4 playoff seed – are either out of the NBA (Brandon Jennings) or on the fringe (Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah).
Not counting those either exiled or injured for the rest of this season, only three players remain on the Knicks from last year’s squad (Courtney Lee, Kyle O’Quinn and Lance Thomas). Hornacek has coached 30 different players and has been bossed by two different front offices over just two seasons with the Knicks, while being forced by one to run the triangle despite the players viewing it as complicated as alien hieroglyphics.
The Knicks are anti-continuity and the opposite of their opponent on Sunday — the conference-leading Raptors — who’ve had their core and coach in tact for seven years and counting.
“That’s the biggest thing in basketball,” Hornacek said Saturday. “Since we’re playing Toronto, I’ll use them as a great example. They were a pretty decent team but if you look back a few years ago they were thinking about blowing that team up. And they stayed with it. They stayed with those guys. And three years later, they look like one of the best teams in the league. Because now they have a lot of familiarity with each other, they know what each guy is going to do. And then when you add a guy here and there, a couple young guys, all of a sudden they’re right there.
“It takes a little bit of time. I think everybody thinks, ‘These guys are professionals, you can get a bunch of new guys together and it’s going to work great. If you put five All-Stars together, it’ll work great. But developing guys, basketball’s a lot of that. And we’re trying to get these guys developed and hopefully we’ll keep a good core of these guys together to continue to build on what we’re doing now.”
Hornacek has been talking a lot more lately about the future as if he’ll be a part of it. Most likely that falls in the category of ‘What else is he going to say?’ But it does bring up an interesting question: if Hornacek were willing to play ball, would the Knicks bring him back next season on an expiring contract?
Normally coaches don’t reach that point. They’re either fired or given an extension. But in this case, there’d be some logic attached for both sides for a continued partnership.
The Knicks, after all, will be awful again next season and aren’t exactly an attractive destination once you get past the money (most don’t get past the money). From the front office’s perspective, it might be better to have Hornacek take the lumps next season rather than the new hire.
From Hornacek’s perspective, it’d be a final opportunity to prove that he’s a good coach — whether for this job or the next — because this stint with the Knicks has only been a detriment to his reputation. Among those who can sympathize: Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, Mike D’Antoni, Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens (I can go on).
Pointing out unfair circumstances is not a suggestion that Hornacek has done a good job. Along with failing to build a team identity and toughness, his greatest mistake was allowing Jackson to hijack the offense last season. It undermined Hornacek when his power was at its height in the first year of a contract. Now he has no power and is at the mercy of a front office that can claim he was part of the previous regime.
In retrospect, Hornacek can admit the triangle was a mistake. He probably knew that last season but didn’t want to upset Jackson. Another mistake.
“We were trying to meld it last year and we all thought maybe that could work,” he said Saturday. “And then we realized it wasn’t a great thing to mix it – that we should go with one or another. This year we tried to stay with what guys are used to pretty much in the open court. We just have to get better at it.”
Being ‘better’ with this type of roster requires talent, continuity and time, three luxuries rarely gifted by the Knicks. In that regard, Hornacek is trying to climb out of a sinkhole created by his environment.