By John Schmeelk
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I’m officially out of the “predicting Phil” business. I, like most others, had no chance this time around. He’s just a different guy with the way he communicates and the way he thinks.
Everything Phil Jackson said when he addressed the media after the season pointed elsewhere for a Knicks coach. He indicated “only people I probably know will be in the interview process.” There’s no evidence, spare liking him as a player, that Jackson had any prior relationship with Hornacek.
Jackson also said: “So someone who has compatibility with what I do as a leader would have to be in sync with what we do.”
Later on, he specifically mentioned the triangle.
“They had an immersion in the triangle when Kurt started coaching the team. They started executing it with more structure. We saw some progress, but we have to make the next step,” Phil said.
When asked about the triangle specifically, he answered: “That’s what I brought here to do, build a system. That’s all part and package of what we’re doing.”
It wasn’t a narrative that Jackson wanted a coach to come in here to run the triangle the way he wanted. By any reasonable interpretation, it was what he flat-out said to the media. Then he went and did the opposite. If this hire is any indication, figuring out what Jackson actually means when he says it requires some kind of Jacksonian-to-English dictionary.
If Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck’s reporting is any indication, this was no sea change at the last moment, either. Beck reported back in February that Jackson was intrigued by Hornacek’s intelligence. Beck also reported that even though Hornacek’s interview was mentioned late in the game, he was the first person Jackson reached out to when the search started.
In the end, according to Beck, it was Hornacek’s smarts that attracted Jackson. He believed Hornacek was very analytical and (likely due to his experience under Jerry Sloan) understood what it meant to play “system basketball,” something Jackson stressed in his introductory press conference a couple of years ago.
What clearly didn’t attract Jackson to Hornacek was the style he played in Phoenix. Hornacek was almost Mike D’Antoni-esque with the Suns, with the way they were always in the top third of the league in pace and 3-point rate. With small guards capable of ball-handling, the Suns ran a ton of screen and roll, and spread the floor.
Remember Jackson’s tweet from last year:
Hornacek plays that way and on the surface, is the opposite of what Jackson wants. He does not run the triangle and, according to multiple reports from reporters and even Jeff Van Gundy, it doesn’t look like Hornacek will be required to run the triangle with the Knicks. There will surely be aspects of the offense worked in, but the end result (if reports are correct) would be a hybrid of a more modern spread pick-and-roll offense with the triangle. If that’s what happens, Knicks fans should be happy, as long as the team gets some talent at guard to play that way properly.
The decision to alter the system is still confusing. Jackson even held a triangle seminar with the team when they didn’t have a coach to begin to prepare them for next season. Why do that if the team isn’t going to run the triangle?
On the surface, it looks like madness. But as we have all learned the hard way, what’s happening on the surface with Jackson rarely reflects what he is actually thinking and planning to do. He operates his own way and trying to figure him out is a fool’s errand.
The Hornacek move does bring something else back to the surface: Tom Thibodeau. If Jackson wasn’t going to hire a triangle coach and someone from his tree, then why ignore Thibodeau? Then again, maybe he didn’t ignore him. Maybe Phil reached out to Thibodeau, and found out he wanted total control, though reliable reports refute that.
Is it really believable that Jackson ignored Thibodeau, the hands down best coach available, because he clashed with some old friends in the Bulls’ front office? Jackson has been no stranger to front office clashes over the course of his career.
It’s hard to argue Hornacek was a better candidate than Thibodeau. Ignoring him can still be considered malpractice, and a huge mistake. It’s also arguable whether or not Hornacek is a better candidate than Frank Vogel and David Blatt. Vogel was more consistent than Hornacek, and a better defensive coach. Blatt was a championship coach overseas and did nothing but win with the Cavaliers (yes, having LeBron James helps). If Hornacek fails, every Knicks fan will track the success of these other options.
But all that matters to fans is that the Knicks didn’t hire Kurt Rambis. There is a fair amount of speculation that James Dolan didn’t allow Jackson to hire Rambis and forced him to look elsewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back that up. Wouldn’t it be diabolically devious of Jackson if he left Rambis out there floating as a favorite for so long just to lower expectations so much that fans would be thrilled no matter who he picked, as long as it wasn’t Rambis?
Jackson avoided the worst-case scenario and will be praised for it, even though he didn’t necessarily make the best possible hire. It’s the expectations game. It is certainly far-fetched and unrealistic, but, remember, Phil does things differently. He is a master manipulator. Even though he generally doesn’t care what people think, that type of subterfuge would really be genius.
In the end, Jackson found someone that will play system basketball, but also advance the triangle into a more modern style. That’s a good thing for the Knicks, even if Hornacek wasn’t the ideal coach for some fans. The process was beyond strange, but it wound up in a decent enough place. Jackson has his second choice, and if Hornacek doesn’t succeed Jackson will be the next one following him out the door.
For everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk