By John Schmeelk
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The fact that the Knicks got blown out by a far superior Celtics team in Boston is not the issue fans should be concerned with. The issue is coach Jeff Hornacek’s thought process in deciding who plays and who doesn’t. There seems to be no consistency to his decision making, and fans are being forced to watch uninteresting veterans play poor basketball.
Far more than a few times during the summer both general manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills stressed two things in how they wanted the Knicks to play this year: They wanted them to develop a great work effort that would translate into playing consistently hard on defense, and they also wanted to build the team around a young core of players whom they would develop throughout the season.
So far, neither is happening. Rookie second-round pick Damyean Dotson, who is young and has defensive tools, has been glued to the bench except for a couple of minutes in garbage time. A first-team All-Rookie performer from last year, center Willy Hernangomez has played sparingly in the second half of two of the three games. Kyle O’Quinn, neither young nor an especially strong defender, is taking his minutes.
Lance Thomas, one of the Knicks’ best perimeter defenders and hardest workers, was did not play in the second game of the season. He was then glued to the bench once again in the first half against the Celtics. Instead, Michael Beasley and Doug McDermott, two players with nowhere near the defensive pedigree of Lance Thomas, got minutes.
Even if you throw the wishes of the front office away and focus solely on what Hornacek has said about playing players who earn their way onto the floor (especially with a focus on defense), his rotation decisions make little sense. There is not a planet in the galaxy where either Beasley or McDermott provide a better example to the young players that hard work and defense earn you minutes than Lance Thomas does.
It is also very difficult to justify benching Hernangomez for his struggles on defense when Enes Kanter, also a poor defender, plays starter minutes. Both men rebound well and can score around the basket. When Hernangomez finally got on the floor, he scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting with two steals in just 11 minutes. His ability to be a screener on the pick-and-roll gave the offense a new facet that wasn’t there in the first half. Kanter and Hernangomez should be splitting center minutes, and when either makes mistakes on defense, Hornacek should ride them tirelessly. It defeats the purpose to bench either for O’Quinn on a team that isn’t going anywhere.
Hornacek’s desire to win games is understandable. It isn’t even November yet. He should be trying to win at this point in the season to keep the team engaged and show he can coach a winning team. The oddity is that he actually thinks Beasley, who has been jettisoned by five different teams over the course of his career, will help the Knicks win games.
McDermott has a smaller body of work, but there is little evidence he is a winning-rotation player in the league, either. He can’t create his own shot, and his lack of short-area quickness hurts him on defense, too. Their track records matter until they can prove they’ve changed in some way and become better all-around players.
The idea that the Knicks are featuring these players for trades doesn’t hold much water, either. Everyone in the league knows exactly what kind of players O’Quinn and Beasley are. Perhaps McDermott has never been given a full chance, but he also has never even flashed the ability of a first-round pick, which he was in 2014 — 11th overall. Playing Kanter major minutes for the first time in his career makes more sense because of his excellent player efficiency rating of 26.36. He could actually average 18 points and 10 rebounds, which might attract a suitor.
The Knicks’ rotation should be pretty simple once rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina returns from his ankle injury: Porzingis, Kanter, Hernangomez, Thomas, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Ntilikina, Ramon Sessions or Jarret Jack, Ron Baker and Damyean Dotson. That’s 10 players that are either young, good defenders, or both. It is the exact criteria the front office set before the season. You can play an 11th based on what veteran happens to earn that playing time in games or practice.
It isn’t rocket science to prioritize playing the young guys and the players that excel on defense. It gives the Knicks the best chance to win while at the same time helps develop the team for the future. The front office gave the blueprint, and the head coach should be following it.
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