By John Schmeelk
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Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck broke the news Wednesday night that the Knicks were close to hiring Jeff Hornacek as their new head coach. It came as a surprise given Hornacek met none of the criteria Knicks president Phil Jackson spoke about at the end of the season.
There was no clear connection to Jackson’s coaching tree or style. Hornacek ran a heavy pick-and-roll and 3-point-reliant system in Phoenix, something Jackson has publicly expressed disdain for. Hornacek must have made quite an impression in his interview with Jackson because otherwise there isn’t a whole lot to make anyone think he was the man for the job.
Though he didn’t do it as much this year, Jackson had said in previous years that he likes “system basketball,” whether it is the triangle or not. Hornacek certainly comes from a culture of system basketball having played under Jerry Sloan with the Jazz. Perhaps that is what drew Jackson to Hornacek?
Judging Hornacek’s coaching in Phoenix is difficult. He started by surprising the NBA world by going 48-34 with the Suns in 2013-14. He was the runner-up in Coach of the Year voting despite the Suns not making the playoffs in a ridiculously strong Western Conference. He won games by shooting the fourth most 3-pointers in the league and the ninth fewest shots from mid-range. They used Channing Frye’s 3-point shooting as a weapon in the screen-and-roll and working him off the ball for open looks.
The Suns relied on their young guards for playmaking: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green. All three had break out seasons under Hornacek, partially thanks to the fact the Suns played the eighth fastest pace in the league.
They were middle of the road defensively that season, and their performance changed little on that end of the floor in Hornacek’s second year despite very different personnel.
The Suns foolishly let Frye walk away after the 2013-14 season and made a trade with the Sacramento Kings to bring in Isaiah Thomas. Obviously an upgrade in talent, they also created a logjam in the backcourt with three guys that needed the ball in their hands: Thomas, Dragic and Bledsoe.
At the trade deadline that season, the Suns were 29-25 and had the league’s seventh-ranked offense and 17th-ranked defense. Both numbers were very similar to what the Suns had done the previous season with only minor drop-offs in offensive and defensive efficiency totals.
The Suns’ front office responded by completely breaking up the team. In total, the Suns dealt away Goran Dragic, Zoran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee for Marcus Thornton, Norris Cole, Danny Granger, Justin Hamilton, Shawne Williams, Kendall Marshall and Brandon Knight. They won only 10 of 28 games the rest of the way. Knight played only 11 games before getting hurt.
It’s hard to blame Hornacek for failing to have success in a season when he had to coach 23 different players and was forced to coach a brand new group of players halfway through a year. He finished 39-43.
More changes were in store the following season. The team traded away Marcus Morris, which made his brother, Markieff, a huge locker room problem. Tyson Chandler was brought in despite the presence of an up-and-coming center in Alex Len. The wheels came off, and after a 14-35 start — including losing 19 of his last 21 games — Hornacek was fired. (The Sun had forced him to fire his two lead assistants earlier in the season.)
The downward trend over the course of 2½ seasons will raise eyebrows for Knicks fans, but what Hornacek had to deal with from a roster perspective was daunting to say the least. He received no help from his front office.
His teams never played anything close to elite defense, but did he ever have the personnel to accomplish that? Doubtful. Of course, being around the league average defensively for the Knicks would be a huge step in the right direction.
There were some questions Hornacek lost the team in his final season, which may be true. But was it his fault or the result of poor decisions from team management that put a volatile and ill-fitting roster together? It’s hard to tell.
It’s equally difficult to figure out how to apply what Hornacek did in Phoenix to what he will do in New York. His teams were built around dynamic penetrating guards. Aside from a still-developing Jerian Grant and returning Tony Wroten, the Knicks lack those types of players.
Kristaps Porzingis could thrive in the stretch five role Hornacek used Channing Frye in. Carmelo Anthony can play on the wings where Hornacek used the Morris twins. The Suns shot a ton of 3s and played at a high pace under Hornacek in Phoenix, something the Knicks have not done the last two seasons.
How Hornacek will mesh his style with Jackson’s will be interesting to watch, and a fascinating thing to explore at the Summer League in Orlando. Based on what Jackson has said and Hornacek has done, they seem almost stark opposites in terms of offensive approach. But obviously Jackson sees something he likes in Hornacek and thinks in some way they will be simpatico. Perhaps Hornacek will bring back what the Jazz ran in Sloan’s days.
We’ll find out how soon enough.
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