By John Schmeelk
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Jeff Hornacek has been placed in a bit of a difficult spot this season, even if it doesn’t seem that way on the surface.
There isn’t a lot of outside pressure to win, as the fans and media are expecting the Knicks to be awful. Even the front office has said it doesn’t have any playoff expectations.
There’s a large portion of observers that think the Knicks would be better off going 0-82 to give themselves the most ping pong balls in June’s draft lottery.
For a head coach, it isn’t that simple. When the 76ers tanked during the 2013-14 season they had completely blown up their team, leaving them with Evan Turner (25), Thaddeus Young (25) and Spencer Hawes (25) as the oldest veterans on the roster. Philadelphia played its best players, but because of how the front office constructed the roster those players happened to be young. The Sixers tried to win every game, but they were just bad. Their front office tanked, not their coach and players.
Despite headlines, the Knicks are not in tank mode. They have Courtney Lee (32), Lance Thomas (29), and Joakim Noah (32) all on the roster under long-term contracts. Lee and Thomas are both good defensive players that can help the Knicks win games. On the small chance Noah stays healthy and has something left physically, he can help defensively, too. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is on a big second contract and signed for at least three more years.
The Knicks have something else the Sixers didn’t when they began their process: Kristaps Porzingis. He has the chance to become a legitimate franchise player. He is also three years away from being an unrestricted free agent and one year from being able to sign a long-term extension with New York.
Last season, Porzingis began expressing his problems with the franchise. The prevailing thought is that the departure of Phil Jackson might solve those problems, but it also might not. The Knicks do need to convince Porzingis that he can have a successful career right where he is. The hope would be that he would be happy if the franchise was heading in the right direction, even if the Knicks weren’t winning a ton of games. However, there is no way to know if that’s true.
That’s why Hornacek is in such a precarious position. Both he and the front office have been vocal about the importance of building and developing young players, but at the same time he is going to have to show the players he is trying to do everything he can to win games. If the players can see the team is better with the older guys on the floor, they won’t be happy if Hornacek is sitting them for younger players, which in turn could make the Knicks lose more games.
The coach also has his own job to worry about. There is no guarantee that Hornacek remains with the Knicks past this season, so he needs to show tangible progress on the floor. There’s a good chance that means playing the older guys early in the season.
So what can Hornacek do? His best-case scenario is to play Lee and Thomas a lot in October, November and December. That will probably mean Damyean Dotson not playing a lot early, but the circumstances are what they are. Noah is suspended, so the big-man minutes can be split between Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and Enes Kanter. Kyle O’Quinn should not play unless he is needed due to foul trouble.
If Lee and Thomas play well, the front office needs to aggressively try to move them to create space for the younger guys to get more minutes as the season goes on. Hornacek will get to show that his team can play decent basketball to start the season, and, after a transition toward thinking about next season begins, the young players can develop in the second half. Doing so would keep his credibility high with his players, and the team would still eventually be able to focus on the development of its young guys.
It’s a very fine line, but Hornacek will be asked to walk it. To make the future as bright as possible, the Knicks will need a high draft pick this summer. But at the same time, the team needs to start establishing a positive culture and identity. The Knicks not only need to keep Porzingis happy, but also make the franchise a viable destination for free agents down the road.
The Knicks are going to lose a lot of games, but will those struggles be helpful in the long run? It’s hard to say. Can Hornacek pull this off? It won’t be easy.
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