Kyle O’Quinn Hindering Knicks Chemistry

The New York Knicks have a Kyle O’Quinn problem.

O’Quinn’s been the top option at backup center so far. Kyle has played 34 minutes this season or about 35% of New York’s first two games. Head coach Jeff Hornacek could reduce O’Quinn’s minutes by splitting the team’s center minutes between Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah. If he staggers them correctly, the duo could still play together for stretches while still optimizing the position for a full game.

While O’Quinn’s per minute stats have always been solid, posting quality rates across multiple categories, he does have his weaknesses. On defense, O’Quinn struggles to protect the paint, and doesn’t have the foot speed necessary to defend smaller fours. That leaves him guarding the opponents’ biggest player, putting him closest to the hoop where his inability to wall off the rim can be exposed. For O’Quinn to be a successful defender he has to be near perfect from a mental standpoint – reading and anticipating plays by taking away angles. He lacks the physical tools to make up for mental mistakes.

O’Quinn also hurts the team on the defensive glass. The Knicks rebounded worse with him on the court last season and the trend has continued early this season. On the offensive end, O’Quinn can’t create shots and isn’t able to punish smaller players in the post.

Perhaps O’Quinn’s skillset is just ill-fitted for this team, and his style of play pushes them away from the characteristics needed to get the most out Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. O’Quinn’s court presense alone is taking time away from Porzingis playing at center. He forces the second-year forward farther from the rim defensively instead of allowing him to maximize his length near the basket.

O’Quinn needs another big man next to him with his defensive deficiencies, hence has played 23 of his 34 minutes paired with either Porzingis or Willy Hernangomez (KOQ and Hernangomez should never ever happen – there’s not a worse pairing of players to put together on the roster). This harms Carmelo, as Anthony benefits from the ability to play the 4 where it suits him.

A smaller role for Quinn might be with Noah. Playing two bigs with Joakim can work due to his passing ability. Noah can make up for the lack of physical space with superior ball movement.

Hornacek should grasp what O’Quinn is as a player and how his role affects the team’s on the floor chemistry. It’s not just that Porzingis and Noah are both better than KOQ, but keeping one of the two at center pushes the Knicks towards more athletic, versatile groups. Reserves such as Justin Holiday, Lance Thomas, Ron Baker and Maurice Ndour are all capable of guarding multiple positions. The Knicks’ coach should realize he can make the team more cohesive with some of the other options on the bench.


What does hiring Jeff Hornacek mean for the Knicks?

Stunned.

That was my reaction when I saw this tweet from Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:

Until about a week ago I was convinced Knicks president Phil Jackson was going to remove the interim tag and keep Kurt Rambis on a full time basis. The other choices seemed to be David Blatt, Frank Vogel and Hornacek. I would have bet all my money (so pretty much nothing) on either of the two not named Hornacek.

A litte bit of background here. I live in Phoenix and I covered the Suns on a semi-regular basis during Hornacek’s two years and change with the organization. I’ve interviewed him during the draft workout process, at practices, plus before and after games. Hornacek was always open and honest regarding his philosophies and the players on the roster.

Even with all of this exposure to him I’m not totally sure what to make of the hire.

Hornacek’s time with the Suns got off to a tremendous start when they overachieved in 2013-14 going 48-34 and just missing the playoffs. They were even better than those 48 wins too. Phoenix was 28-15 with Eric Bledsoe in the lineup and 20-19 when he wasn’t, and he Suns ranked eighth offensively (offensive rating per 100 possessions) and 13th defensively.

While everyone remembers the Suns falling apart due to chemistry issues the following year, what people forget is they started off 28-20, and were 29-25 before dealing Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. From that point forward, the Suns cratered, finishing the season 10-18.

In Hornacek’s first 136 games his record stood at 77-59 (.566 win-percentage) and in his final 77 he went 24-53 (.311 win-percentage).

What makes Jackson picking Hornacek strange isn’t his time ending with the Suns poorly — it’s more that he’s the exact opposite of the type of coach you’d expect Jackson would put in charge to carry out his vision. To wit, reports from pretty much every single person on the Knicks beat have already surfaced that they will no longer be running the full blown triangle on offense. That makes sense if you’re going forward with Hornacek as your head coach.

His offenses in Phoenix were based around dribble penetration and spacing. Hornacek never cared about traditional positional designations. He played two point guards and sometimes even three, he’d play a power forward at center, a small forward at power forward and so on. One of the biggest reasons the 13-14 team had success was the 750 minutes Channing Frye and Markieff Morris played together.  They put up a 115.4 ORtg and 103.8 DRtg.

I bring up that specific pair due to New York having Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks duo can bring the same type of offensive spacing only with more versatility offensively and a rim protecting big the Suns twosome lacked. This will make the game easier for a dribble-drive guard like Jerian Grant as he enters his second-year, who will also undoubtedly be utilized in pick and roll more with Porzingis than he was last season.

Let’s be clear here, Hornacek believes in modern offensive tenets, but this he’s not going to turn the Knicks into the Houston Rockets. The Suns did rank fifth and 11th in threes taken per 100 possessions during Hornacek’s first two seasons, but they didn’t completely ignore the mid-range game.

In an interview with Zach Lowe, then of Grantland, Hornacek described his thoughts on shot locations:

Oh, yeah. We gotta get rid of that long 2. I’m not opposed to the middle jumper, in that 15- or 16-foot range. I think all but two teams that were in the playoffs, their effective field goal percentages were above 51 percent. If you can shoot 15-footers and shoot 52 percent, OK, you’re beating the average. You can’t totally discount those shots.

Right. We’ll take a look at it all. But the ones we have to eliminate are the ones that are within 4 or 5 feet of the 3-point line. Those are low-percentage shots worth two points.

Hornacek will play to the talent he has on the court. Robin Lopez and Anthony will still get post up opportunities. New York will still utilize Anthony’s mid-range game just in smaller doses and Porzingis won’t become one-trick pony. The modern tendencies Hornacek held on offense also transferred to the defensive end. His defensive assistant was Mike Longabardi, a Tom Thibodeau disciple.

I’d put the Suns average to below average rankings during Hornacek’s time more on the personnel than the scheme. Miles Plumee had a good 35-40 games and then fell off a cliff, Alex Len was too young, and Tyson Chandler’s legs were dead — the Suns never had a quality defensive anchor at the center position.

Lopez and Porzingis immediately become the two best defensive big men Hornacek has had the opportunity to coach. The Knicks should make strides as the playing time decreases for the laterally challenged Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo (hopefully) opts out.

There’s nothing about Hornacek strategically to think he’d hold them back if they put the proper pieces in place.

Hey! This all seems extremely positive so what could go wrong?

Well, it can’t be ignored how the Suns weren’t able to build on Hornacek’s first season. While Hornacek wasn’t exactly put in a position to succeed, he also wasn’t able to get players to fully buy into what he was selling.

Dragic and Kieff both demanded trades, the defense regressed from year one to year two, and in year three everything fell horribly apart. It’s hard to get a feel for how much of this was Hornacek’s fault versus the front office struggling to communicate straight forward plans when roster moves were made. No players ever had anything bad to say about Hornacek–and that includes Morris–but their actions on the court didn’t always match their words.

It’s possible the Suns were just an ill-fitting team with flaws no head coach was going to be able to get through. It’s also possible the players specifically tuned out Hornacek’s message at times and he needs to get better at finding ways to bring out their best more consistently. These are the type of observations about coaching that are impossible to get a read on unless you’re inside how a team is operating.

The Knicks answered one question by preparing to hire Hornacek as their head coach. Now we wait for the answers to all the others.

The Perception of Phil Jackson Matters

Knicks president Phil Jackson has once again garnered attention for his unconventional ways.

The Zen Master is taking a leisurely trip to Montana as New York sits around with no head coach in place and the draft plus free agency rapidly approaching.

I asked ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, who used to work in the Suns front office, when is the typical time for front office executives go to go on vacation and this was his response: 

There’s an argument to be made none of this shit matters. Jackson’s a normal human and like any other person has the right to do what he pleases. 

Maybe in the end everything works out and Knicks fans can look back at the strange way he goes about his business with a good laugh. 

General manager Steve Mills, the scouting staff, and even Jackson himself are all probably putting in the necessary work to be prepared for an important offseason. 

The problem with the above is perception matters and the optics of Jackson going away at this time are poor. That can’t be argued whether you’re ok with the road trip or not. 

The Knicks don’t have a head coach and as teams like the Rockets and Kings are looking in every direction — Carmelo Anthony is literally begging New York to do the same with it falling on deaf ears. 

Teams across the league are starting to conduct workouts to get ready for July’s draft. I’m sure the Knicks will be in the future too even though they don’t have a pick, but why not start now? 

As the top man in the basketball operations department Jackson sets a tone for everyone else. 

Most people have worked a job where their boss didn’t lead by example and understands the trickle down effect it can bring.  

There’s an expectation of players, coaches and front office personnel to use their own time to be properly prepared for next season. 

What’s the illustration Jackson draws by stepping away at this time? 

Not to mention how it looks across the league. 

Jackson is the man sitting at the head of the table as the Knicks try to recruit free agents when essentially the entire league is going to be flush with cap space. 

The last thing the Knicks need is for their point man to have a reputation of being aloof and stubborn — this is dangerously close to happening if it hasn’t already. 

Most of Jackson’s actions are harmless in a vacuum, but what he’s doing is making selling the Knicks to others harder. 

Jackson’s responsible for creating an image of the Knicks franchise that’s attractive and for a little bit it looked like he was. There was an aura of normalcy, a separation of Dolan and the state. 

Being a president of an NBA team is bigger than putting a roster together. You need to be in tune with the operation from top to bottom. 

And Jackson very well might be, but it’s hard to imagine from the view we’re getting on the outside. 

Jackson’s the singular person responsible for creating that perception. 

 

Phil Jackson destroyed the stability he created with Knicks

The attraction of Phil Jackson running the New York Knicks was he would bring a sensibility to the organization that often didn’t exist.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with the moves Jackson made through the pre-firing Derek Fisher portion of his tenure, his presence became easier to accept because of a level of stability.

The team owned by James Dolan was going along in a rational manner.

They didn’t return much value for Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, but you could see a level of logic behind both trades. Despite it taking longer than it should have – Carmelo Anthony did eventually shut it down for the season due to a knee injury. The dead weight on the team was sent away with Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani being bought out.

First-year head coach Derek Fisher spent about half the season experimenting with a more pick and roll based offense rather than the triangle and giving different players an opportunity to prove themselves.

Yea, they screwed up winning a couple games at the end of the season, but it’s not fair to expect players to not go out and try. It was just unfortunate results.

Drafting Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant brought along hope of Jackson being more open to adjusting New York’s playing style due to their skills sets in a good start to his second full offseason on the job.

Free agency should have been the first sign of slight concern when it came to Jackson’s view of what he wanted the team to be. He went after too many bigs and not enough attention to players who could break down a defense off the dribble.

Nothing Jackson did was overly harmful, but he gave insight into what he was looking for with how he constructed the roster. Individually, none of the contracts he gave out were bad, yet in totality they didn’t make all that much sense.

All that said, it wasn’t the end of the world. Rebuilding the Knicks roster from the tear down was more than a one-offseason process. Jackson needed to be given more time to flesh out what he was trying to accomplish.

The season started and the Knicks overachieved. Fisher implemented a smarter defensive scheme that tried to force teams into mid-range shots and the offense was a decent balance of using triangle principles and modern concepts. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something you could live with.

Fisher worked on developing Porzingis and Grant, maximized Thomas’ versatility on the defensive end, had Anthony playing brilliant all-around basketball and managed minutes in a decent fashion.

Once they hit 22-22, one of the healthiest teams in the league at that point in the season, started getting banged up. The nine-man rotation Fisher settled on could no longer be used and the Knicks lack of quality depth shined through. They played a bunch of close games and battled hard, but couldn’t close anything out.

Thinking back on it, in Fisher’s last games it was almost like he was trying to prove a point. In first halves he Knicks would run mainly triangle based offensive sets leading to them falling behind. In second halves they’d run a ton of spread PnR storming back into the game.

This pattern happened quite frequently.

Was it Fisher trying to prove a point to Jackson?

If he was should have Fisher tried to communicate better with his boss instead of being standoffish? Yep.

Should have Jackson been smart enough to see what was happening and not be stubborn about the type of offense that was being implemented? Yep.

The basketball reasons to fire Fisher didn’t make much sense. If it was other dealings that were more involved with off the court shenanigans so be it. Whatever the case, when Jackson made the decision to fire Fisher he tore down what he had worked so hard to build up – an appearance of stability.

Teams that are stable don’t fire coaches less than two years into a job with a group that was on track to be one of the most improved in the NBA.

Jackson made his buddy Kurt Rambis interim head coach and ever since they’ve gone back to their old clusterfuck ways.

Rambis trying to “win now” (poorly by the way, he’s not even good at that) has led to potential bad consequences. Melo is getting overplayed, they’ve swung towards increased base triangle action, the protect the paint screw threes defense is back, Sasha Vujacic’s role has increased while Grant’s has decreased and Porzingis is being used incorrectly.

The scary part of all of this is Rambis and Jackson openly discuss how improved the communication between the two of them is compared to Fisher and Jackson.

Simply put………that’s terrifying.

Even while only winning 17 games what made Jackson’s first year a success was an understanding of where the team was and what needed to be accomplished.

The same hasn’t happened this season – it feels like Jackson has become short sighted.

Outside of unrealistic trade rumors involving Jeff Teague – there’s been no attempt to address their slow, plodding, lack of dribble penetration backcourt.

Lower level guards such as Mario Chalmers, D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack and Ish Smith were all traded during the regular season. Maybe getting one of them wasn’t realistic, but a move of that elk could have been made.

They’ve had two players come on 10-day contracts in Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Jimmer Fredette and neither was given a chance to contribute in a meaningful way.

And the Fredette circus should have never been at MSG in the first place.

Jackson been content allowing Lou Amundson, Cleanthony Early and Vujacic eat up roster spots and not contribute in a positive way.

Jackson’s managing of the Knicks roster this season has lacked ingenuity and creativity.

Once the playoffs became unrealistic a smartly run team would have preserved Melo, experimented with an offense revolving around Porzingis and Grant’s skills, and used two or three roster spots to try to find cheap talent to add to the team gong forward.

The reason to be worried about Jackson has nothing to do with what his record is since being in charge of the Knicks. It’s quite the opposite – the bad record shows he understood what needed to be done in his first full year on the job. The roster is in a healthier place than where it was when Jackson took it over.

The question is with the decision-making and vision Jackson has demonstrated this season can he be trusted to be in charge of the Knicks going forward?

If Jackson isn’t able to set aside his ego in regards to the next coach and how the Knicks on court product should be shaped – what needs to happen is so painful I don’t have the will to even spell it out.