That was my reaction when I saw this tweet from Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:
Breaking: Knicks will hire Jeff Hornacek as head coach, per NBA source.
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) May 18, 2016
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.
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.