After a whirlwind first season as head coach of the New York Knicks, Jeff Hornacek and his team finished 31-51, placing them 12th in the Eastern conference standings and looking forward to the NBA draft. What grade does he deserve? And is there reason to be optimistic?
“It was all good just a week ago” (cue the Kanye West track H.A.M).
Jeff Hornacek, along with his players must have said this after a crushing 119-114 Christmas Day defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics. The Knicks were 16-13 and Hornacek had been receiving praise for developing a strong second unit and creating a free-flowing offense.
Then, it all came crashing down.
The Knicks lost six in a row and 15 out of their next 20 games. Despite this, a coach’s record is not always solely his to own; much like a student who complains when he/she gets a bad grade in school, “But mom, the teacher doesn’t like me,” Hornacek had some legitimate and illegitimate excuses for his team’s poor performance.
Let’s review the coach’s strengths and weaknesses during his first year in the big apple.
1. Cool hand Jeff
Prior to the beginning of the season, media and fans wondered how ‘nice guy’ Hornacek would fair in the pressure cooker that is New York. Despite, clearly being frustrated with effort and defense throughout the season, Hornacek rarely lost his cool with the media and never made unfair criticisms of his players. Several instances during the season exemplify this sentiment. No one will forget the time Derrick Rose went AWOL on the team before shootaround prior to a game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Although Hornacek was clearly annoyed, he answered questions with an even-keeled disposition. Even after Rose came back, Hornacek deflected questions about Rose’s loyalty to the team and stated that the situation was dealt with ‘in-house’ and that everyone was moving on.
In a similar vein, Hornacek’s second run-in with Rose came after Rose spoke to the media about the team’s lackluster defense. Rose wanted Hornacek to be tougher on the team and to work more on defense during practice. Obviously, this did not play well in the media and made Hornacek, who is known for being more offensive minded, look like he was not preparing the team properly.
Again, Hornacek kept his cool and did not engage in a back and forth with his player. Overall Hornacek probably deserves a ‘B’ in this area.
2. Developing the bench
Early on when the Knicks were playing well, their second unit was a major part of their success. Players like, Brandon Jennings, Justin Holiday, Willy Hernangomez, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas were making good contributions and bringing great energy to the game. Hornacek deserves credit in this area because he often trusted those players and closed games with line-ups by ‘riding the hot hand’ instead of going back to the starters.
Additionally, Hornacek let most of the young players play through their mistakes instead of giving them a quick hook after a missed shot or defensive assignment. However, since neither the bench nor the team was able to sustain consistent success, Horancek deserves no more than a ‘C’.
The Knicks were abysmal for much of the year on the defensive end of the ball. As per basketballreference.com they ranked 23rd out of 30 teams giving opposing teams (108 ppg) and were ranked 26th out of 30 in defensive rating, (111.5).
Now Hornacek can’t take all of the blame; both Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose were horrendous defensively, and the numbers clearly illustrate their ineptitude. Anthony and Rose both had a defensive box plus/minus of (-2.2), the only players with worse mark were Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Chasson Randle, who barely played on the team.
Yet, regardless of the defensive strategy Hornacek’s players routinely seemed confused with guarding the pick and roll and did not take enough pride in keeping their man in front of them. Although there is plenty of blame to throw around, it’s hard to give Hornacek more than a ‘D’ in this area.
Hornacek came to New York with a reputation of an offensive-minded coach who had some measured success with the Phoenix Suns. Initially, the Knicks seemed to thrive in a more pick and roll featured offense. However, inside the locker room, even Kristaps Porzingis was skeptical of the team’s success. During one post game interview, Porzingis told Al Iannazzone of Newsday,
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“It was just a good moment that we were up, we were winning games based off of our talent. But we just weren’t there yet, and now it’s kind of showing that we’re not there yet.”
Regardless of what offense was run, this year’s Knicks were short on ball movement, heavy on isolation, and overall just ineffective. They finished the 2016-2017 season ranked 18th out of 30 in offensive rating (107.7) and 19th out of 30 in PTS/G (104.3). To make matters more confusing, the Knicks continued to vacillate between the triangle offense and pick and roll. However, this critique can be directed towards Phil Jackson. He either needs to commit 100 percent to the triangle offense and accept its success or failure or empower his coach to run his own offense.
Whether this means finding a new coach or letting Hornacek run this offense, remains to be seen. There are a lot of moving parts to this debacle of a season, however, when if comes to the offense, Hornacek’s grade is an unsatisfactory ‘C-‘.
3. Player Management
The best coaches can motivate and hold their players accountable. Prior to being the head coach for the Knicks, Hornacek’s reputation in Phoenix was a player’s coach who was good with young players, but not so great when players were not buying into his system. In an article written on the Grizzly Bear Blues website, Dave King was interviewed about Hornacek’s time with the Phonix Suns. King explains,
“He’s a great coach when the players are all bought in and no one feels slighted…But when the roster got deeper, players’ natural feelings of entitlement started to come out….And he never connected with them on a level that made them buy in when the “buy in” wasn’t entirely to their favor.”
It appeared that a similar pattern occurred with the Knicks. During the 2012-13 season, Mike Woodson’s hallmark of his coaching tenure was that he got Carmelo Anthony and the majority of the Knicks roster to play inspired defense on a consistent basis. From the beginning, Hornacek did not seem to have a strong connection with either Derrick Rose or Anthony. Now, both players are paid more than enough to put the necessary effort in every night. Yet there are some coaches who are able to get that “buy in” from their star players, and the results are usually positive. Horancek, for whatever reason, could not do this.
King further elaborates on Hornacek’s struggles with the Suns,
“Basically, the problem was that once the players, like Morris brothers and Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, started thinking for themselves, Hornacek couldn’t rein them back in and actually might have tuned them out.”
Again, while individual selfishness of certain players is not entirely Hornacek’s fault, he could not keep the Knicks together or motivated to play together in a way that translated into wins. Hornacek’s biggest fault is that he is still stuck in and old school mentality, where players went to college for 4-years, matured and were more self-motivated and accountable. Going forward he will have to be more creative when it comes to working with the big personalities and stars on his team. Hornacek earns a ‘C-‘ in this area.
There is no question that Hornacek’s first year was a disappointment. In fairness to him, the team’s failures can also be attributed to Phil Jackson, who gave Horancek a roster that does not suit his strengths, and has asked him to run an offense that does not mesh entirely with his ideas and philosophy. If the Knicks are to succeed, it’s possible that Horancek may not be the coach, or maybe the NBA draft in June will symbolize the rebuild that will be necessary to inject more youth and talent into a confused roster stuck in between win now and build for the future. Hornacek has the makings of a good coach and he should certainly be given the chance to redeem himself and develop the talent on the roster. With all things considered, Hornacek’s first-year grade is a ‘C-‘. Even if this team was not built for long-term success, they certainly underachieved given their summer in free agency. Both Knicks fans and Hornacek, find themselves in a familiar position this off-season, looking forward to the start of a new campaign and fresh start.