In a guest post, Bryan Gibberman pens the obvious troubles New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek faced in the team’s free-fall without starting wing Tim Hardaway Jr.
Injuries are a part of life in the NBA. The Boston Celtics are 33-10 despite Gordon Hayward getting hurt during the first game of the season. The San Antonio Spurs are 27-14 while Kawhi Leonard has played in only eight games. Good coaching has been able to propel those teams to heights that otherwise seemed impossible. Not having Tim Hardaway Jr. has shown Jeff Hornacek’s flaws as the New York Knicks head coach.
The Knicks aren’t tanking. They’re trying to win, and the man in charge has proven to be a detriment to that. In 21 games with Hardaway Jr., the Knicks went 11-10. They had a 105.3 offensive rating and a 105.2 defensive rating. In 19 games without THJ, the Knicks have gone 8-11 with a 102.7 offensive rating and a 105.4 defensive rating.
It begs the question, how has Hornacek replaced the 34.1 minutes per game New York’s starting wing was playing?
- Eight minute increase for Lance Thomas (15 to 23)
- Eight minute increase for Michael Beasley (14 to 22)
- Four minute increase for Frank Ntilikina (19 to 23)
- Two minute increase for Doug McDermott (23 to 25)
- Spot minutes for Damyean Dotson and Ron Baker (who has played more consistently after dealing with injuries to start the season)
On the whole, there’s nothing egregious about the decision making process Hornacek has employed when doling out minutes. However, if you look closer, the problem is how they’re being used.
The Starting Lineup
The Knicks starting lineup for the non–Hardaway games has been Jarrett Jack, Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, Kristaps Porzingis, and Enes Kanter (with a few exceptions). There’s enough supporting evidence to know it doesn’t work incredibly well. In 232 minutes, the group has a 108.3 ORtg and a 110.9 DRtg (-2.6 Net Rtg).
Even though the sample size isn’t big enough to come to a definitive answer, it’s fair to deduce due to how the skills of those players mesh that a sustainable improvement can’t be expected. For example, take starting lineup replacement Lance Thomas. I’m as big of a proponent of Thomas’ game that exists, but what he brings defensively doesn’t make up for what you’re losing from Timmy offensively with this group of players.
There’s a litany of problems that plague the temporary starters:
- Jack and Kanter are the two worst defenders in the rotation. As a product of the duo’s defensive lapses, Porzingis is forced to defend on the perimeter where it’s difficult for him to cover up for Kanter and Jack’s missteps.
- No one in the group is an above average passer, thus leading to stagnant offense that doesn’t generate easy looks.
- A lack of three-point shooting and limited ability to dribble-penetrate makes the game harder for individual players to use the skills they do have in a positive fashion.
The most obvious adjustment here is to stop putting Kanter and Jack on the floor at the same time. Since Hardaway’s injury, Jack and Kanter have logged 376 minutes, with 41 percent of their total time shared, and have produced an ORtg of 103.8 and DRtg of 112.3. The Knicks have been outscored by 68 points during that same stretch. New York is a +23 in 546 total minutes when only one of them gets run or they’re both sitting.
Jack and Kanter each have flaws on both ends that overlap too much. Jack gives up 1.02 points per possession when defending the ball hander in the pick-and-roll (Frank Ntilikina is 0.59, for what it’s worth) and Kanter allows 1.37 PPP defending the roll man:
Additionally, the Knicks only shoot 16.6 threes per 100 possessions when the duo plays, three less than they average otherwise, which isn’t enough to begin with.
Can’t defend the PnR? Check.
Can’t generate enough threes? Check.
These are two of the most important aspects of the modern NBA, and constructing lineups that are deficient in these areas when there are other options is an abhorrent misuse of New York’s roster, with or without an active Tim Hardaway Jr. Nonetheless, the solution to New York missing THJ is a bit more complicated than we’d like it to be.
The Michael Beasley Conundrum
The “Walking Bucket” is making the most of his extra minutes from an individual perspective. Beasley is averaging 16.1 points on 53.4 percent shooting with 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
He’s been a big part of New York’s successful second unit featuring Kyle O’Quinn, Doug McDermott, Ron Baker, and Ntilikina (they have a +1.8 Net Rtg over 96 minutes).
It works well enough against opposing teams’ backups due to solid defense, good chemistry on offense, and Beasley contributing some efficient one-on-one play in an acceptable dosage. What the Knicks lack in individual offensive talent they make up for with strong cutting and an ability to generate valuable shots. The ball movement is crisp outside of some stagnation from KOQ and Beasley falling into bad habits.
This group is pretty much the smartest lineup Hornacek has played regularly in his time as head coach of the Knicks. Although it’s not their most talented lineup, nor would hold up over a large quantity of minutes against premier units, it functionally makes sense where each player has a specific, carved out role.
And this is where Hornacek’s inability to understand what leads to the second unit’s success turns into his biggest flaw.
He doesn’t grasp the context by which Beasley is surrounded allows him to have a positive impact. Hornacek instead tries to expand Beasley farther than this construct and it leads to failure:
- Beasley/Jack: -2.3 net rating per 100 possessions
- Beasley/Kanter: -23.5 net rating per 100 possessions
- Beasley/Porzingis: -2.3 net rating per 100 possessions
How Beasley plays makes it extremely difficult to incorporate his individual skills into team success. You can only afford to play Beasley with one other non three-point shooter, but that creates a problem when one of Kanter or O’Quinn is almost always on the floor with the Walking Bucket. You can’t play Beasley with Porzingis because if you’re running action through KP, the floor spacing gets mucked up when Beas chooses to not shoot threes. Jack and Beasley together is a no-go due to an oversaturation of mid-range jumpers and no triples.
Anything with Beasley at the three is a complete disaster. There’s no avenue to successfully extend Beasley’s role outside of the second unit besides some random fluke stretches.
Hornacek’s inability to identify this insulated case has been one of his biggest downfalls while Hardaway Jr. has missed playing time. The Knicks margin for error isn’t big enough to go from their starting lineup to other ineffective units, especially with how Porzingis is struggling. With Hardaway’s return imminent, some of these issues will naturally iron themselves out. The game will get easier for Porzingis as the volume of threes increases and transition opportunities become a reality again.
But when the wins and losses start balancing out with a healthy roster, what happened during Hardaway’s time away should not be forgotten. A sign of a good NBA coach is to maximize what you have and not rely completely on talent to keep your head above water.
Jeff Hornacek failed at this mission and proved that for the Knicks to truly move forward as a team, they have to eventually move forward from him.
All statistics via NBA Stats.