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  • Jeff Hornacek’s Rotation Struggles Underline Limit to Knicks’ Ceiling

Jeff Hornacek’s Rotation Struggles Underline Limit to Knicks’ Ceiling

The Knicks’ coaching staff has had their hands full with this year’s roster. How have the decisions they’ve made impacted the team as a whole?

The Knicks have been as inconsistent as they come this season. Every time it seems like they have some momentum going in their favor, they find a way to lose a heartbreaking game to kill it.

Part of this inconsistency has to do with Jeff Hornacek’s erratic and unpredictable rotations. Injuries haven’t helped, but Hornacek has been mixing and matching squads all year long, looking for the right combinations at a whim during close games.

During the Knicks’ latest loss to the Spurs, Hornacek even played bench dwellers Ramon Sessions and Willy Hernangómez at the same time down the stretch, two individuals who have been buried at the bottom of the depth chart.

Though Hornacek has made some unpopular decisions this year, many of them have actually worked out. Giving Jarrett Jack any minutes in the first place was a head-scratcher to many Knicks fans, but he surprised out the gate and has been key in facilitating ball movement through the first unit. He also made the unpopular choice of playing Kyle O’Quinn over Hernangómez in his rotations, and O’Quinn has been quietly having a great year.

However, in order for this team to fully mesh with each other, Coach Hornacek has to find some semblance of consistent lineups.

Let’s start with what he shouldn’t be doing.


THE UNPLAYABLES

The Knicks have a logjam of big men this year with Enes Kanter gobbling up offensive boards, Kyle O’Quinn playing the role of serviceable backup, Kristaps Porzingis making the leap, youngster Willy Hernangómez tethered to the bench, and finally the 32-year-old Joakim Noah.

The oft-injured Noah is sitting on possibly the worst contract in the NBA right now with $72 million owed to him over four years. Just because the Knicks are paying him all this money doesn’t mean that he has the right to play. In limited time on the court this season, Hornacek has found Noah as a defensive stop gap in small doses.

Joakim Noah played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter against the Pelicans and got some second quarter action against the Spurs the next game. Yes, he still sets nice wide screens and it’s good to see him bring some gritty energy. However, none of this should be coming at the expense of playing time for what looked like one of New York’s most intriguing young pieces last year in Hernangómez. The man was named to the All-Rookie First Team and has played in fewer than half of the Knicks games this year (and mostly garbage time minutes in those games).

Ramon Sessions is taking up space at the back of the Knicks roster while Trey Burke is LIGHTING UP the G League. New York should be all in on the youth movement, and that means replacing Sessions with Burke even if it means disrupting Hornacek’s shaky rotation.

EXPERIMENTING WITH THE FIRST UNIT

Hornacek has done so much mixing and matching with his lineups this season, you’d think we would see KP get some action starting at the 5, right? Well, you’d be wrong. Close to 90 percent of KP’s minutes have come with another center on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass, and he has yet to start a game at the center position.

Though Enes Kanter and Porzingis do have some chemistry on the floor, they can play clunkily around each other and at times, and Kanter can sometimes get in KP’s way:

Gasol is able to help off Kanter here knowing that he isn’t a shooting threat. This forces KP into more help defense as he has to turn away from Gasol to take a contested fadeaway around three Memphis defenders.

Here’s another example of that same phenomenon:

With KP at the 5, if he wants to post or face up his defender, the biggest help defender on the floor may be an undersized shooting 4 who has to guard someone like Doug McDermott, Michael Beasley, or Lance Thomas (none of whom a defense would want to give a wide-open shot).

Having a center that can stretch the floor, like KP, is vital to opening up the half-court for guards to penetrate. Not that the Knicks have many guards on their roster who can effectively penetrate opposing defenses, but with Enes Kanter clogging up the lane in the first unit and Porzingis operating out of the high post way too often (a topic for another day), the paint looks like an intimidating jungle of defenders. That could be offset by good three-point shooting in the first unit, but the issue is compounded by Jack’s reluctance as a career 34 percent shooter from distance and New York’s antagonism towards the long-ball revolution.

On the other side of the ball, KP has turned into one of the best rim protectors in the league this season. He has swatted 2.23 shots per game, which is good for third in the league behind both Myles Turner and Kevin Durant, who are tied for first place at 2.3 blocks per game. Porzingis is third in the league in opponent’s field-goal percent at the rim (46.5 percent) among players who have appeared in more than 16 games this season, per NBA Stats.

That’s the type of player a team should want around the rim as often as possible. Defending stretch fours keeps KP away from the paint, where he is one of the most effective defenders in the league. And he struggles to stay with some of the quicker power forwards in the league, so the move makes sense.

However, Kristaps’ necessary evolution to the 5 leave us with a hole at the 4 since Beasley is a defensive liability with KP having to patrol the paint and Lance Thomas not being big enough to play against most 4’s in the league. Either way, the Knicks and Hornacek need to be testing out KP at the 5. The other pieces will fall into place if New York maximizes its best talent.

THE FRENCH PRINCE

Frank Ntilikina, the French Prince (Press, God, whatever you want to call him), has been a defensive menace this season. He locked up Kyrie Irving, defended John Wall well, stole the ball multiple times from James Harden, and has impressed on many other occasions. The dude can play defense. His reflexes are great, and even when he falls a step behind, he is so good at recovering back in time to make a player think twice about what they thought was an open look. His offensive game has been steadily improving as he gains more confidence in his shot.

Please watch this beautiful sequence:

He needs to get a shot in the starting lineup, as outlined beautifully here. He has been playing the majority of most fourth quarters, but Hornacek usually puts him in at the start of the fourth and lets him play all 12. Sometimes he’s already tired when the real starters come back in with 6-8 minutes to play and is undoubtedly gassed by the end. He needs to be in a consistent rotation with the Knicks’ best players so he can find some more flow in his offensive game. Getting more reps with the same guys is beneficial for a young player like Frank who will learn to gel with those around him as he gets to know their tendencies better.

The most potent Knicks combination so far this year has been Kristaps and Frankie. That two-man combo has the highest net rating of any combo on the team at +15.2, and they need to get some more time to shine together on the floor.

The problem with moving Frankie into the starting lineup is that Hornacek has said that he likes the way Jack plays with those guys, per John Healy:

“Sometimes it’s who meshes well with what group. Frank is meshing well with our second group, Jarrett [Jack]’s meshing well with the first group. We see times when they do mesh with other group and it’s not so comfortable. It’s Frank’s continued work. He’s learning the teams in this league, the guys in this league, he’s going to get better as the season goes on.”

However, Hornacek did offer a glimmer of hope in this department as well:

“When it gets to the point where we say let’s try and get him 30 minutes a game that’s maybe a time when you have to look at a start just because the first group usually plays the first six minutes of the game. If you do that the first and second half that only leaves 36 minutes to go,” he said. “We want to, at times, give him more minutes. Especially this road trip. He’s a young guy and playing a lot of games down the road, and that’s something he’s going to have to adjust to, also, but I think he’ll be able to do that and maybe that’s when we’ll rest some of the older guys, like Jarrett a little bit, lower his minutes a little bit and he’ll play some more.”

This should happen sooner rather than later.

In situations where Jack gets hot, playing Frankie at the 2 is something we have seen Hornacek explore and it’s not a bad combo given that Jack needs a defensive two-guard next to him to cover up his deficiencies on that end. For more on that, head over to Jeff at Knicks Film School.

This arrangement won’t work long-term though, as Tim Hardaway Jr. should be back soon, so Hornacek will have to make a choice soon and the obvious choice is to go with our young gun.

THE SECOND UNIT

Kudos to Horny for pairing Dougie McBuckets with Kyle O’Quinn. Their chemistry is palpable every time they take the floor together. Dougie is such a good backdoor cutter, and KOQ has been a willing passer out of the high post or from the elbow all season long. It feels like at least once a game O’Quinn zips a pass by his defender’s ear to a back-cutting McDermott for an easy bucket:

Those two play great together in the second unit, and Beasley is a one man scoring MACHINE when his head is on right. Only he could get a bucket like this:

But if Jack is moved to the second unit to make room for Frankie, the Bockers will need a stout defensive two to take the tougher backcourt assignment. Insert the masked man Ron Baker or rookie Daymean Dotson. Baker has been a pest on the ball, and Dotson has demonstrated his defensive prowess in limited time on the floor. Let the young guys run and let Ramon Sessions rot.

Lance Thomas can certainly be inserted into any lineup and work as the glue guy. He’s the perfect type of swiss army knife player.

SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

Let’s not get too carried away with hating on Hornacek’s crazy inconsistent lineups. The Knicks’ starting two-guard has been out for a few weeks now and that has caused a lot of shuffling. Still, Hornacek liked a good amount of shuffling even with Hardaway Jr. in the lineup.

His return should spell slightly more consistency, but Hornacek needs to find a true rotation he can go to. A consistent allotment of minutes will give guys more exposure to each other’s playing styles and allow them to play better off one another.

And while he looks for that consistent rotation, he should experiment more with Frankie as a starter and KP at the 5.

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