Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek is most likely a goner after the latest dead season, and although he had to face unwarranted difficulties, the second-year coach couldn’t chase away substantiated criticisms.
By this point, we all know the obligatory preface (or “RIGBY”—”blank is great, but you know…”) required before every analysis of Jeff Hornacek’s tenure as Knicks coach: The unceasing drama and roster upheaval paired with untimely injuries have deprived him of a fair shot at success. And that’s true. Hornacek is undoubtedly a victim of the general circus-like culture that defines the Knicks organization and has plagued so many of his predecessors.
However, it’s also true that Hornacek has been done remarkably little to overcome the drama and, in many cases—particularly during the tumultuous tanking stretch—has ignited the flames. Hornacek’s decision-making (both with his clipboard and his mouth) have sapped the positivity and productivity out of the season’s waning weeks, which could have offered intriguing glimpses into possible future contributors and given folks something to look forward to next season.
Last month, I argued that the pivot-to-tank could help save Hornacek’s job, as the pressure to win dissolved and would be replaced by a focus on player development and establishing a foundation for the franchise to build upon.
Instead, Hornacek has displayed zero competency as a nurturer, and both his troublesome communication and shaky coaching have been counterproductive to any semblance of team building in the shadow of overcoming a tough injury to swallow in Porzingis.
In actuality, there has been far less organizational-induced chaos during Hornacek’s second year on the job. Phil Jackson is gone, Carmelo Anthony is gone, Derrick Rose is gone, there have been no Charles Oakley-like incidents, and upper management has largely remained quiet when not performing terrible blues music. There have been deflating injuries, sure, but the issues surrounding this season’s squad have all orbited around Hornacek’s malevolent gravity.
From a coaching standpoint, Hornacek has had ups and downs, and certainly isn’t dreadful contrasted to other NBA head coaches, but it’s hard to argue that his tactics are shrewd enough to overcome larger flaws as a leader for a developing team. Often, for example, Hornacek would almost systematically prevent Porzingis from pairing up with Ntilikina on the court, despite a) statistics saying the pairing had a significant Net Rating, and b) building chemistry between the two most recent lottery selections by the team.
In fairness to Jeff, there have been some bright spots worth acknowledging, and he found some success during the one semi-extended stretch in which he was free to roam (though a home-heavy schedule certainly helped). Trey Burke’s emergence has been a pleasant surprise, much to the front office’s credit, and Hornacek has properly given him plenty of minutes and the freedom to operate in the guard’s promotion to starter. (The jury is still out on Emmanuel Mudiay, who mostly flailed in his audition as Knicks starting point guard, however.)
Plus, I personally believe he’s done a perfectly fine job overseeing Frank Ntilikina’s rookie season (most Knicks fans would probably disagree). Sure, Frank could have seen more run early on. But Frank also stepped on the hardwood as a deer-in-the-headlights teenager on a non-contender with limited offensive confidence. Bringing him along slowly while focusing on his defensive versatility has been smart and helpful. Yes, Frank’s offense has been putrid, but—if we’re being honest—it’s unclear if he’ll ever be a game-changing scorer, and that wasn’t going to happen this season regardless of the who was calling plays. His defense has shined at multiple positions, and his offense has shown flashes. Oh, and he’s still 19.
Hornacek on Frankie and his optimism with his development
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 27, 2018
Hornacek probably deserves credit for the team’s overall defensive performance during the months when they were trying to win. The Knicks were expected to be one of the league’s least resistant squads, but actually placed 17th in Defensive Rating at the time KP went down (per NBA Stats).
Still, his frustrating rotation decisions and stylistic deficiencies have understandably irked Knicks faithful. Even when the team was winning, Hornacek was favoring veterans and inefficient lineups at the expense of youth and athleticism, two areas in particular the Knicks needed to lean into during the 2017–18 season.
Furthermore, Hornacek’s inability to generate three-point shooting has been supremely disappointing. For a man who likes to bemoan the hindrance of the Triangle, his Knicks have generated a dearth of treys that would make Phil proud. The Knicks have inexcusably been worse from downtown this season, floundering at the bottom of the league in three-pointers made, attempted, and percentage. Hornacek—a great shooter himself but also a product of ‘90s-era hoops—had his best year as a coach (his 48-win debut campaign in Phoenix) leading a team that was among the league’s most prolific from deep, and he should have been thinking the same way with this Knicks team.
A couple other tidbits that might not be that significant but certainly don’t reflect well on Hornacek:
- The Knicks are 25th in third-quarter scoring this season, and last season they were 27th. Granted, it’s probably an oversimplification to just say, “halftime is for adjustments and/or motivating messages and the third-quarter performance should directly reflect that.” On the other hand, that is very much what halftime is supposed to be for, and that’s kind of what coaching is! And for what it’s worth, great teams tend to be pretty great during the third frame. The Warriors and Rockets are the two best, while Toronto, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Portland—all helmed by highly regarded coaches—also excel jumping out of the locker room.
- The road thing is bad. The Knicks are 21–60(!!!) away from the Garden under Hornacek, and their winter road woes caused their slide down the standings prior to KP’s injury. I believe this is directly tied to coaching. A huge part of the gig is about stabilizing and preparing your team on a daily basis so they can execute in various settings and circumstances. In related news, Coach of the Year frontrunner Brad Stevens has the Celtics at 28–11 away from Beantown this season.
Beyond the court, one potential upside to tanking is the opportunity to bond with young players and earn their trust and respect. The patience and developmental skills Brett Brown demonstrated while enduring “the Process” earned him a shot with a winning roster, and now he’s approaching 50 wins. Across the East River, Kenny Atkinson has revived G League careers, earning him high marks around basketball. And on the other side of the Hudson, in the NFL, Todd Bowles earned an extension with the Jets after a 10-loss season by showing positive progress during a rebuild, garnering steady doses of praise from his players.
At this point (and this does not require a RIGBY, or HIGBY in this scenario) we can safely surmise that Hornacek—hired specifically so Phil could roll out his own agenda—clearly lacks the gravitas required to earn the respect of a locker room (not to mention the New York market). As discussed on last week’s TKW Podcast, for a guy with only four-ish seasons of NBA head coaching experience, he has sure racked up an alarming number of instances of his players basically tell him to fuck off:
- In Phoenix, Marcus Morris threw a towel and directed disrespectful language at him, and Hornacek was fired one month later;
- Derrick Rose felt like he could just up and leave the team, not bothering to run it by Hornacek;
- ‘Melo capped his Knicks tenure hurling F-bombs at his coach;
- Franchise-cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis reportedly cursed him out;
- He started an actual fight with Joakim Noah;
- Burke, fresh out of the G League, ignored him on the final play in a recent loss;
- Universally-beloved teammate and jovial Bar Mitzvah Man Kyle O’Quinn got into a verbal altercation with him, and did not sound remorseful about it
Hornacek upset with KOQ's close out defense, the two yell at each other pic.twitter.com/BCZ39kmqzv
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 24, 2018
There is a reason for this pattern, beyond basic personality stuff: Hornacek has a horrible habit of calling out his players in public and rarely taking the blame himself. I know everyone is crabby during tanking season, but Hornacek seemingly can’t stop pissing off his locker room. Most recently, after the embarrassing 97–73 home loss to Orlando, he blamed his players for quitting on him and “dropping their heads” in the fourth quarter, comments that peeved one Tim Hardaway Jr., who’s signed into the next three years. He’s also questioned the team’s pride, effort, and commitment to chemistry in recent weeks—despite the fact that tanking requires deploying nonsensical, random lineups in an effort to shamelessly lose.
Quick question: have you ever heard one of Hornacek’s guys really sing his praises? Or say something like, “Oh I love Jeff, that’s my guy.” The closest I’ve seen is Courtney Lee’s belated defense of his coach, though Lee didn’t actually say anything nice about him.
Hornacek’s demise in Phoenix from likable coach of a promising team into pariah running a shitshow in two-plus years was baffling in the moment, but maybe it makes sense now given the setting of the Big Apple. That 2013–14 Suns team, in retrospect, had decent players, and Hornacek evidently has a habit of wearing out his welcome.
Again, the deck has been stacked against Hornacek, but that doesn’t excuse a laundry list of errors. He had one job during this tanking stretch—build relationships and develop young players—yet he has basically done the opposite. Considering Scott Perry didn’t hire him and neither the team (besides Lee, kind of) nor the front office has backed him amid the bad press, it’s nearly impossible to see him returning for another go at it.
Hornacek has indicated that he wants to return, but doesn’t seem to be making any public effort to earn the support of the media and the locker room. In fact—it kind of feels like he’s now the one throwing the towel.