Hornacek Is Choosing Youth Over Experience, and It May Save His Job | The Knicks Wall
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Jeff Hornacek Is Choosing Youth Over Experience, and It May Save His Job

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
Hornacek and the Knicks have shifted their time towards evaluating the youth in the wake of an ugly slide to the near-bottom of the Eastern Conference. Here’s why the attention towards youth development matters for him and the team.

Jeff Hornacek entered this season on the second year of a three-year, $15 million deal, finally free from Phil Jackson’s antiquated Triangle Offense™ (though Kurt Rambis stuck around). After New York traded Carmelo Anthony’s (and his ball-stopping game), Hornacek had one year to prove to the new(-ish) Knicks brass that he was the right guy to lead the franchise into the next phase.

For the first 55 games of the season, Hornacek clearly believed the best thing for the franchise—and his job security—was to compete for a fringe playoff berth and generally be as competitive of possible. This approach looked great after a surprisingly hot start but clearly became wildly unpopular and unwise after the team plummeted down the standings.

When Kristaps Porzingis went down with a torn ACL on February 6, the organization rightly pivoted: The waning stretch of the season would prioritize youth and athleticism, and thus the tank officially ensued. Hornacek, to his credit, accepted this fairly quickly, acknowledging, “You’re not mathematically out of any playoff race, but realistically, what are we, [7.5] games behind with [21] to go, so that’s probably not going to happen. So continue to play as hard as you can and get these young guys some minutes” (per ESPN).

Ironically, the recent developments are favorable to Hornacek’s chances of fending off Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, or whomever else. The pressure is officially off winning, and Hornacek will instead need to display developmental skills to persuade the front office to keep him around in the long-run.

So far, so good. Much to the delight of the fan-base—and thanks to some recent front office moves—Hornacek has properly switched around the rotations and is now demonstrably favoring the younger guys.

Jarrett Jack, who had since started at point guard for the team after the first three games, has been a DNP for the past two matches. Related, Courtney Lee has seen less than 14 minutes per game since the All-Star Break, despite having one of his best offensive seasons as a pro. Neither guy seems too stoked about it either.

On the other hand, Frank has seen an increase to about 27 minutes per game in the three contests since the break. It makes sense for him to get experience guarding multiple positions, but there’s justifiable concern that losing Frank’s blossoming pick-and-roll defense hurts the team overall. And if the Knicks want him to eventually be able to play both wing spots, he has to improve his catch-and-shoot ability and off-ball play, something Ntilikina can work on over these next weeks in lineups alongside Emmanuel Mudiay and/or Trey Burke, and overall challenge himself to play faster and more aggressively.

Mudiay has shown flashes of his lottery-status since joining the squad. Hornacek awarded him the first crack to replace Jack in the the starting point guard slot, and he’s responded by putting up 17.0 points and 7.8 assists per 36 minutes, including a 20-point (8-of-15 from the field, 3-of-5 from three), seven-assist outing versus Golden State on Monday.

Burke has garnered the most attention over the past week, and not just because of the uncanny Allen Iverson resemblance. His game has produced too, dropping 23.3 points per game on 53.5 percent from the field in 27 minutes per game off the pine, and even improving his defense. (Hornacek’s ability to get these young guys to play somewhat-inspired defense will reflect extremely well on him.)

Super-bouncy free agent signing Troy Williams has already provided a spark with 14 points in the Boston loss and can do things like this:

Rookie big Isaiah Hicks has gotten solid run, and Damyean Dotson is (finally) seeing some action, both players who have had plenty of burn in Westchester:

Hornacek should keep experimenting, even if the lineups don’t quite make sense. Not all of these lineups have been efficient or looked pretty (to say the least), but they offer a more refreshing and carefree vibe. Why not play three point guards together, if it allows all of them to try new things and put up shots? Luke Kornet is a 7’1″ rim protector who can shoot threes—I’d like to see him play more!

The proper way to tank is to put semi-exciting jumpy bodies on the court, show some flashes and spunk, and stay competitive for a few quarters per game. So far, the Knicks are doing a great job of that, even though catching up to the NBA’s tankers is highly unlikely. Still, Jeff Hornacek has admirably carried out the orders of the front office, and is getting promising performances from his younger players. If that trend continues, a couple months of losing may end up winning Hornacek a stable gig manning the sidelines at the Garden.

Staff Writer