Not playing one of your top young building blocks during the preseason is one thing. Keeping him on the bench in the season opener? Now it’s time to investigate.
The 2017–18 season got off to a predictable start last night. The Oklahoma City Thunder rolled through the Knicks and everyone not named Kristaps Porzingis looked like spoiled milk. There were no true surprises. Carmelo Anthony had a decent game, Paul George looked amazing and Russell Westbrook had another triple-double. Tim Hardaway Jr. shot poorly, but bad shooting games will happen, especially against Andre Roberson.
What Knicks fans should be outraged over is the lack of minutes thrown Willy Hernangómez’s way. Jeff Hornacek chose not to start Willy, which was not he end of the world. As the game progressed, I noticed only Kyle O’Quinn was coming off the bench to relieve Enes Kanter–who controlled the paint with the authority of a hall monitor–and began to get angry.
Willy did not enter the game until the final four minutes of regulation. By then, the game was well over and the starters had been given the rest of the night off. This was a shock to the TNT broadcasting team, Knicks fans and, above all, common sense. But surely there had to be a legitimate reason, be it an injury or an illness. Apparently not. This was a premeditated move by Hornacek:
Hernangomez said Hornacek told him he wouldn't be in the rotation tonight.
— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) October 20, 2017
The coach clearly has an issue with his young center. In the four preseason games Willy appeared in, he started once (playing only 22 minutes) and played sparingly off the bench in the others.
This is not how you groom a key member of your young core. Not only should Willy’s minutes increase, he should be starting–especially if the alternative is an older and clumsier version of him. Hornacek must have his reasons, as stupid as I’m sure they are.
Before we dive into why Willy has been given the cold shoulder, let’s look at his receipts.
Per 100 possessions he averaged 22.2 points, 19.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks, shot 52.9 percent from the floor, had a 117 offensive rating and a 107 defensive rating (per BBall_Ref). Those numbers are eye-opening.
This is impressive because he was out of the rotation to start last season. He started to grab more minutes as the season winded down thanks to injuries and overall ineptitude from his comrades. Despite being out of the rotation to start the season, he made the All-Rookie First Team. With names like Joel Embiid, Buddy Hield, and Dario Saric next to him, it was a great first step for the young Spaniard. Those three are seeing major minutes this season.
We all know Hernangómez deserves to play. We want to find out why Hornacek does not feel the same way. We’ll start with basketball reasons and slowly delve into the more petty topics, because after all, this is the NBA.
I mean, did you see Kanter and O’Quinn play last night? Both are solid guys but both are also familiar coming off the bench for a reason.
Tweaking with Lineups
This is a farfetched idea mainly because it is so damn stupid. But just to give Hornacek the benefit of the doubt, maybe he knew this game was over before it started. The Thunder are the third best team in the league. Their big three is eerily reminiscent of those LeBron Heat squads. Maybe Hornacek didn’t want to waste Willy. Yeah, nevermind, this idea sounds even more stupid now. Let’s move on.
Light a Spark on Defense
If you take a look at Willy’s numbers from above, one of those things is not like the others. His defensive rating sticks out as the one number that leaves you pondering a bit. Willy is many things on the basketball court, but a monster on defense is not one of them. It is the one part of his game that if he corrects, he can transform into a true force to reckoned with.
This is the only logical reason Hornacek chose not to play him against OKC:
My take: If Hornacek wants to bench Hernangomez in the opener to motivate him on 'D', that's fine. But he ultimately needs to be in rotation
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) October 20, 2017
The decision becomes less logical when you see Kanter getting sautéed and O’Quinn not doing much to relieve it. If those are the alternatives, then why the hell freeze him out?
Not only is Willy younger at 23 years old, but he is also more talented on offense and better on the boards. He is also on an extremely team-friendly contract. He is on the books for two or three more seasons with a cap hit under $2 million. That’s an edited 2K contract.
Oh, and I almost forgot the most important reason: he plays extremely well with his friend Porzingis.
Cold War with Porzingis
That transitions us to the petty side of things. Lost in all the Knicks news this summer was a report of Hornacek and Porzingis not getting along. When Porzingis infamously skipped his exit meeting, it was an assumed shot at Phil Jackson. Incorrect. Porzingis was upset with someone that would be in attendance, but that man was Hornacek.
According to reports, Hornacek pulled Willy aside and asked him to tell his buddy KP to “stop playing like a pu — y”. This led to Porzingis shutting down his relationship with Hornacek and taking off for Latvia a little earlier than expected. Hornacek sent a couple texts to his star over the summer to mend the fence, but Porzingis left him on read. That’s the last we really heard about it, which leads me to believe there is still no love lost between the two.
Hornacek and Porzingis could have a similar relationship to Jon Snow and Alliser Thorne in Game of Thrones. For those unfamiliar, Thorne was an old ranger who knew Jon was his best ranger, but simply did not take a liking to him. In addition to humiliating Jon any chance he got, he also took his frustrations out on Jon’s friend, neighborhood nerd Sam Tarly. Thorne eventually went after Jon, which ultimately led to Thorne being hung for treason.
Has Willy become the Sam Tarly to Porzingis’ Jon Snow? I believe so. Hornacek knows he cannot touch Porzingis. Jackson lost his untouchable status trying to push KP out over the summer. So instead, he is going after his best friend on the team. Freezing Willy out is his way of sticking it to Porzingis. Will Porzingis step in and call for Hornacek’s head? I know I want Hornacek’s head on a spike already.
Hornacek Wants Out
Maybe Hornacek simply wants out. He’s seen the dysfunction and the toxicity of working in James Dolan’s cesspool. The one player worth coaching for does not like him and the feeling appears to be mutual. Why stick around?
He spent his first season being force-fed the team president’s offense and still has to deal with Kurt Rambis being on his bench. I don’t blame him for not wanting to stick around. Not playing Willy (and to lesser degree Frank Ntilikina) is a more subtle approach, but continued rotation mismanagement could be a nice way to walk away and still keep all his money. In his two years at MSG, he knows Dolan does not have an issue paying guys not to work. I must say I do not fully blame him.
Willy Attempted to Bag Abby Hornacek
This is the most farfetched of the bunch and one most likely to get me duffed by Hornacek. The things I do for The Knicks Wall.
Jeff Hornacek has an attractive daughter named Abby. She works for ESPN and even hosts her own sports talk show. Willy is also young and in the sports business. His buddy Porzingis has already shown a propensity to slide into the DMs. I think it’s safe to assume Willy has slid into his fair share as well.
Maybe, just maybe, Willy was scrolling through IG (Note: Abby and Willy do not follow each other on Instagram or Twitter) and Abby caught his eye. Maybe he respectfully slid into the young Hornacek’s DMs asking her out to dinner but was kindly rejected. And maybe the older Hornacek found out about it.
Mix his already transferrable hatred towards Willy (via Porzingis) with this, and you get a pretty pissed off dad/boss. I highly doubt this was the case, but in the NBA nothing is off limits.
There are simply not many legitimate reasons Willy was MIA in the season opener. It was hard enough watching Frank Ntilikina look like Calvin Cambridge without his lucky kicks.
The mission statement of this season should be to develop the young core and acquire a high draft pick. Willy is a major part of that core and needs to be in. Let’s see if Hornacek comes to his senses. If he does not, he could be shown the same door that many before him have begrudgingly entered.
Until then, it’s #FREEWILLY:
FREE WILLY pic.twitter.com/s3TkvnE1Ds
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 20, 2017
— Mike Cortez, staff writer