How Much Blame Does Jeff Hornacek Deserve for New York Knicks Failures?

Yaron WeitzmanFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2017

New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek watches his team play during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

NEW YORK — How does one even go about evaluating Jeff Hornacek's first season with the New York Knicks?

Officially, he's the team's head coach. The Knicks even held a fancy press conference last summer to celebrate his hire. The media guide lists him as the team's head coach, too, if you need further proof.

Of course, this being the Knicks, things aren't exactly that simple. You're no doubt familiar with the drama and power struggle surrounding who's actually in charge of picking and installing the basketball schemes around MSG.

Power struggle isn't even the right phrase, as there doesn't seem to have been much of a struggle between Hornacek and Knicks president Phil Jackson. It's been more of Jackson instructing Hornacek what to do, and Hornacek being forced to listen. That's because Jackson is his boss, and Jackson's right-hand man, Kurt Rambis, is the associate head coach and de facto defensive coordinator. And he ensures that Jackson's edicts are followed.

So that's the web in which Hornacek finds himself trapped. He's already said that the triangle offense will be team's scheme next season, and that off-season decisions will be made with the triangle in mind. It's possible he was blinking a Morse Code message of "save me" while delivering this news. Never mind that Hornacek is on the record as being pro-quick shots and pick-and-rolls and favoring three-pointers as opposed to mid-range jumpers, or that the Phoenix Suns teams he coached embraced these modern trends.

"The ones we have to eliminate are the ones that are within four or five feet of the three-point line. Those are low-percentage shots worth two points," Hornacek told Grantland's Zach Lowe after being named Suns head coach in the summer of 2013. 

"When you look at the game today, with the rule changes—that's why everyone is going to some sort of pick-and-roll. The rules are, you can't touch that guy with your hands. It's not like the old days, where you could hand check," he said.

The Knicks boast different personnel than those Suns teams (few players in the NBA lean on isolations and mid-range jumpers as heavily as Carmelo Anthony). Still, the contrast in the offensive makeup between Hornacek's two teams is both jarring and telling.

Hornacek, ostensibly, was hired over the summer to drag the Knicks' offense into the 21st century. Yet he's done little to alter the Knicks' offensive profile this season, other than boost the pace a bit. 

No squad chucks more mid-range jumpers than the Knicks, and only one (the Detroit Pistons) generates a greater percentage of its points off those poor looks. The Knicks take two more catch-and-shoot treys (one of the most efficient shots in the game) than they did last year, but still rank among the league leaders in touches at the elbow.

They remain one of the worst teams in the NBA at creating points via passes, despite being third in the NBA in passes tossed per game. They're still as isolation-reliant as anyone.

The translation of all this: There's no zip to the offense. Passes are being thrown because players have been programmed to throw them, not as a trigger to kickstart the offense.

 

This, of course, is exactly what you'd expect a triangle team to look like, which brings us back to Hornacek and why it's not quite fair to toss all the blame at his feet. The man is being forced to run an antiquated offensive system that his players despise.

“It’s a different offense,’’ Rose told reporters recently. “As a point guard, you’re always in the corner and just got to play off reads and play that way. It’s new for everybody here."

There's not a coach in the world that could succeed in that environment.

Yet, there are still areas where he's come up short that are solely his doing.

For one, Hornacek has looked increasingly defeated as the season has inched on. He's always been reactive on the bench, but the frequency with which he leaps out of his seat and waves his hands in disgust following poor plays has rubbed some players the wrong way, according to a league source.

The team's porous defense is also on Hornacek. The Knicks have surrendered 108.6 points per 100 possessions this year, the fifth worst mark in the league. Most worrisome, though, is the that the defense has been awful since Day 1. It's not like there has been slippage over the past month as the Knicks shifted from playoff chasing to tanking.

There are many culprits there. Anthony has never been an energetic defender. Rose played this year allergic to the very thought. Having two starters who don't contribute on that end is certainly not ideal.

Also, to be fair to Hornacek, it's unclear who exactly is in charge of the defense. Rambis was named defensive coordinator early in the year, and Knicks players, knowing that answering any questions about Rambis' role is equivalent to stepping on a land mine, decline to comment on how much power comes with this title. But watch Rambis during timeouts, as he stands on the outskirts by himself and you learn all you need to about his reputation in the Knicks' locker room and how little he's able to contribute. 

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Hornacek, meanwhile, no matter how powerless he is, is still the head coach, and his resistance to instituting and sticking to a single scheme has also prevented the Knicks' from developing the cohesion needed to defend at an above-average clip.  

Four different Knicks players told Bleacher Report that the team's pick-and-roll coverage changes every game. Most teams have one base scheme. None of those players blamed Hornacek for that. In fact, each pointed out that it makes sense to tailor an attack to an opponent's strengths. But at some point this year, with his team struggling, Hornacek's most prudent move might have been perfecting one defense.

Just look at the areas where the Knicks have stumbled most. They surrender more shots at the rim than any other team in the league. Offensive rebounds, too. They foul a ton. These are all signs of a defense with poor weak-side communication and rotations, symptoms of not having a scheme.

"Defensively, you know, there's still a lot of things we need to get better at, pressure on the ball, bigs being up," Hornacek told reporters last week. "We've had three or four games here in the last 10 or 12 that we've played really good defense."

Three or four games in the last 10 or 12? Not exactly a ringing endorsement. 

All of which comes back to the original question: How are you supposed to judge the job Hornacek's done in his first year when an argument can be made that his lieutenant has more power with the bosses than he does? Hornacek has two years and $10 million left on his deal, so it's unlikely he goes anywhere this summer. He's also already made it clear he's happy to be a Jackson yes-man if it means keeping his job.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"We talk about stuff all the time," Hornacek said of Jackson recently. "So when he comes out and demonstrates for the guys, he's so used to being out on the court it's probably fun for him to do. And the guys get another look at it from a guy who has run it for years and years, so it's good."

Hornacek did deal with a similar situation in Phoenix, where management forced him to fire his top assistant coaches, so this isn't completely new terrain.

The key for him going forward, assuming Jackson stays, will be figuring out ways to follow Jackson's orders while simultaneously leaving his footprint on the team. Ceasing with the negative in-game reactions could help players who are already frustrated with Jackson's meddling feel that he's on their side. Or perhaps making defense Hornacek's domain would help. 

He is obviously in a tough situation. But he has to do better.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted and accurate as of April 2.

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.