Knicks' Decision to Hire Hornacek a Surprise, but Just What Phil Jackson Wanted

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMay 19, 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek watches the team's NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland. A person with knowledge of the details says the New York Knicks are working on a deal to hire Hornacek as their coach. Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson has had discussions with the former Suns coach and there is mutual interest, but they have not begun negotiations on a contract, the person tells The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details of the coaching search are private. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

NEW YORK — If you want to tag along on Phil Jackson's long, strange NBA journey, it's best to tighten your seatbelt and load up on the Dramamine. The road is twisted, the driver wickedly unpredictable.

There may be jarring detours through Sioux City, Iowa, and the plains of Nebraska, and there's no telling where or how the trip will end.

Or who will be sitting in the passenger seat when it's all over.

Sometime in the last few days, Jackson locked in on Jeff Hornacek as his top choice to coach the New York Knicks, zooming past David Blatt, Frank Vogel and Kurt Rambis and stunning the entire basketball world in the process.

As B/R first reported Wednesday night, the Knicks and Hornacek are moving toward a deal, though formal contract negotiations had not yet begun. One source monitoring the talks called Hornacek's hiring "a foregone conclusion," saying that all parties "want to make this happen." Another source confirmed, "It's as close as humanly possible."

This was not the conclusion anyone expected.

Rambis was widely viewed as Jackson's top choice, because of their longtime friendship and Rambis' embrace of Jackson's offensive system, the triangle offense. Blatt had Madison Square Garden ties and a sturdy resume, Vogel a bright mind and a winning record.

But Hornacek? He has no ties to Jackson, no triangle training, and his record is modest.   

This, dear reader, would be a good time to drop the Dramamineor something stronger, if you've got it.

Jackson has never been a linear thinker. He goes where his impulses take him, seeking connections that are apparent only to him.

Jan 10, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks president Phil Jackson addresses media before the start of  the game against Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Hiring Hornacek, 53, who was fired by the Phoenix Suns in February, makes no sense, in general terms. Hiring Hornacek makes perfect sense, through the Phil Jackson prism.

What Jackson values mostin both players and coachesis an intellectual heft, an ability to think the game, and in Hornacek, he saw an analytical mind whose basketball values are in line with his.

"Intellectual capacity matters," said one person with insight into Jackson's decisionand now, more than ever, in an NBA shaped by advanced statistics, player-tracking technology and sports science.

Though the two hardly know each other, Hornacek earned Jackson's admiration long ago, when Jackson was coaching the Chicago Bulls and Hornacek was firing three-pointers in Phoenix and Utah. There was much to admire: Hornacek arrived as a marginal player, the 46th pick in the 1986 draft, and carved out a career as an elite shooter.

The Bulls and Jazz dueled in consecutive NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, giving Jackson an up-close appreciation for Hornacek's cerebral game. It matters, too, that Hornacek played for (and later coached under) Jerry Sloan, whose tenacity and offensive system Jackson openly admired.

Put simply, Hornacek has the right pedigree.

CHICAGO, UNITED STATES:  Chicago Bull player Michael Jordan (L) tries to get around Jeff Hornacek of Utah Jazz 01 June 1997 during the first half of game one of the NBA Finals at the United Center in Chicago, Il. AFP PHOTO/JEFF HAYNES (Photo credit should
JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

No, Hornacek is not a triangle disciple. But Jackson has always been more open to change than his many skeptics understood.

"System basketball" is the phrase Jackson used when he was hired as Knicks president in 2014, and again, repeatedly, when he sat down with B/R for a story last spring. Jackson's basketball values are rooted in ball and player movement, reading and reacting, thinking.

He wants all five players involved—not one star isolating on the wing and four standing idly by. He considers the pick-and-roll a healthy option—not the basis for an entire offense. He favors a system that provides structure but allows freedom of expression within that structurerather than relying on a coach to dictate every set.

The triangle provided the template for 11 championship runs, in Chicago and Los Angeles, but it is not the only system Jackson could embrace. He has praised the motion offense used by Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and by his former protege, Steve Kerr, in Golden State.

League sources indicate that the Knicks under Hornacek will indeed move away from a pure triangle approach, but will retain triangle elements (as many NBA offenses do).

"He wants a system of play," one source said of Jackson, "so that when he walks away, when you look at the New York Knicks, you say, 'OK, I understand how the Knicks play basketball.'"

That's the legacy Jackson desires, whether he departs next spring (via an opt-out clause) or in three years, when his contract ends.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 01:  Head coach Kurt Rambis of the New York Knicks talks to his team during a time out in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on April 1, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Elsa/Getty Images

The Knicks had no shortage of coaching options. Team officials were confident that each of their top candidatesHornacek, Blatt, Vogel and Rambiswould take the job if offered, according to sources.

Though reports of Hornacek's interview with Jackson surfaced just this week, he was, in fact, the first person Jackson scheduled when this search began, just after the season ended last month, per league sources.

Vogel, then coaching the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers, was not yet available. Luke Walton, another Jackson protege and assistant to Kerr, eliminated himself from consideration early on and then took the Los Angeles Lakers job.

Though Rambis was widely viewed as the favorite (including by many within the Knicks organization), team officials were leaning toward Blatt, until Hornacek won the job with his interview, with the intellect, creativity and flexibility Jackson sought.

Jackson would have been perfectly comfortable with Rambis, a triangle soul mate, though the backlash in New York would have been fierce. Rambis went 9-19 as the Knicks' interim coach this season, and carries the baggage of a rough two-year run in Minnesota years ago.

Jackson, ever the iconoclast, surely wouldn't have cared about the reactionsno more than he cared about the backlash after he tweeted vacation photos from Sioux City and Fort Robinson State Park earlier this month, in the midst of the coaching search. Nor has James Dolan, the Knicks' owner, ever concerned himself with fan desires (see Lin, Jeremy).

But team officials were "very cognizant" of the intense negativity directed at Rambis, sources said, and it would be foolish to discount it as a factor. (Rambis is likely to be retained in another capacity.)

By hiring Hornacek, the Knicks averted a fan revoltand more importantly entrusted their future, and budding star Kristaps Porzingis, to an unmistakably bright basketball mind.

As a rookie head coach two years ago, Hornacek guided the Suns to a 48-34 recordnearly doubling their win total and obliterating all expectations. He was runner-up for Coach of the Year, finishing just behind Popovich and ahead of Tom Thibodeau.

The Suns unraveled the last two seasons, amid a series of ill-considered trades and signings and a flurry of injuries to key players, most notably star guard Eric Bledsoe. Hornacek, 14-35 at the time of his dismissal, paid the price. But he remained popular in Phoenix and respected around the league.

No, Hornacek was not the most decorated coach available, nor the most popular, and certainly not the most obvious choice. The world expected Phil Jackson to follow the predictable path, to stay strictly attached to his own system, his own people.

But this much should now be clear: You can't put Phil Jackson in a box. Or even a triangle.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11am-1pm ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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