As Knicks Rumors Swirl, Jeff Hornacek's Job Performance Begs for Scrutiny

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2018

New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Thursday, March 15, 2018, in New York. The 76ers won 118-110. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

For months now, people around the NBA have been wondering whether Jeff Hornacek will be back next season as Knicks head coach. Most factors seem to be working against him.

For one, there's the 57-97 record the team's compiled since he was hired last year. Also, the man who hired him, Phil Jackson, is no longer in charge.

Head coaches with poor records working for new bosses aren't usually granted much of a leash. And yet, after being named general manager in the offseason, Scott Perry elected to keep Hornacek and take the year to evaluate him and the team.

Now, with that year winding down, rumors about Hornacek's future are beginning to swirl. Hornacek has just one year remaining on his contract. Head coaches despise working without job security, and such scenarios typically prompt decisions from front offices.

Perry and team president Steve Mills deserve credit for keeping any reservations they might have about Hornacek in house and backing him during the year. But rumor season is now upon us. Earlier this week, Marc Stein of the New York Times (h/t NBCSports.com) reported that "former Knicks guard Mark Jackson keeps coming up as a hot name to succeed Hornacek amid a growing belief the Knicks' new front-office chief—Scott Perry—will want to install his own hand-picked choice heading into next season."

Other names have been floated as well. There's David Blatt, who played on the same Princeton team as Mills and Knicks vice president of player development, Craig Robinson. There's two-time All-Star Jerry Stackhouse, last year's D League Coach of the Year, who played for the Pistons back when Perry was part of the team's front office. Doc Rivers' name has been floated, too. 

Also, while we're playing the conjecture game, here are two more candidates with connections to Perry: Miami Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard, who Perry recruited to Michigan back when he was an assistant coach for the school, and Stephen Silas, the respected Charlotte Hornets assistant coach who is represented by the same agency as Perry (so is Hornacek, for that matter, but that might not help him).

All of this guesswork, though, buries the essential question here: Is Hornacek the best coach for the Knicks going forward? After all, judging his tenure purely off his atrocious record would be unfair. Last year, he was saddled with an aging and overrated roster and forced to run Jackson's triangle offense. This year, he lost his best player to injury and has been forced to oversee a massive tank-job. It'd be hard for any coach to amass wins under these circumstances.

But there are certain areas where we can judge Hornacek, places we can look to discern whether he's the best man to lead the team's latest rebuilding project.

Let's start with the defense. The Knicks right now rank 22nd in points allowed per possession (according to the statistics website Cleaning the Glass, which we'll use here since it cuts out noise like garbage time), a five-spot upgrade from last season, but still a far cry from competence. Again, not all of that can be blamed on Hornacek. He doesn't choose the roster, and having to build defenses around a turnstile of Derrick Rose, Emmanuel Mudiay and Michael Beasley would confound even the most brilliant of tacticians.

Jeff Hornacek has had to make do with below-average defenders throughout much of his tenure as the New York Knicks' head coach.
Jeff Hornacek has had to make do with below-average defenders throughout much of his tenure as the New York Knicks' head coach.Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Look at the ways the Knicks surrender points, though, and you spot some troubling trends.

For example, the two most efficient shots for an offense are lay-ups and corner three-pointer, meaning preventing those types of shots should be the top priority for any defense. And yet, under Hornacek, the Knicks have shown no urgency to do so. Some numbers:

  • Last year, no team surrendered a higher percentage of looks at the rim than the Knicks; this year they rank 20th in that category.
  • This year, only one team has allowed a higher percentage corner three attempts. Last year they finished 20th in that category. 

Either Hornacek is ignoring the math or failing to convey his scheme to his players. He's mentioned multiple times this season that he'd like to take away opponent three-point looks, and has most frequently chalked up the barrage of bombs against his Knicks to slow rotations and poor defensive fundamentals.

"We need to get better on closeouts, that type of stuff," he said after a January practice. "We were sucking in a little too much. Some of it is just stance. If you're standing up ... first thing you have to do is bend your knees. We tell our guys, 'OK, that takes that long, (but) if your knees are bent and cocked and ready to go, you get out there' and guys have done better.'"

Perhaps that's the case. But you'd think after two years, some of those issues would disappear, even if he's not dealing with the most willing and able defenders. Also, the numbers never improved. 

The offense under Hornacek has fallen into similar traps. The Knicks mostly eschewed the three-point line last year and instead relied heavily on mid-range jumpers. The belief was that Hornacek's hands were tied by Jackson's triangle. After all, Hornacek is the coach who, after being hired by the Phoenix Suns in 2013, had the following to say to Zach Lowe (then of Grantland) about mid-range jumpers: 

"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."

And yet, this season, only one team has taken more long twos than the Knicks. Hornacek's offense has ranked 24th in the league in shots at the rim, and second-to-last in three-pointers. 

Again, not all of this can be tossed as his feet. He hasn't had many dynamic athletes or penetrators, at least before Trey Burke and Mudiay were brought in. And his best scorers—Kristaps Porzingins, Michael Beasley, Enes Kanter—are shoot-first-and-second post players.

Still, there's a vast middle ground between where the Knicks are and, say, the Houston Rockets, and there's a myriad of ways that Hornacek could have tried tilting the math in his team's favor. But it takes an emphasis from the coaching staff.

"(With the Knicks), it's more so take what's open, best shot available, and that's part of basketball," Mudiay recently told The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov. He added that his former team, the Denver Nuggets, had a rule of no more than 15 mid-range shots per game.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 21: Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks talks with head Coach Jeff Hornacek during a game at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York on October 21, 2017.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

There have been other troubling comments from Hornacek as well. In October, when asked about Porzingis' improved post game, Hornacek insinuated that Porzingis had developed it on his own without input from him or the Knicks, a statement that most franchises, who put together intricate offseason plans for players, would find baffling.

"No one told us [when I was playing in the NBA] what to work on," Hornacek said. "You figure it out yourself."

None of these are necessarily deal-breakers, but they don't paint Hornacek as a coach fully in touch with today's game.

That doesn't mean he can't grow and, with the help of the Knicks' Jackson-less front office, be the coach the Knicks need. It does mean, though, that the Knicks need to make some major changes. They don't have to get rid of Hornacek. But they do need to reverse some of these troubling trends. 

      

All stats via Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.  

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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