Why Jeff Hornacek is succeeding with the Knicks

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Beating up on Phil Jackson is easy. Sporting, even. The Knicks’ top exec is an endless well of material, bouncing from bizarre interview (LeBron’s posse!) to bizarre interview (Carmelo doesn’t pass!), routinely injecting his opinions into the water supply before receding back into the Madison Square Garden shadows.

Oh, and he hasn’t been very good at his job, either. Jackson blew his first coaching hire (Derek Fisher), his first big trade (Jae Crowder would look nice in New York) and at times has seemed more interested in securing the legacy of the triangle offense than the future of the Knicks. Kristaps Porzingis — the Latvian import Jackson’s longtime confidant, Clarence Gaines, pushed so hard for — has been his lone achievement.

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Jeff Hornacek hasn't hung his hat on the triangle. (AP)
Jeff Hornacek hasn't hung his hat on the triangle. (AP)

Now there’s another: Jeff Hornacek.

I’ll admit: I wasn’t initially enthralled with the Hornacek hire. A criticism of Jackson is that he refuses to cast a net outside of his shallow pool of pals. He wasn’t interested in Tom Thibodeau and didn’t connect with Frank Vogel. Jeff Van Gundy wasn’t on Jackson’s radar, and it’s unclear if Phil knew anything about Hornets assistant Stephen Silas, save for him being Paul’s son.

Hornacek seemed … uninspired. Sure, there was head-coaching experience (a 101-112 record in two-plus years with the Suns), and Hornacek wasn’t part of the Jackson coaching tree. But he was less than a year removed from being run out of Phoenix, a demoralizing end highlighted by Suns management gutting his coaching staff before eventually canning him. This reeked of Jackson tapping a coach who would do his bidding, who would swallow Kurt Rambis’ input and run the triangle for 48 minutes.

Yet something has happened in the first two months of the season: Hornacek has been good. Really good. The Knicks are 14-11, far from conference contention but an enviable record for a team that has not sniffed .500 in three seasons. The offense has gone from one that ranked in the bottom third in the NBA last season to one just outside the top 10. And Hornacek has continued to guide the development of Porzingis while navigating the needs of ball-dominating players Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose.

How has he done it? His way. The triangle is gone, with the occasional out-of-timeout play the only real connection to it. Ask Luke Walton. “They do some triangle stuff, but they’re not the triangle,” the Lakers coach said. “Out of the triangle you can run some set plays, which it looks like they do. But the triangle is all about reads and not dictating what’s going to happen but reacting to what the defense does. And it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much of that.”

Hornacek is doing what a coach should do: Playing to his team’s strengths. That means a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls with Rose, isolations with Anthony and exploiting mismatches all over the floor with Porzingis. On Tuesday against Phoenix, Porzingis blended unguardable pick-and-pop jumpers with unblockable shots at the rim. Oh, and he connected on all four of his 3-point attempts, too. There’s a New York surliness to Porzingis’ game, evidenced by his response to being flung to the floor by the Suns’ Marquese Chriss in the third quarter. Porzingis didn’t get rattled; he responded with an alley-oop dunk over Chriss and a crossover into a midrange jump shot that made you briefly forget it was a 7-foot big man who did it.

There are more layers to explore with the Knicks’ offense, too. Consider: On the surface, a Rose-Anthony pick-and-roll combination would be devastating. A dynamic, (somewhat) overwhelming point guard and one of the best pure scorers in the NBA? It’s tantalizing — and it’s a combination the Knicks have not yet fully exploited. It’s a set Rose and Anthony have called for, and one Hornacek seems inclined to incorporate more of.

“Most of the times, Carmelo’s guy may stay home with him and that might open up Derrick,” Hornacek said. “If they step out and switch, then Carmelo’s got a smaller guy on him. I think that’s [something] we’ve done at times. When we get to the point where Carmelo says we can get better, he’s probably saying that we can really take advantage of those situations.”

Don’t underestimate the difficulty of succeeding in the climate Hornacek is in, either. Jackson’s running commentary to select national media outlets is a distraction. Not because of what he says, but because when he says it, everyone (from Hornacek to Anthony) is forced to comment on it. When Jackson uses racially charged language to describe LeBron James’s inner circle, everyone is asked about it; when he is critical of Anthony, the coach and star have to respond to it. Anthony, who rarely shies away from the tough questions, was frustrated last week having to address Jackson’s criticisms of him. That Hornacek has been able to keep the Knicks focused is a credit to his coaching.

Which, in a roundabout way, is a credit to Jackson, too. The most important pieces to any franchise are the head coach and franchise player. The Knicks have Porzinigs, 21, a staggering talent who is just scratching the surface of his limitless potential. And they have Hornacek, who has the temperament to handle the New York pressure cooker and the coaching chops to help the Knicks succeed in it. However long Jackson is for this job, at the very least he will have established the framework for success long after he is gone.

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