When new management takes over an NBA franchise, it usually evaluates the existing staff to see who stays and who goes. That process has been underway for the past few months with the New York Knicks.
In the front office, general manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills hired five new executives/scouts in the offseason and demoted several incumbent staffers.
On the court, the big roster shakeup under the new management team, obviously, was the Carmelo Anthony trade. But Perry and Mills continue to evaluate the roster daily in the wake of that trade (as evidenced most recently by engaging in trade talks with the Phoenix Suns for Eric Bledsoe).
But what about the sidelines? Entering the season, organizational decision-makers wanted to see if head coach Jeff Hornacek could get the Knicks’ rotation players to improve on defense and to play with sustained effort, according to people familiar with the matter. That’s typical criteria for a coaching evaluation, of course. But Knicks decision-makers also wanted to see how Hornacek performed outside of the shadow of former president Phil Jackson, who influenced the way Hornacek ran the Knicks’ offense last season, those people say.
So far, the on-court results for Hornacek haven’t been pretty.
New York is 0-3 entering Friday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets. They’ve blown a 21-point lead at home against the Detroit Pistons and were embarrassed during a 21-point road loss against the Boston Celtics earlier this week. Entering play on Thursday, the Knicks ranked 30th in offensive efficiency, 25th in defensive efficiency and 29th in net rating.
That’s not good. Also not ideal?
Players said after Tuesday’s loss in Boston that some of their teammates didn’t know the plays well.
“We’re all out there just running like we don’t know what’s going on,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “It can’t happen.”
Courtney Lee said some of the new Knicks were in the wrong positions on several offensive sets.
“We messed up on a lot of plays where the ball wasn’t getting delivered on time or one or two guys not being on the same page as far as the play-calling,” the veteran shooting guard said.
Now, neither player was calling out Hornacek or the coaching staff directly. They were unhappy with their teammates who botched the plays.
But their words certainly don’t reflect well on the coaching staff. Neither does this observation from ESPN Front Office Insider Bobby Marks, which was published during the Knicks-Celtics game:
We haven’t even reached the 10 game mark and New York is already in early April mode. At least hustle and sprint back on Defense.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) October 25, 2017
There are, of course, mitigating factors here. The Knicks have six new players in their rotation and they played in a shortened preseason.
Coaches have noted that players are picking up the details of the offense well over the past few weeks. Hornacek said on Thursday that the Knicks actually ran 95 percent of their offense correctly against Boston. So maybe there’s reason for optimism.
But the bottom line is ugly: New York is the NBA’s only winless team entering play Friday. The club also went 0-5 in the preseason. If they lose to Brooklyn on Friday night, there’s a real possibility that they can start the season 0-7 (their next three opponents are Cleveland, Denver and Houston.) So is Friday’s game a must-win for Hornacek?
Would Perry and Mills make a change if the Knicks are winless in early November? Only they know the answer to that. If they let Hornacek go, they’d probably have to bring in someone from the outside to take over, which is tricky (though not impossible) to do in-season. Using an interim coach from Hornacek’s staff for the rest of the season would essentially mean that the organization was throwing away the first year of the Mills/Perry regime. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.
There’s also no sign of discord between Mills, Perry and Hornacek. Hornacek communicates well with Mills and Perry, according to people familiar with the dynamic. And Mills and Hornacek have worked together closely for the past 16 months. Also worth noting: Hornacek has had to steer New York through some calamities that were out of his control:
There was the Derrick Rose civil suit in training camp last year, the Carmelo Anthony-Jackson drama throughout the course of the season, the Charles Oakley fiasco in February and Joakim Noah, his starting center last season, dealing with injury issues and, later, a drug suspension. On top of all of that, Jackson insisted that Hornacek run triangle offense rather than what Hornacek was accustomed to running in Phoenix.
That’s a lot to deal with in 16 months.
So, in a perfect world, Hornacek would have the full season to show management if he’s the right coach to lead the Knicks’ rebuild.
But Perry has said that he’ll be aggressive in trying to improve the Knicks’ roster, and you’d have to think he’d take a similar approach to the coaching staff. He’s willing to be patient with the process of team building, but also doesn’t want to waste time with the wrong people in place, according to people familiar with his thinking.
So is Hornacek coaching for his job on Friday night against Brooklyn in just the fourth game of the season? As crazy as it sounds, you shouldn’t rule it out.