The Knicks are one of the NBA’s surprising stories of the NBA season. The team currently has a 16-14 record and are tied with the Washington Wizards for the 7th best record in the Eastern Conference.
Not bad for a team most pegged as a likely bottom six lottery team in the preseason.
The thing is those preseason projections were warranted. Just look at all the question marks the team faced prior to the first game.
Tim Hardaway was signed to a 4 year $72 million deal. The next biggest offer Hardaway received was in the $50 million range from his previous team the Atlanta Hawks. The signing looked like a drastic overpay from a desperate team.
Frank Ntilikina was selected with the 8th overall pick ahead of players such as Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, and Donovan Mitchell. All three would have been a much more prefered pick among fans on draft day.
Carmelo Anthony was dealt for what it seemed like pennies on the dollar when Phil Jackson decided to move him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second round pick.
Ron Baker? The undrafted free agent who averaged 4.1 and 2.1 assists on 37.8% shooting in 16.5 minutes a game? Yeah, he got a no trade clause.
Kristaps Porzingis? Was he ready to take the step to stardom and was he able to carry an offense a nightly basis?
The credit for the early season success deserves to go to Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek seemed to be a placeholder coach once Phil Jackson resigned from his title as President of Basketball operations.
Most fans believed Hornacek would be ousted once the Knicks started struggling mightily and a interim coach would lead the team the remainder of the year. The exception was that the new front office would want to bring in a new head coach that fit their vision and direction, not a holdover like Hornacek.
Yet, Hornacek is here coaching his tail off and looking like he may be here for the long term if he can get the Knicks to the playoffs.
Hornacek has excelled this season in getting the Knicks to buy in to a pass heavy, swing the ball to the open man type offense. No more is there constant one on one isolation sets being run and no more are their triangle sets being run.
A year ago, Phil Jackson forced Hornacek to run the triangle a majority of the time. Forcing a coach to run an offensive system with little prior experience in it is setting that coach up to fail. That’s exactly what happened.
Hornacek was strapped and had his hands tied behind his back. He had no freedom to operate and he could not coach the team the way he wanted.
Last year, the Knicks ranked 19th in the NBA in assists per game with 21.8 a game. This year? Up to 9th at 23.0 a game. It may no seem like a lot but it’s a significant improvement as it shows his team trusts one another more often.
Hornacek’s best trait this year has been adjusting his rotations based on how the game is flowing and letting players finish out games who’ve been playing well.
And guess what?
As of today, the Knicks rank 3rd in the NBA in fourth quarter differential trailing only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. The Knicks are outscoring opponents by 1.9 points per game.
The Knicks also rank third in the league in fourth quarter scoring averaging 26.7 points per game.
Just last week, Hornacek has let Ron Baker and Frank Ntilikina close out games late in the fourth quarter against both the Nets and the Thunder. Both had the hot hand and were playing well defensively so Hornacek let them finish out the game. And close they did.
That’s getting your entire team involved. That’s displaying trust in players whether they’re your top guy or they are the 11th man on the depth chart.
Hornacek has made it a point to get everyone involved and make sure everyone feels as if they are part of the team.
The Knicks usually go 9 deep on a given night and will go 10 when at full strength. If things are not going right, Hornacek will turn to guys like Ron Baker, Ramon Sessions, or Willy Hernangomez for a stretch of minutes if a spark is needed.
What’s even been more impressive about this Knicks team is they have not been healthy for a majority of the year.
Kristaps Porzingis has already missed 6 games and is still out indefinitely with a knee issue. Tim Hardaway Jr has missed 9 games and counting with a stress reaction in his leg. Enes Kanter has missed three games with back issues and has been playing through a sore neck. Even Frank Ntilikina has been banged up at times with foot ailments causing him to miss three games.
To play that many games without your top three scorers and top draft pick and to still exceed expectations shows Hornacek has been the right man for the job.
If the Knicks keep up they’re current pace, Hornacek should draw plenty of praise in the Coach of the Year voting.
And rightfully so, time to start giving Hornacek the praise he deserves.
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