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What can we learn from Jeff Hornacek's time in Phoenix?

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Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

First: Jeff Hornacek is not Knicks coach yet. The two parties are, by all accounts, still negotiating a contract. I get a strong sense that this is *not* a Steve Kerr situation, and that the arrangement will not fall through, but you never know. From here forward we're going to speak about Hornacek under the expectation that this is happening.

I don't know a ton about Jeff Hornacek, or at least I didn't before last night. I liked him as a player (and rooted with all my little might for his Jazz to beat Phil Jackson and the Bulls), and I enjoyed watching the fast-paced Suns in his first year coaching Phoenix. I've met him and enjoyed several interviews with him, and gather that he's a calm, intelligent person. I also know that, under his watch, the Suns collapsed in a heap of roster upheaval, injury, and grumpy players. Hornacek got a towel thrown in his face, his assistants got fired, then he got fired. That's all I've got coming into this, so I've gone around reading and talking to people (namely Dave King from Bright Side of the Sun, who will appear frequently in this post), and here are some things I've gathered.

Jeff Hornacek is flexible* and agreeable

*In the coaching sense, although maybe he can also do a split. I can neither confirm nor deny.

Given the way Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher reportedly struggled to communicate, I wondered how Hornacek got along with management in Phoenix. Here's what Dave had to say:

No matter how good or how bad it got, Hornacek always appeared to be on the same page with the front office. Even when they were dysfunctional, and left him hanging with a malcontent for months on end, he didn't throw any of the brass under the bus. And when he was fired, he never did an interview and never let any bad blood leak. I imagine the same will be true of Phil and Jeff. They will be best buds. Hornacek is genuine and gives everyone respect - so there's no sense of fakeness at all. My biggest worry for you guys is that Hornacek will submit too much to Phil's overbearing personality and need to be included. You don't necessarily want Phil having the run of the place. I'm not saying Hornacek is soft. I'm just saying he's inclusive and lets everyone have a say.

I can see why that might be appealing to Jackson, who is himself a coach and might like to exert some dogmatic influence. Hopefully not so much influence that it makes Hornacek's job difficult!

Speaking of that influence: Coaches tend to have systems, and we were told that mattered a lot in this coaching search. What was Hornacek's system like in Phoenix? Here's Dave:

Adaptive and creative, expecting the players to make decisions as the plays unfold. He doesn't script out plays all the way to "the shot", except for short-shot-clock ATOs. And that's only occasionally. He sets it up, draws up picks and initial actions, giving the play maker the ability to make multiple decisions based on how the defense reacts. There's a lot of pace and space. Run fast on misses. Run faster on makes. Spread the floor. Shoot a ton of threes. That worked real well for Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, but not so much for Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight who need a bit more structure. But then for some reason, Hornacek felt compelled to give the ball most of the time to Bledsoe, which frustrated Dragic and Thomas. Bledsoe had the most talent of them all, but isn't the best decision maker on the fly.

A lot of the above is echoed in this post by Bryan Gibberman -- another person playing close attention to the Suns. On one hand, Hornacek played a fast-breaking offense with a spread floor and a high pick-and-roll, where Jackson historically prefers a slower pace, and more post entry than spread pick-and-roll. On the other hand, Hornacek had a bottom-heavy roster in Phoenix -- depth and youth in the backcourt, scant options in the frontcourt -- and he's acquiring a the opposite in New York, at least as things currently stand. (And the way things currently stand is far from how they'll be in November, but I don't see the Knicks assembling a young, excellent backcourt *this* offseason. I'm hoping for a decent one. There are more offseasons to come.)

Hornacek's old interview with Zach Lowe gives you some sense of his basketball ideals and how he approached the Phoenix situation. (It also give you the sense that Hornacek studies up for interviews!) Here's a video:

Point is: Hornacek's Suns had a style, but it remains to be seen how much of that was Hornacek's innate preference and how much of it was catering to a strange roster. I don't suspect he'll come in and force the Knicks into a hyper-fast-breaking style unless their roster changes considerably. I also don't think he'll push a pure Triangle offense. The Knicks' style will probably depend equal parts on the roster, the support staff, and the influence of Phil. One just hopes Hornacek asserts himself enough to keep everyone on the same page.

Speaking of asserting himself: No matter how much he's influenced, a coach gets the final say on the floor, and here's how Dave described Hornacek as a tactician and rotation manager:

Very creative and fluid, expecting players to make good decisions and putting them in position to succeed. Rotations were good, but not great. Lots of fans were scratching their heads - but we/they always do that in a loss. He really frustrated the players, sometimes, not from benching them but from trying to play too many guys too many minutes. He gave guys chances to excel, and then moved on to another one if they didn't. That left guys like Gerald Green, Archie Goodwin, etc, very frustrated. But then again, those guys don't really deserve long term regular minutes on a winner.

Hornacek's Phoenix teams weren't good on defense, but they were surprisingly un-terrible

I asked Dave about that:

Hornacek probably left defense to the Mike Longabardi, so I don't really really know about that. However, the Suns were league average despite having a lot of challenges at many positions. Bledsoe and Tucker were good individual defenders, but aren't great team/rotation defenders. And that's the best defenders he's had to work with. Nothing against Tyson Chandler, but Tyson's a step slower (or three) than he was at his apex.

Longabardi is one of the dudes who got fired before Hornacek did. He's in Cleveland now. Assuming he won't leave, one wonders where Hornacek will look for defensive coordination, or if ... the looking might be done for him. (Please click here and then here while leading the last clause of that sentence.)

Whatever the setup: The Knicks have to defend if they want to be good. The Triangle, the pace .. pretty much the entire contents of that first heading don't matter if Hornacek can't turn this defense around.

The Suns fell to shit for a lot of reasons

Here's why things didn't work out, according to Dave:

He lost the locker room's respect in 2013-14. They really, really liked him but didn't really have that necessary "awe" for him after he tried to famously enforce the "You're benched if you get a stupid tech for arguing with the refs" rule midseason in 2013-14. The players revolted in a passive/aggressive way by continuing to get techs, only to get benched and the Suns lost 2-3 games as a result. All he wanted was for them to grow up, but they couldn't handle it. Finally, he relaxed the rule, letting the players win. I think at that point, they all lost some respect for each other. The Suns record under Hornacek before this issue: 76-54. The Suns record after this issue: 25-58. Of course, lots of other things happened, but really that was the kick-off point.

That's where flexibility and agreeability might cross from virtue into pitfall, I guess. You don't want a coach everyone likes but no one respects. To be fair, nothing I've read and no one I've spoken to puts all the Phoenix blame on Hornacek, or even most of it. His roster was quite young and at times redundant, and came to include both an uncoupled Morris brother and a crotchety Tyson Chandler, which I wouldn't wish on any coach. It's interesting that Dave identifies a clear Hornacek-driven turning point. One hopes that was all a learning experience.

A Knicks coach must work well with Phil and get the best out of Melo -- and do so under the watch of more fans and worse media than, say, Phoenix. It's a hard job. But the roster as it stands strikes me as a pretty workable bunch.

If this hire comes to pass, it will not be the move I expected, nor will it be the move I, a fan with no access or special insight or authority, would have made. I still like it, and I suppose Phil Jackson likes it. Pretty much everything I just said describes the drafting of Kristaps Porzingis, and indeed might be Jackson's M.O. as team president -- unexpected normalcy emerging from a cloud of rumor.

Now we get to find out what Hornacek can do. There's reason to be wary (there would have been with any choice) but plenty more reason to feel hope.