Jeff Hornacek was the hottest coach in the NBA after his overachieving Phoenix Suns team went 48-34 in 2013-14, and deservedly so. If XXL magazine wrote about hoops instead of rap, Hornacek would have been the cover boy for the freshman class issue. The achievements of that season were modest, and the Suns narrowly missed the playoffs (albeit with 48 wins in an absolutely stacked Western conference). However, the numbers are very kind to Hornacek and that 2013-14 team, and probably tell the story in a more complete context. It’s been well-documented, but here are some noteworthy offensive numbers for that Phoenix team:
- Eighth in offensive rating
- Seventh in points per game
- Eighth in pace
- Seventh in effective field goal percentage
- Twelfth in points in the paint
- Fourth in 3-point shots attempted
- Sixth in 3-point shots made
- Eighth in 3-point percentage
- Goran Dragic (41%), P.J. Tucker (39%), Marcus Morris (38%), and Gerald Green (40%) all shot career-high percentages from 3 in 2013-14 under Hornacek. In addition, Eric Bledsoe, a career 33% 3-point shooter, shot 36% from 3 that season.
- Leandro Barbosa and Eric Bledsoe missed a combined 101 games that season.
- When combining strength-of-schedule and point differential, the Suns ranked as a top-10 team that season.
This was their roster:
Not one current, former, or even future all-star was on that team.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Hornacek’s offense was Gerald Green. Green had never eclipsed 3.5 3-point attempts per game coming into 2013-14, and never shot better than 39%. Green was not only good for 40% that year, but he shot the ball 6.2 times per game from deep.
The following season (2014-15), the Suns added 13 new players to their roster over the course of the year, including point guards Isaiah Thomas and Brandon Knight, minimizing the minutes and effectiveness of an already efficient Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe tandem.
As unfortunate as it was to watch that Suns team demise, Hornacek came out of it looking like a competent, if not above-average coach. The biggest strengths of Hornacek’s system from that time was its ability to spread the floor well and create open 3s for several position players. Hornacek’s best Suns teams ran sets that ranged from basic, effective actions that have become common in the NBA (like “Horns” and “Chin” sets) to sets that involved several different types of curl screens or pin-downs in a matter of seconds — still simple in principle, but involving many moving parts.
This is all great for Jeff Hornacek’s credentials, but what does this mean for the Knicks in 2017-18? It was reported that Hornacek was in fact the main irritant which lead to Kristaps Porzingis’ exit meeting absence, not Phil Jackson. Aside from that, there’s been reports of screaming matches between he and Carmelo Anthony. Keeping the locker room will perhaps be his most critical assignment. The Knicks defense was bad, and we could talk about that for days, but we’re going to just focus on offense for now.
Hornacek wasn’t free of blame by any means, and neither was Phil Jackson’s seemingly insisted-upon triangle offense. Seven of the nine most-played lineups under Hornacek had negative net ratings, per NBA.com. This was an area in which I thought Hornacek struggled throughout the year. Conversely, of the top 20 Knicks lineups in terms of net rating, none of those lineups saw more than 15 minutes on the floor — that’s for the entire season combined.
Hornacek should aim to improve the quality of the looks his secondary players get on offense. The Knicks all had to work too hard for their offense last season, but guys like Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis are exceptional talents who can get themselves open in isolation. Players like Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Frank Ntilikina could benefit greatly from the attention that players like Porzingis and Carmelo command.
In this play from last season, the Knicks start in a “floppy” set and look to run Lee off of some screens from the baseline to get him open. Lee somewhat rejects the action and it falls apart into a broken play from there.
On the contrary, Hornacek did so well in his Suns days getting open looks for his secondary scorers — truthfully, there weren’t many guys I’d consider primary scorers on that team — nonetheless, Phoenix’s sets at that time seemed to utilize evolving actions. When the first or second option wasn’t there, those sets would continue to flow naturally and create a free-flowing offense that directed players to spots, but gave several options continuously. Ironically, this was also supposed to be one of the strengths of the triangle offense, and it did have those traits in its Lakers and Bulls implementations, but was rarely the case in New York.
In last season’s four-overtime game against the Hawks, the Knicks showed an incredibly mixed bag on offense. Triangle was used quite a bit, and more than half of the possessions resulted in an isolation shot from Anthony down the stretch. Here are two triangle sets with vastly different results.
First, Carmelo plays within the triangle offense, and as Dennis Schröder falls asleep, Anthony finds Justin Holiday open for a 3.
As the triangle can at times promote isolation play for the team’s best scorer, Anthony gets a little overzealous here and tries to shoulder the load a bit too much. Not a whole lot of movement off the ball, but Anthony still fails to find an open Brandon Jennings.
The difference we talked about earlier between Carmelo and other players was evident late in this game. These types of isolation plays are a bad practice — especially when it happens throughout a game or season — but it’s clear that when Anthony gets going, that can be an incredibly effective late-clock option.
It seems somewhat irrelevant to look at isolation play from Anthony in this context, but after Carmelo fouls out of this game (and Porzingis had fouled out before OT even began), it puts the offense under a microscope, and it’s interesting to see the before-and-after dynamic.
One other thing to lament, is that Hornacek was still able to get his best scorers isolation looks with ease in Phoenix. Using the exact same set as in the previous Suns example, Phoenix simply evolves through this set and continues through the options until it ends up with a designed isolation of Markieff Morris on Marc Gasol. This position on the floor is Melo’s sweet spot, and I’m sure any Knicks fan can envision this playing out with Melo late in the shot clock here instead of Morris.
Here is an ATO from later in that marathon game, after Carmelo and Porzingis had fouled out. This play works out great, not just because of the resulting two free throws that Lee receives in this late-game situation, but because of the options that Lee had at his disposal without a dominant scorer on the floor for the Knicks.
We see the difference between Carmelo and Lee just seconds later in this game. With only a few ticks left on the clock and not much time for any advanced ATO, Lee shows his limitations as a creator.
Hornacek seemed to trust Lee to make some decisions with the ball and would draw up some after-timeout plays or sideline out-of-bounds plays that put him in a position to succeed. This may be key going forward, and I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to know a player’s strengths and limitations. We saw that Lee is not an isolation scoring savant, but when he or other players can be put in positions to thrive, they maximize their usefulness to the team.
This sideline out-of-bounds horns set was huge for Lee and the Knicks, and it worked on several occasions.
Hornacek would sometimes utilize multiple screen-the-screener actions and generally confuse the defense with a lot of moving parts. Most times, Hornacek would spread the floor and give his ball-handlers some room to work. New York, having better shooters, should be even more capable of this type of spacing, but one issue New York may encounter is their lack of true point guards. With only one true point guard on the roster at this point in Ramon Sessions (and some sites rank him the worst starting PG in the league), Hornacek may have to employ sets like the one below. In this ATO, Phoenix doesn’t even have a freaking guard on the floor! New York definitely has playmakers that aren’t necessarily point guards, but to end up with a wide open look like this without any true ball-handlers on the floor is impressive.
The secondary scorers on the floor getting easy looks is key, and using the many offensive strengths of Carmelo Anthony will only help Hornacek if the two can get on the same page, but the true x-factor will of course be Kristaps Porzingis and how he can affect this offense. While Porzingis himself has many strengths and limitations, his strengths happen to be quite unique.
On the possession below from last season, Porzingis sets an early ball screen in transition for Rose and gets them both a mismatch. The problem here is, Porzingis never touches the ball. While KP could certainly improve on getting open in these situations, a second-chance opportunity arises off an offensive rebound and Porzingis — still defended by the 6’2” Dennis Schröder — doesn’t receive the ball or really become involved in the play at all.
A player with Porzingis’ skill set presents a lot of advantages. First, like in the clip above, his 7’3” frame is a clear advantage over guards who switch onto him off of pick-and-roll situations or pick-and-pop situations (which he seems to favor). Second, Porzingis’ handle and shooting ability present big problems for the slower big men who try to defend him as he faces up away from the basket, as we will see below. After a nice little Carmelo / KP double drag screen for Rose, Kuzminskas and Porzingis end up on the weak side and play a two-man game with the rest of the floor spread. The results clearly highlight the dangers that Porzingis presents to defenders.
Jeff Hornacek will likely use Porzingis a lot like he used Channing Frye in Phoenix. Of course, Porzingis has a more versatile offensive game than Frye, and this only helps New York, Porzingis, and Hornacek.
Below, Hornacek has Frye playing the 5 and Gerald Green involved with Frye in this pick-and-roll. Porzingis seems to be an almost prototypical modern offensive 5, but his struggles on defense — which have continued throughout this year’s Eurobasket — make his time at that position somewhat dangerous and limiting. Nonetheless, the threat of KP’s jump shot allows Knicks fans to easily see him plugged into this play, especially given his affinity for the top-of-the-key 3. With Gerald Green as the ball-handler in this situation, proposed starting shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. seems like a great KP counterpart to plug into that ball-handler / driving threat role as well.
The ultimate goal will still be to get every player to buy in. The chips are stacked against Hornacek right now after apparently feuding with the future of the franchise. Regardless of who will be the leader of the Knicks in the locker room going forward, to this point it has been Carmelo Anthony. If you can’t get a team to buy into your system, it doesn’t really matter what you run. Hammer sets or UCLA sets won’t be any more effective than triangle sets if your players abandon them early, and without a respected coach, you can generally expect chaos on the floor.
Hornacek has the mind to be a great coach, and the players he will have at his disposal at the start of the season will quietly be one of the most talented rosters he’s ever coached. The lineup variance he could have and the spacing he could see with Porzingis and and Anthony on the floor are exciting. The chemistry that Hernangomez and Ntilikina could develop in pick-and-roll is enticing. The firepower of a small-ball lineup that includes Porzingis, Lance Thomas, and Frank Ntilikina is intriguing. The walking buckets off the bench in Dotson, Beasley, or Lee could give a little spark to what is anticipated to be a losing season.
If the team responds to Hornacek, they might enjoy unexpected success beyond the 30-or-so games they’re expected to win.
If the team shuts Hornacek out, he could just be the next name in a long list of former coaches for New York.
(Thanks to Zach Diluzio, HalfCourHoops, BIGJT, Mike Prada, and BballBreakdown for some of the video footage obtained)