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We may yet see the New York Knicks run an offense built to succeed in the 21st century. Former Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek will reportedly soon finalize a deal to coach the team, despite the fact that he has no formal experience running the triangle offense—a criterion that once seemed to be Phil Jackson’s philosophical mandate. The fact that Jackson made a hire from outside his withered, wretched coaching tree represents a necessary sort of compromise. One can imagine that the triangle will remain in some form. Bringing in Hornacek at least signals some attempt to modernize it.
The uptempo offense that fueled Hornacek’s best teams in Phoenix relied, structurally, on concepts that were triangle-adjacent. Some of their go-to cuts off the high post draw back to the triangle as a direct influence. Other sets incorporated triangle-like movement in a different geometry. Hornacek applied that structure to get the ball moving from side to side, linking consecutive cutters and drivers in the kind of action that could compromise an opposing defense. His teams pushed into transition at every opportunity and prioritized floor spacing in a way that the recent Knicks did not.
New York had made periodic efforts during Jackson’s tenure (lording over both Derek Fisher and then-interim Kurt Rambis) to incorporate more pick-and-roll wrinkles into its base offense. Hornacek’s hire would serve as an extension of that same, underlying idea. The biggest problems with the triangle are issues of format. Giving Hornacek the freedom to shape an offense around the system’s core principles might allow the triangle to live on in a slightly more dynamic capacity—one divorced from the architecture and clutter that make it so dated.
In that way, Hornacek was a sellable candidate to a team president that still champions the value of a system. He’s not explicitly a triangle coach, and forcing him into that mold would curtail the flexibility that helped his teams in Phoenix. Yet his hiring can’t help but be more promising than that of a Jackson acolyte—none of whom have succeeded as NBA head coaches. This is what the middle ground looks like. Jackson, after all his years at the head of the bench, has a very particular vision for what the coach of the Knicks should be. Hornacek apparently satisfied enough of that vision to warrant hiring despite lacking any direct working relationships with either Jackson or his preferred style of play.
Whether that decision works out for the Knicks in the long run will draw on factors that go well beyond the triangle. Hornacek was never much able to elevate his so-so defensive personnel in Phoenix beyond mediocrity on that end of the floor. New York will need more and, depending on the shape the roster takes, could eventually have more to give. Kristaps Porzingis is beloved for his shooting and bravado, but he’s at least equally compelling as a defensive prospect. For a genuine rim protector to be so light on his feet is rare. Hornacek will need to strike the right balance around Porzingis (and the stylistically contrasting Robin Lopez) to make the kind of defensive progress that the Knicks need.
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There is no reason to expect a significant jump in New York’s performance until significant changes are made to the roster. Hornacek is no miracle worker; he can get a team to run (something the Knicks have roundly failed to do in recent seasons), he can orient an offense, and he can maintain positive working relationships with most. What good he can do for the Knicks, however, is limited by a roster in clear need of perimeter upgrades. It’s not just traditional point guard play that’s lacking in New York; this team desperately needs a core of NBA-level guards and wings that can actually defend their position capably.
Until those pieces are added, very few coaches could take the Knicks to any place of consequence. Some players on the team need to grow into their games, others need to be shuffled off, and a few are working uphill against their career’s decline. Hornacek’s potential hiring changes none of that, nor does it dramatically alter the prospects of New York’s inadequate defense. What it brings is the vague hope of functional respectability – the aspiration to get through a season without scandal and score competently enough to be in the mix. Hornacek has the profile to suggest he might get the Knicks closer to that modest goal, no matter his shortcomings.