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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.
GALLERY: When NBA head coaches were players
When NBA Coaches Were Players
Jeff Hornacek played 14 seasons between the Suns, Sixers and Jazz and was named an All-Star in 1992. Hornacek was fired midway through his third season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns (14-35) in 2016. The Knicks hired Hornacek, who holds a career record of 101–112 in 213 games as a head coach, on May 18, 2016.
Rick Carlisle has won a title as a player (with the 1985-86 Celtics) and coach (2010-11 Mavericks). He's coached Dallas since 2008 after spending two years with the Pistons and four with the Pacers.
The Hawks picked up a reliable point guard when they selected Doc Rivers with the 31st pick in the 1983 draft. Rivers helped lead the Hawks to six playoff appearances in eight seasons, and he averaged 11 points and six assists in his 13-year career. He received his first crack at coaching with the Magic, in 1999, and won the Coach of the Year Award in his first season. Rivers later moved to Boston, where he won the 2008 title with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He has been coaching the Clippers since 2013.
Kidd spent 19 years in the league, with the Suns, Mavericks, Nets and Knicks, before becoming Brooklyn coach just days after he retired in 2013. However, the 1994-95 Rookie of the Year, 10-time All-Star and 2011 champion with Dallas wore out his welcome with management and was traded to the Bucks after one season at the helm in which the Nets went 44-38 and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Kerr, a valuable role player who won three titles with Chicago and two with San Antonio, is the NBA's all-time leader in three-point percentage at 45.4. After distinguishing himself as a TNT broadcaster, Kerr became a hot coaching candidate despite lacking experience on the sideline. In May 2014, Kerr spurned the Knicks to become the Warriors' coach, which he led to a championship as a rookie coach.
Drafted in the third round (68th overall) of the 1987 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, and later waived, Donovan played just 44 games off the bench with the 1987-88 New York Knicks. After 19 years coaching the Florida Gators, the Oklahoma City Thunder hired Donovan as their next head coach for the 2015-16 season.
Drafted by the Pacers in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft, shooting guard Fred Hoiberg played four seasons with Indiana, four with Chicago, and two with Minnesota. On June 2, 2015, the Bulls hired Hoiberg as head coach.
The No. 23 overall pick in 1998, Tyronn Lue played for seven teams over 11 seasons in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers made Lue their full-time coach after firing David Blatt on Jan. 22, 2016.
Earl Watson played for seven teams over 13 seasons in the NBA. At age 36, he became the league’s youngest head coach when he replaced the Phoenix Suns' Jeff Hornacek on an interim basis on Feb. 1, 2016. After their season ended, the Suns made Watson their full-time head coach.
The son of former UCLA and NBA standout Bill Walton, Luke was a favorite of Lakers fans during his nine-year stint as a selfless, hard-working reserve player. In his first season as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, the team won the 2015 NBA Finals. On April 29, 2016, the Los Angeles Lakers hired Walton to become their new head coach after the Warriors' season concludes.
Though undersized at 5-foot-11, the scrappy Scott Brooks played 10 seasons for six teams and won a championship with the Rockets in 1994. He took over as head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder one month into the 2008-09 season and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2009-10. Brooks was fired by the Thunder following the 2014-15 season, after the team missed the playoffs for the first time in his six full seasons as head coach. On April 26, 2016, Brooks was hired to coach the Washington Wizards.
McMillan, a second-round pick of the SuperSonics in 1986, played 12 years in the NBA before his first head-coaching job with Seattle in 2000. McMillan then coached the Trail Blazers from 2005–12 before serving as a Pacers assistant.
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.