With 30+ points in seven of the Knicks’ first nine games, Kristaps Porzingis has quickly become the toast of the town, all while making his team the talk of it. As the 22 year old leads the way and attracts more of the headlines, the promise of New York’s future is becoming clear. As Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina led the charge and helped their team overcome a 19 point deficit to beat the Pacers, they gave the organization and respective fan base alike a glimpse into the greatness that could be.
Excitement is once again filling the air and The World’s Most Famous Arena is roaring. But as budding stars like Porzingis and Ntilikina receive most of the credit, there’s actually an equally as deserving star, in his own right, standing behind them.
Still flying under the radar when it comes to assessing the Knicks’ recent success, Jeff Hornacek deserves much more of the credit than he seems to be receiving thus far. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Porzingis is showing the potential to ascend up as one of the NBA’s best players, a true once-in-a-generation like talent. Still, one player can’t do everything himself, and it’s clear Coach Hornacek has continued to press the right buttons and make the necessary adjustments/changes to help shift New York in the right direction.
As easy as it be may be to disregard, the head coach deserves some kudos for Porzingis’ early rise. It’s he who has given the big man the offensive freedom he needs to shine. Coach Hornacek has made Porzingis the focal point of his system and has motivated the star’s teammates to play around and do things that complement him best. After coaching Porzingis last season, Hornacek knows what the star is capable of: The coach runs plays for him to shoot around the perimeter and provides the necessary spacing for him to go to work. He makes sure his floor generals are tasked with finding Pozingis charging through the lane for explosive slam dunks. When Porzingis wants to back an opposing defender down inside in the low post, Hornacek ensures that those around him spread the defense and are anxiously waiting for open shots on the wings, if and when the double-team comes at his star. Bottom line: Coach Hornacek is putting his star in the right situations to succeed.
The former Jazz sharpshooter seems to understand the rhythm of a game: there are various runs and respective ups and downs. He knows when to roll the dice and allow his players attempt to claw their way back into a given contest, or when to pull the plug and call upon fresh blood. This was especially evident during the Knicks’ win over Indiana. Despite what some may have been considered an insurmountable hole, Coach Hornacek is someone who constantly remains cool, calm, collected, and in control. He’s a tactician, someone who understands how to orchestrate his team’s chess pieces like a true master. Such experience and relative awareness is what clearly separates Hornacek from someone like Derek Fisher. The change in strategy has been night and day, even dating back to last season.
This is truly Hornacek’s team. While Tim Hardaway Jr. has received praise for his increased maturity level and defensive effort (the growth he displayed with the Hawks), there’s no doubt he’s still an overzealous and streaky shooter. Hardaway Jr. passes the ball, but still struggles to understand when the right time is to give it up. His cold streaks can make him represent a black hole for the basketball. Even so, Coach Hornacek seems to have tremendous trust in the young gun. He keeps Hardaway Jr. in games for long stretches and allows him to shoot his way out of various slumps. Regardless of how long it may take, Hornacek has been rewarded on multiple occasions with the swingman heating up and coming up clutch through a string of victories this season. With Phil Jackson already long gone by the time the 25 year old returned to New York, bringing him back was a collaborative decision that Hornacek was surely a part of.
The head coach’s fingerprints are all over the Knicks’ success, proving that this rise goes far beyond Porzingis. Hornacek was an assistant coach when Enes Kanter played for the Utah Jazz and the two undoubtedly have a certain trust and comfort level. As the main piece of the team’s return haul for Carmelo Anthony, Hornacek has made sure he’s gotten his money’s worth out of the 25 year old center. Kanter was been terrific thus far, with a positive impact on the game that often swings the momentum in New York’s favor. He’s well known as an efficient scorer, but has long been criticized for his questionable defense. Kanter has gotten himself into early foul trouble quite a bit this season. Nevertheless, he’s had a dominating presence on the offensive glass and his rebounding often keeps his team’s scoring the basketball alive. He’s been absolutely clutch.
The list goes on. Coach Hornacek loves his veterans. Courtney Lee and Kyle O’Quinn have played their roles to perfection, making it difficult to switch them out in favor of the team’s younger talent even if Hornacek wanted to. Lance Thomas was inserted with 4:37 remaining in the third quarter against Indiana and provided clutch defense until the final buzzer. Plugging Jarrett Jack into the starting lineup arguably saved this team’s season, instilling a certain level of hope this organization hasn’t smelled or tasted in the last five years. Jack is a proven veteran: an unselfish player who understands how to direct and guide those around him. If you’re shooting the ball well, he’ll find you again. If you need to snap a cold streak and are struggling to get open, he’ll help you find the spacing you need. That said, Jack isn’t exactly a multi-tool athlete and thus, has some holes in his game. As Sunday night’s game proved, the speedy Frank Ntilikina can run and up down the court and pressure opposing ball-handlers until they become rather flustered. He can hit shots from downtown and has good chemistry with his fellow youngsters. Hornacek has eased the rookie into the rotation, but still knows how and when to depend on him in crucial spurts.
The Knicks are rolling and Porzingis has been the starring attraction with a very strong supporting cast. There should be plenty of praise to go around, but one could easily argue that their spirited director in Coach Hornacek has garnered the most of it thus far.