Now comes the hard part.
The Knicks will be a vastly different team next season, starting with the head coach after the Knicks announced they were parting ways with coach Jeff Hornacek early Thursday morning. Time for team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry to make the most important hire of their partnership.
“We’re going to be looking for a coach who holds the players accountable and his coaching staff accountable,’’ Perry said at Thursday’s news conference.
“[We’re] not only [looking] for a good basketball mind, but a very skilled communicator. A guy who can connect very well with his players and is equally aligned with wanting to be a very strong defensive-minded team that won’t only resonate with the candidate we want, but New Yorkers.
“The Knicks’ teams of yesteryear were tough-minded defensive teams who competed every night.”
Before we delve into possible candidates, it’s vital to note Hornack’s contribution to the franchise. He has been pivotal at beginning the process of changing this franchise’s culture.
Regardless of where you stood on Hornacek’s future, you have to respect the way the man went about the job. Mills and Perry acknowledged that in a joint statement:
“Jeff is a true professional who has worked tirelessly for this organization the last two seasons. We sincerely appreciate his efforts and considerable contributions to the team and wish him well in his future endeavors.’’
Mills and Perry also have conducted themselves in a similar matter. They did not hire Hornacek. Many a new management team don’t wait for their nameplate to go up on the door before they start cleaning house.
Mills and Perry said at last summer’s news conference that they would not rush to judgment on Hornacek. They should be credited for giving the coach they inherited a chance to show his chops.
“The evaluation of Jeff for 82 games, we evaluated everything — practices to games to the ability to connect with guys,’’ Perry said.
Mills said this season would be the start of a culture change in New York and Hornacek played a huge roll in that. He continued to preach defense. He stood up to Joakim Noah. He put lineups on the floor that he believed gave the Knicks the best chance on any given night.
But the results simply weren’t there for Hornacek, who was 60-104 in two seasons. Of course, those that follow the Knicks understand he coached last season under the shadow of former GM Phil Jackson. Jackson had Hornacek run the triangle offense despite not having the players needed to succeed in that system.
This season, the Knicks were 18-18 when the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve. Tim Hardaway Jr., the Knicks’ premier free agent signing, missed 20 games in December with a stress reaction injury in his left leg.
When he returned on Jan. 1, the Knicks were still very much in the playoff picture at 19-23. Less than a month later, they would lose star Kristaps Porzingis for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.
In Year One, Hornacek was restricted from freely implementing his system. In Year Two, he coached with two of his best players out for significant portions of the season. Enes Kanter also lost games to injury.
These aren’t excuses. These are facts, ones the players are well aware of.
Courtney Lee recently told reporters that in the face of adversity, Hornacek stepped up this season.
“Yeah, man, 100-percent,’’ Lee said. “You got to realize, we were on a run early on, we hit adversity and you can’t blame anybody for that. Injuries happen.”
The Captain Obvious argument is that all teams incur injuries and some are able to fight through them. The 76ers didn’t have Markelle Fultz for most of the season. Ditto for the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard.
Some teams are better equipped to handle injuries than others. The Spurs have mastered a winning culture. The 76ers have built towards this season for years.
The Knicks have just begun the process of building a consistently competitive team that can make a push for greatness. Mills said at Thursday’s news conference that owner James Dolan has given them the green light to be patient, to build with a logical approach that will lead to sustained success.
It’s the only approach. Gobbling up overpriced, past-their-prime free agents might get you a season or two close to the mountain top, but you never reach the summit. Then there’s nothing but body counts and about faces.
Mills and Perry surely have a few candidates they feel are better suited to leading the Knicks going forward.
Jeff Van Gundy is a shrewd basketball mind, but if he has dreams of coming here with absolute power, all Mills and Perry need to do is point to the Detroit Pistons where Van Gundy’s brother Stan got total control and no playoff result.
Mark Jackson is a Brooklyn native and has obvious ties to the team after playing with the Knicks under Rick Pitino. I wouldn’t label him a player’s coach, but he knows how to handle players. And don’t let his gift of gab distract for his knowledge of the game. He was one of the most cerebral college point guards I ever covered when he played at St. John’s until this Jalen Brunson kid came along on the Main Line.
Speaking of the Main Line, yes, Jay Wright won a second NCAA title in two years, but if he leaves suburban Philly for Broadway I will buy him tickets to Hamilton – and Springsteen. He’s got the best program in college hoops and that’s saying something.
David Fizdale comes out of the Erik Spoelstra-Pat Riley culture club which also is saying something. LeBron James loves him, but if that’s the prime motivation in hiring Fizdale, the Knicks aren’t serious about a patient approach.
David Blatt won in Cleveland, but never won over the locker room. He was college teammates with Mills and Craig Robinson, the Knicks’ VP of player and organization development. This decision has to be made with logic with a good feeling in the gut, not friendship.
Firing a coach is never easy, especially when its someone who has been a dedicated pro such as Hornacek. The Knicks are better a franchise today because the cultural seeds he planted. And they’re a better franchise because Mills and Perry proved to be true to their word.
They were patient. They were prudent. The Knicks will benefit from both.