Jeff Van Gundy spent nearly 15 seasons on the sidelines at Madison Square Garden as either a head coach or an assistant coach with the New York Knicks. So his opinion on the performance of a Knicks coach carries weight.
Here’s what Van Gundy, an ESPN analyst, had to say about current Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek’s performance this season, particularly in light of the injury to Kristaps Porzingis:
“I think Jeff has done an admirable job under very difficult circumstances. When you have an injury to your best player -- and I had that with (Patrick) Ewing -- it changes the whole tone and tenor of the season. That challenge is real. And then you’re changing management, you’re trying to incorporate some young players. To me, they, and I think Scott Perry and Steve Mills understand, that they have a long way to go roster-wise to get back to being competitive. But Jeff’s composure, his even-keelness through the injury, the (Joakim) Noah situation, I think he’s really done an admirable job.”
Prior to Porzingis' ACL tear, the Knicks were four games out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and committed to making a push for the postseason. After the injury, the club pivoted its approach to emphasize the development of younger players. Wins were no longer a top priority.
The Knicks have lost 15 of 18 since Porzingis’ injury, and Hornacek’s future with the club is uncertain. Knicks GM Scott Perry said that management will evaluate everything -- including the coaching staff -- at season’s end. Hornacek has one year remaining on his contract and was not hired by Perry, so it would not be a surprise if Perry and team president Steve Mills decided to part ways with Hornacek after the season.
When talking about Hornacek, Mills and Perry have said they wanted to see see sustained improvement, particularly on defense, over the course of the season. And they wanted to see players giving maximum effort.
The Knicks have had some awful nights on defense, but they haven’t played with a lack of effort for a prolonged stretch this season. So you can’t say that the Knicks haven’t played hard under Hornacek.
Regarding defensive improvement, the club ranked 21st in defensive efficiency entering play Friday, four spots ahead of last season.
Numbers aside, what the Knicks will ask themselves after the season is if they see Hornacek as the right coach to lead their rebuild going forward. Van Gundy notes that Hornacek was handcuffed in his first season in New York because then-team president Phil Jackson asked him to implement elements of the triangle offense into his approach.
“It’s hard enough to coach in this league when you’re doing what you believe in,” Van Gundy says. “But when you have to try to coach something you may not be sold on, it becomes even more of a challenge. It’s really hard.”
Hornacek had the freedom to run his own offense this season and, prior to Porzingis’ injury, the Knicks ranked 20th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, down two spots from last season.
In a general sense, Hornacek may be a victim of the outsized expectations stemming from the Knicks’ strong start. Thanks in part to a schedule that was filled with home games, New York began the season 16-13 and Knicks fans and players started to expect a run to the playoffs.
But most betting outlets had the Knicks at around 30 wins entering the season, prior to the Carmelo Anthony trade. The Knicks will probably fall shy of that 30-win mark, but would have likely surpassed it if Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. had remained healthy.
Where all of this leaves Hornacek is unclear.
Mills and Perry will decide on his future shortly. If the club decides to part ways with Hornacek, potential candidates include Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, David Blatt and Jason Kidd, among others. Jackson, an ex-Knicks and ESPN analyst, has strong relationships with several people in the organization.