It’s Not a Riddle at All: What Led the Knicks to Jeff Hornacek


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Jeff Hornacek coached the Phoenix Suns for two and a half seasons before he was fired by the team in February.

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Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Assuming the contract details will be a formality and the mutual interest that Phil Jackson and Jeff Hornacek have expressed to each other leads to Hornacek’s becoming the next Knicks head coach, here is what fans will be getting, aside from their wish that it be anyone but the interim incumbent, Kurt Rambis:

Not an A list media star. Not an interview room entertainer. But someone who does fit Jackson’s stated preference for a candidate with whom he has some spiritual or philosophical familiarity.

“For as long as I’ve known Jeff, he’s been more on the quiet side, but a high character guy, a leader by example who will represent your franchise really well,” said Jerry Colangelo, who drafted Hornacek out of Iowa State in 1986 for the Phoenix Suns with the next-to-last pick in the second round.

It is the longstanding relationship between Colangelo and Hornacek that tangentially connects to Jackson, the Knicks’ team president, whose coaching search had become a Where’s Waldo mystery based on his clandestine wanderings while reaching out to a small sampling of candidates.

Hornacek, 53, grew up and played high school basketball in the suburbs of Chicago, which is Colangelo’s hometown. Colangelo knew Hornacek’s father, John, during his own playing days in Amateur Athletic League games around the city.

John Hornacek became a high school coach, and Colangelo, never straying far from his Chicago roots even after moving on to Phoenix, said he “kept an eye” on John Hornacek’s boy as he made his way through Iowa State.

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Hornacek, pictured in the 1988-89 season, was an N.B.A. guard for 14 seasons, mostly with the Suns and the Utah Jazz.

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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Colangelo was by then associated with the N.B.A.’s predraft workout camp for college players in Chicago, and in 1986 made sure an invitation went out to Jeff Hornacek.

“I watched him closely at the camp and I noticed that he had kind of a funny shot, not a great rotation, a little flat,” Colangelo said in a telephone interview. “So I said to him, ‘Your dad’s a coach, didn’t he ever talk to you about your shot?’ ” Hornacek shrugged and said his father preferred to let his son’s coaches handle him. Then he took Colangelo’s advice, locked himself in a gym and, as Colangelo said, began the process of becoming “one of the better N.B.A. jump shooters” across a 14-year career that began with a six-season run for the Suns.

Phoenix is where we can trace Hornacek’s intersection with Jackson, as it relates to the triangle offense that Hornacek may or may not be interested in running in New York.

In 1988, Colangelo rehired Cotton Fitzsimmons to coach a Suns team that featured Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson, Eddie Johnson and even included a rookie guard named Steve Kerr. Fitzsimmons had also coached the Suns in their third and fourth years of existence, replacing Colangelo on the bench for the 1970-71 season.

“And guess which offense we ran way back then?” Colangelo said. “We ran the triangle.”

Fitzsimmons, he explained, had been an assistant in the mid-to-late 1960s (and head coach successor) at Kansas State to Tex Winter, widely considered to be the triangle offense architect and later Jackson’s mentor when they both were assistants to Doug Collins with the Bulls in Chicago.

Using Fitzsimmons’s triangle, the Suns rose in the West with 48- and 49-win seasons.

“We had the right personnel for it, especially a good passing center in Neal Walk and a really smart, physical power forward in Paul Silas,” Colangelo said. “That’s the key, the right personnel. I mean, if you have a Michael Jordan and a Scottie Pippen, it’s a great offense.”

Colangelo is a widely respected executive and voice around the pro game, credited for resurrecting the United States national team program and most recently hired at age 76 by the Philadelphia 76ers to oversee the redirection of that downtrodden franchise.

Here was his take when asked about Jackson’s insistence, to this point, of running the triangle in New York and what Hornacek might be thinking about that.

“It’s pretty difficult to predetermine how you are going to play until you know what kind of talent you have, don’t you think?” he said. “What comes first, the chicken or the egg, the system or the talent?”

In a social media culture of spontaneous and often premature revelation, we already have Jeff Van Gundy reporting that Jackson will grant Hornacek the latitude to run his own offense — or what he didn’t allow Derek Fisher, who was fired in February, one week after Hornacek was let go in Phoenix.

Jackson has always insisted he only wanted some system that involved all five players, suggesting he would lighten up when it comes to his legacy.

In his 1988 return to coach some strong, up-tempo Suns teams, Fitzsimmons — a beloved figure in Phoenix, who died in 2004 — did retain principles of the triangle but did not make it the team’s identity.

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Hornacek’s game developed in the early 1990s under Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, whose offense contained principles of the triangle offense.

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Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Hornacek developed under Fitzsimmons, averaging a career-high 20.1 points and making the Western Conference All-Star team in 1991-92 before being a part of the trade that sent him to Philadelphia and Charles Barkley to Phoenix.

Years later, after he retired and was hired as an assistant in Utah by Jerry Sloan — for whom he played in two N.B.A. finals against Jackson’s Bulls — Hornacek cited his most impactful coaching influences as his father, Sloan and Fitzsimmons, disciple of Winter.

So there we can begin to understand why Jackson zeroed in on Hornacek, preferring him to Frank Vogel, David Blatt and, in perhaps a grudging concession to external and internal pressures, Rambis as well.

Yes, Hornacek had a losing (101-112) record in his two-plus seasons in Phoenix after a 48-34 overachieving start in 2013-14. His team played a fast-pace offense that catered to its guard-oriented strength, talent before system.

He certainly was not the most credentialed available candidate on the spring market. But given their tumultuous front-office history and revolving door practice with coaches, the Knicks, for all their payroll largess and geographic prestige, are not a franchise with great curb appeal. Maybe Vogel, for instance, prefers another team.

If Hornacek is the presumptive hire for the Knicks, we can say the coaching search could have turned out worse, or mainly where it began, with Rambis. Next comes the heavier lifting for Jackson, building effectively around Kristaps Porzingis and solving the riddle of what remains of Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks career.

As for the status of the triangle, stay tuned. All we can tell you is that Hornacek is no stranger to the subject.

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