CLEVELAND — Jeff Hornacek seemed to be asking for more time.
Hornacek said he believes the Knicks are close to becoming a competitive team and that the experience the young players received late in the season will prepare them to make big jumps next year.
This could be Hornacek trying to state his case that he should be back for the third and final year of his contract. The Knicks’ season ends Wednesday in Cleveland. Hornacek’s time as coach could run out as well.
The Knicks lost more than 50 games both years under Hornacek, but he faced major challenges each season.
This year, the roster wasn’t built to win a playoff spot. Then the Knicks lost Tim Hardaway Jr. for 20 games with a stress fracture in his lower left leg and Kristaps Porzingis for the season to a torn ACL in February.
Hornacek did everything he could to keep the players focused and ready to play. To his credit, the Knicks (28-53) are still battling and playing for him. They were depleted Monday and still hung around with Cleveland before losing their home finale Monday night.
“I don’t think we’re that far away,” Hornacek said “We had the injury to KP, your best player. We had the injury to Tim for a long time. That doesn’t help the cause. Now those guys, hopefully they can come back. These guys got experience. You add a player or two. I don’t think you’re far off.”
It should be another interesting offseason for the Knicks, who will not be in the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
The first decision management has to make is what to do with Hornacek. If he’s not back, some of the names that have been linked to the Knicks include Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Doc Rivers, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Chauncey Billups and Monty Williams.
Then comes the Draft Lottery. The Knicks are currently tied with the Nets for the eighth-worst record. If the season ends that way, a coin flip will decide who gets more combinations in the May 15 lottery. The Nets’ pick belongs to Cleveland.
In free agency, the Knicks are not expected to be big spenders because they want to have money for the 2019 class that includes Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love. So the development of the young players will be key.
Craig Robinson is in charge of player development. But Hornacek believes he and his staff have set the Knicks on a good path from that standpoint.
Rookie Frank Ntilikina has looked more comfortable on offense lately. He had his best scoring game of the season, finishing with 17 points against Cleveland.
“A bright side of this season is these young guys got a chance to develop a little bit more,” Hornacek said. “Play against some of these top teams in the league and get significant minutes against them. Going into next year they’re not going to be fearful of any of these teams, of having a little shock out there going ‘Wow, this is LeBron’ or ‘This is Steph Curry. This is [Russell] Westbrook.’ They can just play. The experience was good for them.”
“It was valuable experience for these young guys, especially these last 30 games or so. That’s going to help. If you went into next year and these guys didn’t get the experience, you’re kind of back at square one.”
As the season nears a close, Hornacek said the thing he’s most proud of is how the players have continued to stay together and play hard.
“Sometimes when you get late in the season guys are cashing it in,” Hornacek said. “All of our guys wanted to continue playing, to play hard. You could get selfish during that time and just try to score but they didn’t.
“We had 33 assists the other night. We had 30 the last game. We had 26 [Monday]. So it’s not like they’re just going out there saying ‘I’m just going to do something for myself.’ They still stayed within what we wanted as a team. And that’s what the coaches are asking.”