CLEVELAND — The Knicks are looking for a new coach again.
Jeff Hornacek was fired Thursday morning after the team landed from Cleveland, following the Knicks 110-98 season-ending victory over the Cavaliers, a league source confirmed. Hornacek and associate head coach Kurt Rambis were relieved of their duties, the team said.
Mills and Perry stated: “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.”
Hornacek had one-year remaining on his contract. But as another dreary season wore on, it became increasingly evident that Hornacek wouldn’t return for a third season. The Knicks finished 29-53 and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
In two year as Knicks coach, Hornacek went 60-104, including 12-39 over the final 51 games this season. But Hornacek faced major challenges both years after being a surprise choice two summers ago by former Knicks president Phil Jackson.
General manager Scott Perry didn’t hire Hornacek, which put him in a tenuous position from the start. Perry has reshaped the Knicks’ front office, along with team president Steve Mills. Perry, who was hired last July, wants to pick the coach that he thinks can move the Knicks forward in their rebuild. Whoever is hired will be the Knicks’ fifth coach since the start of the 2013-14 season.
Former Knicks point guard and Brooklyn native Mark Jackson has been rumored to be a serious candidate for the opening. Other possible candidates include David Fizdale, Doc Rivers (if he’s not back with the Clippers), Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Monty Williams, Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Mike Brown and Stephen Silas.
Hornacek stated his case to return before Wednesday’s game, saying there needs to be “patience,” that rebuilds take time and he has helped put the Knicks on the right path.
He also said he expected to take part in exit interviews with the players that begin Thursday because he hadn’t heard otherwise. But management decided that Hornacek wouldn’t participate in those meetings.
“We started it and we’d like to continue it, continue with this team to grow,” Hornacek said. “It’s very satisfying for coaches to take a team and build it and grow it. You can look around the league at some of the teams that are now some of the better teams in the league. They went through those same type of things.
“Sometimes people are wanting things to happen right away. But sometimes there’s patience. That’s what we’re looking for.”
The Knicks got off to good starts both seasons under Hornacek. They were 16-13 last year and 17-14 this year, and lost more than 50 games each time. But unnecessary drama, injuries and an imbalanced roster not built to win this season proved too difficult to overcome for Hornacek and the Knicks.
Although this was considered a rebuilding and developmental season after the Knicks traded away their best player, Carmelo Anthony, in September, Perry said he wanted to see them become a team that competed every night and improved defensively.
The Knicks lost 30 games by double-figures, and ranked in the bottom-third of the league in defensive rating.
Not all of that is on Hornacek. Injuries to Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. derailed the season. But the roster was ill-equipped to compete in today’s NBA.
The Knicks lacked the athleticism and versatility that has become paramount to winning now. They opened the season with four point guards, four centers and were short on long, athletic wing players who can guard multiple positions.
Natural shooting guards Hardaway and Courtney Lee played small forward for most of the season. It put the Knicks at a disadvantage many nights when they faced bigger and stronger forwards.
But Hornacek he had to shoulder some of the blame for the Knicks having the same defensive breakdowns over and over again and for repeated bad third quarters. Teams seemed to make adjustments while the Knicks didn’t.
Things might have gone differently if Porzingis, who tore his ACL in February, or Hardaway, who missed 20 games with a stress fracture in his lower left leg, had been healthy. The Knicks 14-13 when Porzingis and Hardaway played together. Without one or both of their main cornerstones, the Knicks were 15-40.
They hit their roughest patch following a win over the Nets gave the Knicks a 23-28 record. They dropped 17-of-18 games and were 6-25 over the last 31 games of the seasons. Porzingis got hurt in that stretch, and the Knicks ultimately decided to play the young players more to try and develop them.
Hornacek, who played 14 seasons in the NBA with the Suns, 76ers, and Jazz, also clashed with some Knicks, most notably Joakim Noah. The two had a heated exchange in January after Hornacek played Noah just 4:31 in a blowout loss at Golden State.
Management sided with Hornacek. Noah, who was in the second year of a four-years, $72-million contract, remained away from the team for the final 34 games.
With Hornacek out, a new coach may want to see what Noah has left, if anything. It’s also possible that the Knicks will waive Noah and stretch his contract after Sept. 1 to create some flexibility to spend on free agents in 2019.
When Jackson chose Hornacek to coach the Knicks in 2016 it raised many eyebrows. Kurt Rambis, who finished the prior season as interim head coach, was believed to be the leading candidate because of his relationship to Jackson and affinity for the triangle offense.
Hornacek never played for Jackson or worked with or coached the triangle.
He tried to meld “triangle aspects” into what he wanted to run. But Jackson eventually told him to run the triangle exclusively. The offense was unpopular with the players, and it led to an unhappy locker room. Some players wondered whether they were playing for Hornacek or Jackson.
After Jackson was fired last summer, Hornacek was free to coach the Knicks his way. They started fast but fell apart, and it cost Hornacek his job.
Hornacek coached the Suns before joining the Knicks. He went 101-112 in 2 ½ seasons with Phoenix.