Coaching in our town is always perilous work. We know that. They certainly know it. You can’t take one of these nine jobs without knowing that there will be heat from Day 1, scrutiny from Hour 1, stress from Minute 1.
But even judged against New York’s unforgiving standards, this is an especially hazardous time.
Jeff Hornacek was jettisoned from the Knicks early Thursday morning after returning to New York from Cleveland, where the Knicks won what turned out to be his finale over the Cavaliers, 110-98. He is the fifth coach or manager to be replaced just in the last 194 days alone, less than a week after his MSG stablemate, Alain Vigneault, was let go by the Rangers.
Todd Bowles, the Jets coach, is somehow the longest-tenured boss in town now, and he has only been on the job for three years, and it was considered something of a miracle that he survived a second straight 5-11 season.
Hornacek now joins that scrap heap of ex-coaches and ex-managers replaced in New York going back to Oct. 1, when Terry Collins revealed that he was no longer going to be managing the Mets.
There’s a fair amount of compelling testimony to endorse what the Knicks did with Hornacek, some of them even having to do with basketball.
You certainly could make a fair argument that across the first 30 or so games the Knicks far surpassed whatever low expectations had been set for them in 2017-18 — but you also sensibly could contend that once they’d established themselves as a reasonably competitive team, Hornacek was regularly outmaneuvered on game nights by any number of opposing coaches. Both things can be true.
You could absolutely point out that the Knicks, fairly consistently, were putting on the floor one of the worst teams in the NBA, that a coaching staff of Red Auerbach assisted by Pat Riley and Phil Jackson couldn’t have squeezed out 30 wins once Kristaps Porzingis went down for good — and still maintain there were too many games when the Knicks either failed to show up or sabotaged themselves with their own odd antics, when players felt entitled to randomly rip away.
Both of those things can also be true.
But Hornacek’s fate almost certainly was sealed by two matters of circumstance that existed outside the X’s and O’s of his job. Fairly or not, he was one of the final vestiges of the Jackson Era that the Knicks have tried to fumigate for a year.
Hornacek wasn’t ever really a “Jackson Guy,” and he chafed at having to coach the triangle, but he was Jackson’s hire (after Jackson steadfastly refused to even consider talking to the clear best available coach at the time, Tom Thibodeau).
And there is this:
When in doubt, the brass always changes the coach, always whacks the manager. They alter the dynamic, especially when you are a management team, like Steve Mills and Scott Perry, just learning to swim solo in the deep end of the pool. That isn’t necessarily right, or fair, or even smart. But it buys you time and, you hope, credibility.
Canning Hornacek was also the easiest task awaiting Mills and Perry.
The hard stuff follows. First comes the hiring of a new coach, and one that won’t be just another spoke in a creaky turnstile of failed caretakers. The last time the Knicks hired a coach who by himself made a profound impact was Pat Riley — who is, by acclimation, one of the best coaches of all time and, more importantly, inherited the skeleton of a contender, with Patrick Ewing the spine.
And that underlines the real task that likes ahead of Mills and Perry. Every other New York team that changed bosses the last 6 ½ months handed the new chief significantly more than they will be handing to Mark Jackson, or Doc Rivers, or David Fizdale, or whomever they entrust the car keys to. Even the Giants, a woeful 3-13 this year, could offer the promise of Eli-to-OBJ (for now, anyway) to an offensive-minded guy like Pat Shurmur.
Even the Mets, losers of 90 games a year ago, offered the return of Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes to Mickey Callaway, who has taken advantage of that and quickly become the most popular New York import from Cleveland since Don Imus in 1971.
What will the Knicks be able to offer their New Guy?
1) Porzingis. Eventually. In whatever version he’ll be, post-knee.
2) Money (always the Knicks’ greatest selling point).
3) About a 3 percent chance of getting a game-changing lottery pick.
4) Easy access to Billy Joel tickets.
It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hire someone new; Hornacek’s shelf life here was done. It does make you wonder what the impact will be. What the impact can be. Unless, of course, they hire LeBron James as a player-coach.
How’s that for a crazy billboard?