New York Knicks: Breaking Down Jeff Hornacek’s Interior Options
New York Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek was flexible with his rotations against the Charlotte Hornets. It was proof that he has options down low.
The Knicks’ frontcourt rotation, and the role of starting center Joakim Noah in it, has been one of the storylines of the season so far in New York. Against the Charlotte Hornets, coach Hornacek’s limited use of Noah was a factor in the Knicks’ recent win.
Noah played 18 minutes, most of which came in the 1st half, and he sat the entire fourth quarter and overtime. Emerging rookies Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas logged 20 and 24 minutes respectively.
Last night’s huge home win against the Hornets will undoubtedly fuel further talk of Noah’s role, but what we should be taking away from the game is the valuable versatility Hornacek and the Knicks are continuing to find with its numerous options in the frontcourt.
Joakim Noah is not a player who is going to space the floor on offense, or post up, or be a target for lob dunks; that’s just not his game. What he will do is be a force on the offensive glass, facilitate from the elbows, set mean screens, and run dribble hand-offs.
That is the offensive reality of Joakim Noah. Yes, he cramps the offensive spacing, but that is not a surprise, and the Knicks’ coaching staff still believe he can be effective on the offensive end.
Noah’s primary value is on the other end of the floor, where the former Defensive Player of the Year can still be a force. He plays solid individual post defense, is a smart and experienced team defender, and cleans up the defensive glass.
It’s not surprising he played limited minutes last night. He was coming back from missing two games due to illness, and so was finding his legs and rhythm in his first game back. Also, the Hornets’ bigs just weren’t a good matchup for Noah, whose strengths lie in defending the post and being around the basket.
Cody Zeller torched Noah early in the game with his speed, mobility, and activity, which is understandable in Noahs return to the court. Even so, Noah was active on the offensive glass, giving the Knicks valuable extra possessions in the first quarter.
We shouldn’t overreact to Noah’s underwhelming return to the lineup. It’s good that the Knicks can survive stretches without their starting center on the floor, by utilizing depth few people thought they had on the roster at the start of the season.
Spanish rookie Willy Hernangomez has been a nice surprise off the bench for the Knicks this season, providing valuable minutes straight away in his NBA career.
Hernangomez continued his good form last night, and was a team leading +16 (+/-) in his 20 minutes off the bench to go along with six points, nine rebounds, two assists and one block.
Walt Frazier lambasted the rookie for fouling Hornets jitterbug point guard Kemba Walker under the basket at the end of regulation, giving up an and-1 layup and allowing the Hornets to tie the game. Whilst this was a bad foul, Hernangomez is a rookie, and there was minimal contact on a play that 90 percent of big men around the league would have struggled to navigate in the split seconds he got to read and react to the play.
Besides, without Hernangomez, the Knicks likely wouldn’t have had a lead to defend. The rookie had two huge buckets in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter.
Hernangomez has a rare combination of size, smarts, and skill. The Knicks are right to invest time in developing the young Spaniard who may end up being Kristaps Porzingis’ long term frontcourt partner.
The rookie has flashed a bit of everything so far in his rookie season. Nifty post moves, some skill as a passer from the elbows, a midrange jump shot—I swear every one of his jumpers have rattled in and out this season—with good shooting form, quick feet and active hands on defense.
Noah is an ideal role model for the young rookie, whose bargain rookie contract—especially on the old rookie scale under the new booming salary cap—perfectly mirrors Noah’s four-year contract. The Knicks definitely overpayed for Noah at $18 million per year, but if Hernangomez continues to develop into a starting-caliber player, the two contracts could balance each other out.
Whilst Noah and Hernangomez have different skill sets, they’re both traditional centers. When the Knicks want to play small-ball with Porzingis at the 5, they have alternatives to the two big men.
Jeff Hornacek’s most potent offensive lineup might be with Kristaps Porzingis at center and Carmelo Anthony at power forward, with either Mindaugas Kuzminskas or Justin Holiday playing as a small-ball small-forward.
Justin Holiday was the hero of the Knicks’ small-ball second half demolition of the Dallas Mavericks earlier in the season, providing solid 3-point shooting to give KP and Melo as much room as possible to operate on the offensive end.
Recently, rookie Kuzminskas has been earning a bigger role in the rotation, playing a similar role to Holiday in the Knicks’ small-ball lineups.
Kuzminskas played big minutes against the Hornets last night; 24 in total including all but three seconds of overtime. The rookie was +13 in these minutes, despite going 0-6 from the field. The fact that he could have a positive impact on the game even when his shot isn’t falling is a testament to the value of the space having an extra shooter on the floor gives the Knicks’ offense.
Hornacek made a great decision to use a small-ball lineup heading into overtime. Although both teams were tired, points are always harder to find when the game is on the line. The Knicks coach gave Anthony, who had his best game of the season with 35 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, as much room as he could to operate.
It worked to perfection. Anthony made two midrange jump shots, including the game-winner, with the extra shooters on the floor meaning it was harder for the Hornets’ defense to send help to Melo without leaving shooters open. This is exactly what happened when Porzingis made a go-ahead corner 3 with 45 seconds to play.
Noah’s limitations are no secret, but coach Hornacek has options on his bench that he’s shown he won’t hesitate to use. This versatility is a huge asset for the Knicks.
The combination of Noah, Hernangomez, and the small-ball duo of Kuzminskas and Holiday can help the Knicks find stability in the frontcourt 2016-17.
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