Knicks' Jeff Hornacek says boss Phil Jackson has been 'hands off'

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Jeff Hornacek’s latitude in straying from the triangle had been in doubt since he was hired, given New York’s adherence to the system – or at least significant chunks of the triangle – since Phil Jackson arrived as president of basketball operations. It’s easy enough to acknowledge the success of the offensive system passed along to Jackson by longtime assistant coach Tex Winter; Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams won 11 NBA championships deploying it.

But it’s also easy to understand why the triangle might not work or be popular in today’s NBA. It essentially is a half-court attack in a quicker pace-and-space league. And the Knicks don’t quite have anyone the caliber of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant, the elite players who might have been able to win running somebody’s “trapezoid” attack from down at the Y.

Whether Jackson would give Hornacek the freedom to have the Knicks play according to the coach’s vision, not the boss’, was going to be one of the storylines of autumn. To hear Hornacek tell it, in a report by Knicks beat writer Ian Begley, the coach has read enough of that book to be comfortable with the plot going forward:

“Phil’s been great. He’s not trying to take over and make us do anything. He’s given us the leeway,” Hornacek said after practice Sunday. “There are some things that we do that aren’t the triangle stuff [such as] our early [offense]. Quite honestly, we thought he would say, ‘Let’s not do that.’ Or, ‘Let’s not do that option.’ But he hasn’t said that at all.”

Hornacek has run “aspects” of Jackson’s triangle offense in the preseason while encouraging the Knicks to increase their pace and hunt for opportunities for easy shots early in possessions. Hornacek says Jackson has been supportive of his new wrinkles, and has aided in the teaching of the triangle offense.

“We talk quite a bit, but he’s been hands off,” Hornacek said. “He gives some directions here and there. If he sees something or he says, ‘Hey, let’s take a look, clean this up, this particular action.’ So it’s good.

“It’s another coach out there — he’s run it for years and years, so when he sees something — really, he’s not coming in there saying, ‘Hey, change it to this,’ or ‘Change it to that.’ It’s good, additional information.”

Hornacek, whom Jackson hired in June after firing his first head coach, Derek Fisher, said Jackson has given the Knicks “hints” on how to execute the triangle offense, which the club uses to space the floor in half-court sets.

“I think our guys are getting used to it,” he said.

The triangle has been the subject of public ridicule during the past two seasons as the Knicks have stumbled to a combined 49 wins while running it. Privately, some Knicks complained about the offense last season because of its slow pace and predictable sets, according to sources.

Hornacek on Sunday acknowledged the criticism of the offense and also defended it, noting that many teams run elements of the triangle in their offense.

“A lot of teams throw it in the post, run splits and cut and do that. So there are some other aspects of it [in many offenses],” Hornacek said, adding that some of the criticism stems from the offense’s slow pace.

“If it slows you down, I think that’s where most guys [who critique the triangle] are probably coming from,” Hornacek said. “You end up being a slow-down team and never get easy buckets, and you’re running that half-court set all the time. First of all, guys don’t like to run it. Secondly, it makes it very difficult to get easy buckets early in the offense. And I think in today’s game, those early buckets are nice to get.”

The Knicks have ranked in the bottom third in the league for pace during the past two seasons while running the triangle. Hornacek is trying to speed the offense up this season, in part to play to the strengths of guards Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings.

“We’re not running it every time,” he said of the triangle. “We’re mixing it in here and there, and hopefully for us it’s a good thing we can do to execute a play on a dead ball that we have something to go to [in half-court sets].”