A new specialty of the New York Knicks is to disparage beloved franchise heroes into a state of exile. [Charles Oakley turns to the camera.] ’73 Knickerbocker NBA champion Phil Jackson is the latest example, fired after putting Latvian unicorn Kristaps Porzingis on the trading block. The Zen Master might’ve never sincerely meant to deal the franchise centerpiece, as his actions were largely interpreted as retaliation for the then-21-year-old skipping his exit interview with the team, but it was enough for owner James Dolan to part ways with Jackson.
Moving on from Jackson was widely regarded as the right move, and it seemed like the Knicks had closed the door on a terrifying chapter during which it looked like they might lose their best, or at least most exciting, player. With Jackson on the way out, Knicks fans could sleep soundly, knowing that Porzingis had no reason to leave the franchise.
Except, according to a new report from former NBA TV analyst Peter Vecsey, Porzingis avoided his end-of-season meeting due to friction between the player and coach Jeff Hornacek, not Jackson—though “contention definitely existed” with the latter, too. At the time, Porzingis told reporters he opted to miss the meeting because of the “drama” in the organization and his own "frustration over dysfunction,” a mess everyone assumed that Jackson had created.
Per Vecsey, the relationship between the coach and Porzingis deteriorated because of their egos: Hornacek’s too deflated, and K.P.’s the opposite. In his first season in charge in New York, Hornacek was reportedly grappling with being labeled a “soft” coach by his locker room; to reinstate a hierarchy, he decided “he would reproach Porzingis in front of the team.” According to Vecsey, the fault-finding felt unfair to Porzingis, who noticed the same attitude was rarely directed at veteran Carmelo Anthony.
“[Porzingis] resented being singled out for criticism,” Vecsey wrote, “and acted out accordingly. He developed an annoying habit, for example, of parking in spots at the team’s practice facility designated for management.”
After it became clear how disengaged Porzingis was, Hornacek asked Porzingis’s “best friend” on the Knicks, rookie Willy Hernangomez, to help settle the centerpiece down. From Vecsey:
"Mindlessly, Hornacek got Hernangomez alone one dreadful day and conveyed to him what he should’ve conveyed to Porzingis face-to-face: ‘Tell your guy to stop playing like a pussy!’”
After that, the two apparently stopped speaking to each other, and according to Vecsey have only recently started communicating again, but only via text or through Hernangomez.
Hornacek doesn’t have the good graces, memories, or rings that Jackson re-entered the franchise with, providing Jackson a leash that allowed him to run through four coaches, force his outdated triangle offense on all of them, go 80-166 over three seasons, and still have Dolan say he’ll fully “honor” Jackson’s contract. Dolan finally changed his mind when Jackson put the unicorn at risk. To be fair to the Zen Master, where Dolan draws the line is blurry, as Jackson didn’t seem to take any hit to his job security when he pulled something similar with Carmelo, telling reporters that the franchise player “would be better off somewhere else” since the Knicks “have not been able to win with him on the court.”
If Hornacek was more soft-spoken with Carmelo in practice out of respect, it now seems to have been a waste of time. The 33-year-old is in the middle of trying to force a trade elsewhere, the type of public posturing that usually ends with the player leaving. And Hornacek appears to have picked the wrong superstar to play favorites with anyway: there was job security before for Jackson after he criticized Melo, but not as much after he tried the same with Porzingis.
New York also has a history of letting players trump coaches—something Melo and the decision-makers in charge of his preferred trade destination, Houston, know all too well—which is why Hornacek needs to rekindle his relationship with Porzingis. Hornacek’s only other stint as a head coach, with Phoenix from 2013-14 through 2015-16, ended in turmoil, as well. After openly asking to be dealt elsewhere, Markieff Morris was suspended for two games for throwing a towel at Hornacek in frustration in a December 2015 loss. (Last season, as a Wizard, Morris said the incident looked different from the outside, called Hornacek “my guy,” and said they still “talk all the time.”)
It was management, Morris said, that was the root of his dismay, calling the setup and roster Hornacek was given “like him jumping off a building with only one way down. And they’re trying to tell you to go up, but you can’t.” That situation has a familiar ring to it for the Knicks, who after missing the playoffs for four losing seasons, are desperate for success—and willing to endure whatever shake-ups it takes to get there.