At the end of his press conference before Monday night’s game against the Raptors, Jeff Hornacek assured everyone the Knicks were still trying to win games. It only sounded like the death of a season.
First Hornacek confirmed center Joakim Noah would be out three to four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Then the coach had to explain the release of veteran guard Brandon Jennings to make room from rookie D-Leaguer Chasson Randle.
“Maybe this gives him an opportunity to get somewhere where he can play more minutes,” Hornacek said of Jennings, who apparently craved more playing time.
The parting is said to be mutual, but it’s also the latest evidence Phil Jackson’s major offseason acquisitions were a disaster. This was evident long before losing 92-91 to the Raptors at the Garden.
Jennings, Noah, Courtney Lee and Derrick Rose were supposed to add enough experience and talent to make the Knicks a playoff contender. Instead, they are 24-36 and barely clinging to playoff contention.
Jennings’ release and Noah’s extensive absence felt like the waving of a white flag, but Hornacek made it clear the Knicks are still trying to make something of their season.
“We’re still trying to win,” the coach said. “Just because Brandon was waived doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win these games.”
The Knicks proved his point by playing with high energy in taking an early 17-point in the first half against the Raptors. But Toronto fought back and behind 37 points from DeMar DeRozen stole the game when Carmelo Anthony missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.
It was a spirited effort by the Knicks. But Jennings’ release doesn’t look good on Jackson’s résumé as team president. It was just a one-year deal for $5 million. But as a speedster who craved an up-tempo style, Jennings was never a good fit for Team Triangle. He played too much of a speed game for extended minutes. Jackson should have seen this coming.
Jennings’ 24.6 minutes per game behind starters Rose and Lee will go to Ron Baker, a 6-foot-4 rookie from Wichita State, who scored five points in 19 minutes Monday night, and Randle, a 6-2 guard from Stanford, who did not play against the Raptors.
Hornacek talked up Baker’s size, strength and defensive ability and Randle’s “feel for the game.” But giving two rookie guards a spot in the rotation at this time of year is a move that’s made when you’re building for the future, not trying to make a late-season playoff run.
“I’m going to make the most of my opportunity,” Baker said.
Noah’s knee injury serves as an explanation point on what was viewed as a risky move when Jackson signed him to a four-year $72 million contract coming off an injury-riddled season. He has averaged 5.0 points and 8.8 rebounds in the 41 games he has played for the Knicks, but he has never been 100 percent and the team likes the long-term potential of 6-11 rookie Willy Hernangomez.
Hornacek talked about Noah getting back before the end of this season. But the coach hinted it might be best if Noah had “a nice long stretch of getting back healthy.”
Still there are no guarantees Noah will be a starter next year, especially if Hernangomez continues to develop.
“You kind of like to go into training camp with an open competition where the guys who play the best are going to get that role,” Hornacek said.
Jackson’s two other free-agent signings have been underwhelming. Rose spent training camp as a defendant in a gang-rape case and doesn’t seem committed to being a Knick long-term. Lee, meanwhile, is productive, averaging 10.4 points per game, and made a clutch 3-pointer Monday night to put the Knicks up 91-90 with 10.6 seconds left. But he’s more role player than impact player.
Jackson still has two more years on his “Go Ask Phil” contract to build a winner. But right now, he has proven to be better at coaching talent than acquiring it.
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