GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Knicks have developed an April tradition: While other teams prepare for the playoffs, the Knicks erect a temporary dais at their practice facility here to explain why, after another lackluster season that brought another early summer break, they are making coaching or management changes.
At this year’s installment, the team president, Steve Mills, and general manager, Scott Perry, wrung their hands while explaining the latest firing: Jeff Hornacek, the team’s 11th head coach in the past 16 years. They informed him of their decision in a conference room at Westchester County Airport at about 2 a.m. Thursday, after the team returned from its season-ending game in Cleveland.
Kurt Rambis, the associate head coach, was also dismissed.
“We thought it was important, and the timing was right, to get a new voice and a new presence in this locker room to lead our vision for this team moving forward,” Perry said. “We are in the early stages of the building process for this team and this organization.”
Knicks fans might find it difficult to keep track of which stage of which building process the team is in. The Knicks’ perpetual state of rebuilding — involving so many people making so many missteps over so many years — makes Boston’s Big Dig seem like a simple driveway repaving by comparison.
When Phil Jackson hired Hornacek as coach of the Knicks two years ago, he had visions of pairing Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis on a playoff team. But with the Knicks, such visions quickly become delusions as reality sets in. The games are played, the off-court craziness ensues and the playoffs begin without the Knicks.
Indeed, circumstances changed drastically over Hornacek’s two turbulent, losing seasons. Jackson, who was the president, has since departed for his Montana home, Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Porzingis got hurt.
Hornacek’s tenure, which produced a record of 60-104, was troubled from the start. Anthony and Porzingis were not a natural pairing, and Jackson’s biggest moves — signing Joakim Noah and trading for Derrick Rose — were duds.
Without much talent to work with, the Knicks never established a clear identity, frustrating Hornacek with their defensive inconsistency (they ranked 22nd in defense) and looking a step behind the league’s best offenses. Hornacek’s dismissal was an expected part of the new regime’s efforts to retool the team.
Before coaching his final game on Wednesday night in Cleveland, Hornacek told reporters that he would “love to continue with these guys.”
“We didn’t think it was going to be a one-year turnaround,” Hornacek said.
He added: “You expect a rebuilding situation to go out there and win 50 games? That’s why they call it rebuilding. But when you mention rebuilding, you’re still trying to win games.”
But Hornacek will no longer lead that turnaround. (He had one year left on his three-year, $15 million contract.)
Hornacek, 54, was hired to instill Jackson’s coaching philosophies — namely, the triangle offense — and compete for a spot in the playoffs. Perry, who was hired last summer as Jackson’s replacement, retained Hornacek at the time to maintain a level of continuity in hopes of retooling around Porzingis, the Knicks’ franchise player. Over the course of the season, the Knicks’ front office evaluated the team’s performance in 10-game increments.
Before Christmas, the Knicks had a 16-14 record, and making the playoffs seemed feasible. Porzingis was averaging 24 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. But the Knicks began to struggle in early January, and Porzingis suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 6 when the team was in the middle of an eight-game losing streak. The Knicks shifted their focus to improving their draft lottery odds.
Hornacek’s position suddenly seemed untenable. Since the end of January, the Knicks went 5-26 and Hornacek got into a physical altercation with Noah at a practice.
After the incident, Noah was kept away from the team for the rest of the season, but the tension recalled earlier locker room friction that had contributed to Hornacek’s departure as coach of the Phoenix Suns 46 games into the 2016 season.
At the news conference, Mills and Perry stuck to largely the same, diplomatic speech they gave at Perry’s introductory news conference: The Knicks are rebuilding. Perry preached that “patience is required” to build a winning team that is sustainable — a change in rhetoric from Knicks managements of the past.
“There are no quick fixes,” he said. “I know that has been tried a number of times here in the past, but I think it is important that we as an organization remain disciplined.”
The Knicks did not give a timeline for hiring a new coach. Two names that have surfaced as possible successors: Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson. Rivers, who played for the Knicks from 1992 to 1994, is the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Jackson, who coached the Golden State Warriors from 2011 to 2014, played for the Knicks from 1987 to 1992 and again in 2001 and 2002.
“All three years I’ve been here have been losing records,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who signed with the Knicks shortly before Perry became general manager last summer. “This would, career-wise, be going on my fifth coach. It is all up to management what they want to do. I am on board with their decisions, and the new season starts right now.”
A new season begins, and the rebuilding process continues.
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