New York Knicks: A rotational decision that’s emblematic of Jeff Hornacek’s shortcomings

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 06: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Giannis Antetokounmpo
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 06: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Giannis Antetokounmpo /

Despite long being out of the playoff race, New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek insists on playing Lance Thomas at the 3.

Lance Thomas isn’t the reason the New York Knicks are bad. With or without him, they’re a team that will lose far more games than they will win. Without Kristaps Porzingis, they will often lose those games in difficult-to-swallow beatdowns.

There is, to some extent, a need to play Thomas every night. With Porzingis out, the Knicks really just need to throw bodies out there at power forward for 48 minutes. Their options are limited.

Thomas may also provide some intrinsic value as a locker room leader. He also serves as an example of the value of hard work to the team’s impressionable youngsters. Thomas has had to toil and scrap for everything he’s earned in his career.

None of that justifies his continued inclusion in the rotation or as a starter at small forward when he’s been available. This isn’t a position in which the team is short of options.

Tim Hardaway has started there most of the season. Midseason signing Troy Williams is a natural 3 and Hornacek himself has stated that he believes rookie Damyean Dotson, whose exclusion during this rather inconsequential stage of the season is puzzling, has the size and strength to play there.

Thomas’ continued role as a 3 in the rotation, however, is emblematic of what many fans feel are head coach Jeff Hornacek’s shortcomings as a coach. His reasoning has varied, but it’s generally been rooted in Thomas’ defensive aptitude.

This would be fine if there was evidence of this, but there’s very little to support this line of thinking.

Thomas routinely gets burned at small forward. He has a penchant for committing unnecessary fouls, often in the act of shooting. He’s a terrible defensive rebounder and provides very little impact as a help defender, evidenced by his low steal and block rates.

He doesn’t even contest many shots.

The Knicks have been a marginally better defensive team with Thomas on the floor. They have a 111.9 defensive rating with him on as compared to 112.7 when he sits.

If the team performed better overall with him on the floor this rather inconsequential uptick in defensive performance could justify Thomas’ minutes at the 3. That simply hasn’t been the case, though. 

Despite shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range, Thomas is an offensive sinkhole. That near 40 percent comes on a paltry 1.7 attempts per game. It simply doesn’t move the needle. He detracts from the collective performance of the team because he contributes little else.

He can’t attack closeouts effectively. He’s a poor finisher at the rim on the rare occasion he ventures there. Thomas is a liability when forced to be a decision maker and put the ball on the floor or pass.

Yet, there he was in the starting lineup against the 76ers on Wednesday, presumably because of Hornacek’s belief that he can slow down Ben Simmons. And there was Simmons, overpowering Thomas with ease to finish at the rim.

Knicks GIF
Knicks GIF /

Or spinning off Thomas with no resistance for an easy lob and finish.

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Knicks GIF /

Here is Thomas sending Embiid to the line for no reason when Enes Kanter is in perfect position to contest.

And here he is not boxing out and giving up a second-chance scoring opportunity.

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Knicks GIF /

What’s been most frustrating about Thomas getting these starting minutes because of his defense is the Knicks have a better option.

His name is Frank Ntilikina. He was the Knicks’ lottery pick last summer. Despite struggling offensively, like Thomas, he’s proven to be a capable and versatile. He’s also an impactful defender.

On Sunday, Ntilikina started against the Wizards and defended Otto Porter Jr. Despite giving up a considerable size advantage, the Frenchman acquitted himself well, frustrating Porter on several occasions.

When Ntilikina was tasked with defending Simmons, he proved a much tougher challenge for the Australian prodigy than Thomas.

Markelle Fultz had issues with him as well.

Still, despite another game in which it’s obvious Thomas didn’t cut the bacon, it’s likely he’ll see minutes at the 3 moving forward. There’s little reason to suspect he won’t, because his actual  performance has rarely mattered.

If it had, Hornacek would have seen the light a long time ago, particularly in a season that’s been over since Kristaps Porzingis’ ACL injury in early February.

And again, what’s most baffling is that, if Hornacek’s still prioritizing winning, it’s clear Thomas at the 3 isn’t congruent with that goal. That has been the case all year.

Must Read: Five reasons to consider Tony Carr at the 2018 NBA Draft

Love is blind. It appears Jeff Hornacek’s faith in Lance Thomas is, as well.