Following the release of guard Brandon Jennings and a possible season-ending injury to Joakim Noah, New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said the team is not tanking to get a better slot in the NBA draft lottery.
Speaking to the media before Monday's game against the Toronto Raptors, Hornacek told reporters he thought the Knicks could still contend for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference despite cutting Jennings and losing Noah for an extended period of time due to arthroscopic surgery.
"Who says we're trying to lose?" Hornacek said, according to Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "As a team, we're not thinking about losing. If that's what it comes down to and then we get a different draft pick, we'll worry about it then."
Hornacek "bristled at the notion" that cutting Jennings, which the Knicks did Monday morning, was a sign of the team tanking, according to Iannazzone. Rather, it was a mutual decision, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman.
That said, the Knicks were unable to give Jennings the minutes he wanted, according to ESPN's Ian Begley, and the team knew he "was no longer a fit," a source told Berman. (Jennings averaged 21.3 minutes per game between Feb. 6 and Feb. 25. By comparison, he averaged 24.4 minutes per game in January and 27.5 minutes per game in December.)
Jennings will be free to sign with any team should he clear waivers.
The Knicks, meanwhile, are four games out of a playoff spot and have the sixth toughest remaining schedule in the Eastern Conference with 23 games left in the season entering Monday. Hornacek was adamant, according to Berman, that the Knicks are still looking to win now.
Without Jennings, the Knicks are expected to give Chasson Randle (whom the Knicks signed to fill Jennings' roster spot on Monday), Ron Baker and Derrick Rose more time on the court. Hornacek said he believes Randle and Baker are better fits in the triangle offense than Jennings, according to Berman.
"We're still trying to win," Hornacek said, according to Iannazzone. "Because Brandon was waived doesn't mean that we're not trying to win these games. We feel Ron Baker can fill right in."
As a coach, Hornacek obviously has a lot of pride in his own performance and ability to motivate his players. He's not going to admit to tanking, especially if the Knicks are still mathematically in the playoff equation. It wouldn't be out of the question to think that when Carmelo Anthony has an opportunity to weigh in on the day's events that he too will exhibit a similar sense of pride. He's too competitive of an individual with enough pressure and expectations as it is. He and Hornacek, perhaps more than anyone else on this squad, have winning aspirations.
How realistic such hopes are remains to be seen. They appear to be close, yet so very far. Thinking that a team can regroup and make a playoff push in February, with only four games to make up, isn't unreasonable. There's still plenty of time. Unfortunately, momentum clearly isn't in this team's favor.
There is a small bit of good news when it comes to New York's hopes for a postseason push. Noah's inability to perform and hit the court this season has made him an irrelevant piece all the way around. It's not as though the Knicks are losing a crucial part of a successful club. They never truly had the luxury of his services. As for Randle, he boasted some terrific potential in Orlando Summer League, training camp, etc. His familiarity with the Knicks' system and what they're trying to do could make him an asset, especially as he takes the place of a struggling Jennings.
Nevertheless, fighting tooth and nail for victories that could ultimately hurt the Knicks' draft opportunities, but still not result in a meaningful playoff bid in the end, is not the right course of action moving forward.