Jeff Hornacek: Knicks will look to upgrade defense in free agency, draft

NEW YORK -- For much of the season, the conversation around the New York Knicks has centered on the offense: Are they going to run the triangle? How much are they going to run the triangle? Does the triangle work?

That focus has obscured the Knicks’ biggest issue: a shoddy, uninspired defense. New York has been in the bottom third of the NBA on defense all season long, which is the chief reason the club will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Jeff Hornacek is well aware of this. The head coach hinted on Monday that it’s an issue that will be dealt with in the offseason.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

The Knicks will have a top-10 pick in the draft and can have nearly $25 million in cap space to spend in free agency, depending on what they decide to do with Derrick Rose. They remain committed to trading Carmelo Anthony in the offseason, according to sources. If Anthony, who has a no-trade clause, agrees to a trade, New York likely will look for a defensive-minded small forward to replace him in free agency or the draft. The Knicks, along with nearly every other NBA team, reportedly are interested in Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. Some top defensive players on the free-agent market include Thabo Sefolosha, Tony Allen and George Hill.

In addition to adding defensive talent in free agency or the draft, Hornacek hopes that continuity can help some of the younger players on the roster improve. He pointed to the positive strides rookie big man Willy Hernangomez has made on defense over the course of the season.

“He gives us different options,” Hornacek said. “He’s got quicker feet, so maybe we can pull him up on screens more often, that might help us out. Playing [Kristaps Porzingis] at the 5, maybe with his length, if we keep him back. So we can be better from the inside.”

Some of the Knicks' numbers on defense haven't been awful.

New York has ranked in the top 15 in opponent field goal percentage and 3-point percentage this season. But the club has struggled to keep teams off the free throw line. Opponents have scored an average of 19 points per night from the line -- the sixth-highest total in the NBA. The Knicks also have given up the highest amount of offensive rebounds and second-chance points per game, along with the fifth-most points in the paint.

All of this isn't a great reflection on management, the players or the coaching staff, particularly Kurt Rambis, who was tasked with guiding the defense early in the season. The Knicks switched defensive schemes over the course of the season, something Hornacek hopes to avoid in 2017-18.

Joakim Noah, of course, was signed last summer to bolster the club's defense. But the veteran struggled with injuries and performed below expectations -- both his own and the team's -- when healthy. His four-year, $72 million contract will take up a sizable portion of the Knicks’ cap space -- money Jackson could have used on another interior defender.

Neither Porzingis nor Hernangomez are strong on-ball defenders at this point, so the Knicks will have to get creative with lineups or rotations if they want to significantly improve their front-line defense next season. Of course, many of New York’s issues on defense stem from poor perimeter defense. Both Anthony and Rose rank near the bottom of the league in their respective positions in defensive RPM. So a defensive upgrade at either or both of those positions might help push New York forward on defense.

Lottery odds take a hit: The Knicks’ 109-95 win over Detroit on Monday took them out of a three-way tie for the fourth-worst record in the NBA. They moved into sole possession of the sixth-worst record in the league (pending Sacramento’s game against Memphis). New York (28-46) will be jostling for lottery position with Sacramento (28-45 entering play Monday), Philadelphia (27-46), Orlando (27-47) and Minnesota (28-44).

Hornacek knows that some fans would like the team to lose out to improve its lottery position.

“When you’re not in the playoffs, everyone wants to get the best draft pick you can. It’s hard,” Hornacek said. “Players don’t want to lose, coaches don’t want to lose. So we’re going to go out there and play, and sometimes it can maybe work out for you. You just play and maybe that’s the good karma. You get a good pingpong ball.”

The Knicks won two of their final three games two years ago in their 17-win season, bumping them to the fourth spot in the draft. They selected Porzingis, which has worked out pretty well. Players and coaches, as Hornacek said, want to win games. So fans who are frustrated with Monday’s result should be upset with management.

Or, as Anthony said, “They can come play.”

Noah nearing clearance? Hornacek said Noah met with team doctors on Monday night and hoped to be cleared for practice on Tuesday. In the best-case scenario for the Knicks, Noah is cleared to play on Wednesday and can begin serving his 20-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Noah, 32, tested positive for an over-the-counter supplement -- selective androgen receptor modulator LGD-4033 -- that is banned under the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement. An independent doctor from the NBA needs to clear Noah before he returns to the court. If Noah begins serving his suspension on Wednesday, he would miss the first 12 games of next season.

Hornacek intimated that the supplement Noah took was not provided by team doctors. Anthony doesn’t take any risks with over-the-counter supplements. "I'm more of a natural, herbal guy. Juice bar guy. Chinese herbs. African herbs. That's what I'm into," Anthony said.