At the Chicago draft combine, Jeff Hornacek got a tip. Having meandered through a series of interviews for various head coaching vacancies, with no firm leads on an offer, someone with a pulse on the coaching business whispered some unexpected news to him:
Despite all appearances to the contrary, the Knicks' job was "still wide open," a person familiar with the exchange told CBS Sports.
Those appearances included Kurt Rambis making his way from the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Chicago to the Quest MultiSport complex for prospect workouts. Rambis, Phil Jackson's longtime friend and associate, had emerged as the team president's first choice to take over the job vacated when Derek Fisher was fired back in February. He looked like the coach and walked like the coach and acted like the coach, so ... quack, quack.
There were even those at the executive level within the league who believed that Jackson, 70, wanted to give Rambis the job in order to provide an opening for Jackson himself to pull the strings and act as the head coach behind the scenes -- while Rambis executed the day-to-day duties as a glorified associate head coach.
As it turned out, the tip that Hornacek got about the Knicks' job was as dead-eye accurate as Hornacek's jump shot used to be -- and still is, even at age 53.
The Knicks and Hornacek are closing in on a deal to make him the team's next head coach, league sources confirmed to CBS Sports. Contract negotiations had not commenced as of Wednesday night, but the two sides are "heading in that direction," one of the people said.
Stylistically and personality-wise, Hornacek is a solid choice. In his maiden voyage as coach of the Phoenix Suns in 2013-14, Hornacek turned a 25-win team that was thought to be headed for the lottery into a 48-win team that narrowly missed the playoffs. Embracing the modern pace-and-space style, Hornacek improved the Suns' offensive rating by nearly eight points per 100 possessions -- and improved the defense, too. He finished second to Gregg Popovich for coach of the year.
Then Hornacek was left to resolve the messy matter of having three point guards on the floor at the same time when the team added Isaiah Thomas to a backcourt that already had Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The results were not only awkward, but also unsuccessful. The Suns dipped to 39 wins the following year, and Hornacek's fence-mending with Dragic was for naught.
Within days of Hornacek having a heart-to-heart with Dragic and securing a commitment from the Slovenian point guard to re-sign with the Suns as a free agent the following summer, the Suns shipped him to Miami in a three-team trade, a person familiar with the situation told CBS Sports.
Stunned and blindsided, Hornacek was left to sort it all out. Things became more complicated when the Suns went rogue and signed veteran center Tyson Chandler last summer in a gamble they hoped would lure LaMarcus Aldridge from Portland. Aldridge opted to sign with the Spurs. Chandler endured an injury-plagued season that, at age 33, was one of the least productive of his career.
In December, amid rumblings that Hornacek would be fired, the Suns instead fired his top two assistants -- Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi, who now is doing fine work as Tyronn Lue's defensive assistant in Cleveland. There were not enough Band-Aids to go around, and Hornacek finally was relieved of his duties in February after a 14-35 start.
All of the above should have galvanized Hornacek for the pressure and unpredictability of working at Madison Square Garden, where he will become the Knicks' fifth coach in six seasons. And whether you believe Jackson's decision to venture outside his triangle of trust was his own idea or came at the, ahem, suggestion of MSG overlord James Dolan, the result will be the same: The Knicks aren't going to run the triangle offense with a head coach who has never played in it, coached it or taught it.
And one Jackson confidant made something perfectly clear on Thursday, telling CBS Sports that the idea of hiring Hornacek was Jackson's move -- and that it has only further emboldened Jackson to stay the course and finish the job of fixing the Knicks.
"He's more committed than ever," the person said.
But what Hornacek does believe in is having a system and a culture, something he learned from playing for Jerry Sloan in Utah. The word in league circles is that Jackson's affinity for Hornacek emanated from the longtime relationship and mutual respect between Jackson and Sloan.
Unlike in Phoenix, Hornacek won't be the best shooter on the team; that distinction goes to Kristaps Porzingis, who along with Carmelo Anthony will benefit from Hornacek's offensive acumen. With the triangle out, the Knicks will need a traditional point guard. One rival executive suggested Thursday that the Hornacek hiring could pave the way for Linsanity Part II; Hornets point guard Jeremy Lin has a player option this summer in a massive free-agent market and is coming off his best season since leaving New York as a restricted free agent in 2012.
Of course, there's also the suggestion that the Hornacek hire came at the behest of Isiah Thomas, whose high school coach in Chicago, Gene Pingatore, has employed Hornacek's father, John, as his lead assistant for 25 years.
The Garden works in mysterious ways; but we already knew that. What we also know is that the Knicks have made an unpredictable, credible and quality hire in Hornacek. Triangle be damned.