Shooting themselves in the foot with so many hires in the past, what makes this Fizdale hiring feel just a bit different for New York?
The New York Knicks just completed their most thorough coaching search for a long time—reportedly interviewing no less than 11 candidates—before hiring David Fizdale on May 3rd. Tellingly, the Knicks have had few opportunities and little inclination to conduct a proper coaching search since hiring Mike D’Antoni on May 13th, 2008, almost exactly a decade ago. Could Fizdale bring some much needed continuity to the Knicks? Given the recent history, he’ll have his work cut out for him.
In the time between hiring D’Antoni and Fizdale, the Knicks have endured a decade of flux up and down the organization. The current front office tandem of Steve Mills and Scott Perry is the fifth front office in the last decade, with none of Donnie Walsh (2008-2011), Glen Grunwald (2011-2013), Steve Mills (September 2013-March 2014), or Phil Jackson (2014-2017) surviving the duration of their contracts.
Ominously, perhaps, Fizdale will be the sixth Knicks Head Coach of the last decade. None of D’Antoni (2008-2012), Mike Woodson (2012-2014), Derek Fisher (2014-2016), Kurt Rambis (Interim Head Coach February 2016-June 2016), or the recently departed Jeff Hornacek (2016-2018) made it to the end of their respective contracts.
Can you spot the trend here? Of the six first-round draft picks the Knicks made in the last decade, none of Danilo Galinari (sixth pick in 2008), Jordan Hill (eighth pick in 2009), Iman Shumpert (17th pick in 2011), or Tim Hardaway Jr. (24th pick in 2014) saw out their rookie contracts in a Knicks uniform. We can chuck in Jerian Grant (19th pick in 2015) as an exclamation point here as well, and although he wasn’t technically drafted by the Knicks, Phil Jackson traded for him on draft night, before predictably sending him packing in the Derrick Rose deal after only one season.
This constant flux throughout the organization—from the front office, coaching staff, and roster—has prevented the franchise from establishing any semblance of continuity. Crucially, every tier has perpetuated instability elsewhere in the organization. A new GM inherits a coach he didn’t hire and a roster he didn’t build, a coach’s tenure spans multiple front office regimes and an unrecognizable roster every training camp, and the players never get comfortable amidst the merry-go-round of introductory press conferences. This kind of chaotic environment invites a crippling turnover rate and makes winning basketball games extremely difficult.
Apologies for digging up some bad memories, Knick fans, but stick with me. The context around this lack of continuity is what’s interesting, because at all levels of the organization, the Knicks are arguably in the best shape they’ve been in this century. More than any other fanbase, Knicks faithful have cultivated an understandable protective shell of skepticism to guard against any hint of hope or success. Season after season of quick-fix decision making, hunting superstar saviors, and overall dysfunction have made skepticism a necessity. I get it. But the Fizdale hire could be an organizational tipping point.
Let’s start with the root cause of dysfunction: ownership. James Dolan has a history of meddling and chasing stars. Pair that with the infuriating habit for employing Isiah Thomas, and he may be the most hated owner in sports. When Donnie Walsh bought D’Antoni to the Knicks in 2008, there was talk that Dolan was behind the hire, angling to get another big-name coach to New York. Walsh reportedly wanted a defense-first coach, with Mark Jackson (Ha!) and Avery Johnson among the potential candidates. When the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony in February 2011, Dolan may have again been the driving force, intoxicated by the allure of a star. The trade gutted the roster, and Walsh was gone three months later, his decision not to return undoubtedly made easier by his owners interjections.
No Dolan driven disaster has proven as emphatically disastrous as hiring a big name executive. The catastrophe that was Isiah Thomas will never be topped, but when Dolan hired Phil Jackson in 2014, Jackson did his best to match Isiah’s general legacy of incompetence. The glimmer of hope that Knicks fans can clutch at here though, is that on hiring Jackson, Dolan swore to not interfere, a promise that demonstrates an admission that his involvement in any decision is directly correlated to the franchise being a laughing stock.
There are, of course, no guarantees with Dolan. But he was true to his word during the Phil Jackson era, until he made an exception to step in when Jackson started contemplating trading Porzingis. Ownership is undoubtedly the most volatile of organisational tiers for New York—who knows what thoughts are swirling around underneath that fedora—but the absence of something terrible happening right now has to be seen as a win with Dolan.
There is no indication that Dolan had any more influence than necessary in hiring Scott Perry as GM in July 2017. This is a good place to start in the long list of differences between Perry and Jackson. Secondly, Perry has yet to do anything stupid, which is something you can’t often say about a Knicks executive (remember that THJ’s $72 million anvil of a deal is all on Mills, who splurged that money on July 8th, six days before the Perry hire). Thirdly, Perry doesn’t carry with him a religious attachment to an antiquated offensive system that doesn’t suit the NBA, players hate to play, and only a handful of coaches run.
This third point is the big one. The triangle offense, of all Jackson’s failures, was the most damaging to the Knicks. His insistence on the triangle meant that the Knicks were hiring a coach from a turgid coaching pool of maybe six humans in the world. To make matters worse, not once did he get the coach he wanted. When he wanted Steve Kerr, he ended up with Fisher. When he wanted Luke Walton, he ended up with Jeff Hornacek. Ultimately, inexperienced coaches running a system neither they nor their players wanted to run was never going to be a recipe for success.
With a muted James Dolan and an experienced Mills and Perry in the front office, Fizdale will be stepping into the healthiest ecosystem the Knicks organization has had for years. The roster he’ll be taking the reigns of will also be in the best shape of the century in terms of its ability to develop into a team that achieves sustainable success. After the 2018 draft, where the Knicks are projected to have the 9th pick, the roster will feature three top-10 picks on rookie contracts. The Knicks haven’t boasted that type of young talent in years. On top of this foundation, the Knicks own all of their first-round picks going forward, something they haven’t had this century. They are building through the draft, but also have an avenue to significant cap space in 2019.
There are reasons the Knicks have been so bad for so long. Bad ownership, bad front office decision making, imbalanced rosters, recklessly and repeatedly giving up long term assets for short term has-beens, and continual coaching turnover have all contributed. Collectively, these shortcomings have strangled any chance of success, of continuity, of stability.
David Fizdale is one of a number of reasons to believe that the organization can turn the page on a long period of dysfunction and disappointment. The fact that a coach of his reputation and regard was hired at all is evidence of the new and improved environment he’s becoming a part of. This is no guarantee of success, but without a doubt, Knicks fans have more reasons for optimism now than at an any point this century.