Wins on the court matter the most, but David Fizdale’s reputation as a charismatic, confident, and very quotable (we all know the one) coach will prove essential for the Knicks as the team and front office attempt to forge a new identity for the franchise.
It’s a well-known fact that David Fizdale is a likable human being. Comfortable in front of the the press and adored within the NBA community, Fizdale is at ease with himself in a way in which neither Jeff Hornacek—a victim of managerial upheaval—or Derek Fisher—a victim of having no idea how to do his job—ever were during their respective tenures with the Knicks. After decades of poor front office decision-making carried out under the dark cloud of James Dolan and company, fans don’t have much faith in the Knicks’ management.
Fizdale’s reputation as a popular figure within the league may seem inessential compared to his actual coaching ability, but for a franchise that has built up very little good will over the past few years, some positivity in the press and among fans is in high order. Fiz’s charisma will eventually pay dividends on the court as well, as the new coach attempts to develop meaningful relationships with a young team in need of direction and a sense of identity. By forging positive personal relationships with his young players, Fizdale will make the job of his development and training staff that much easier. Coach Fizdale will ultimately be judged on his winning percentage, but his positive reputation will prove vital as the Knicks retool over the next few seasons.
Fizdale’s good standing within the league was on full display in the wake of his hiring as head coach last month. After the Knicks officially announced the hire, many of Fizdale’s former players and coaching peers took to the press to congratulate the newly appointed head coach and offer words of praise. Dwyane Wade, who won two rings with Fizdale in Miami, took to Twitter to proclaim that the “future of New York [sic] just got a lot brighter” and congratulate his friend. Erik Spoelstra had nothing but praise for his former assistant, describing Fizdale as “a brilliant basketball mind that has exceptional, gold-standard level communication skills… He’s one of my best friends.” Obviously, winning championships goes a long way towards strengthening relationships, but it is telling that Spoelstra and Wade praise Fizdale as a friend and communicator, not merely as a coach or an assistant. Given the level of discontent that developed between Kristaps Porzingis and Jeff Hornacek last summer, the Knicks could certainly use a ‘gold-standard’ communicator in the driver’s seat.
The extent to which Fizdale’s reputation weathered his feud with Marc Gasol and his subsequent firing by the Grizzlies is telling of the neophyte coach’s overall popularity. In the immediate wake of Fizdale’s firing, 19 games into his second season in Memphis, the prevailing reaction from the rest of the league was confusion and skepticism. At the time, LeBron echoed this sentiment, saying that Fizdale’s termination “probably took everybody in the basketball world by surprise besides who pulled the trigger… I don’t know the details of it because I’m not around [the Grizzlies]. But I know the type of coach Fiz is, I know how players relate to him, and I know what he stands for.” High praise from a player that has allegedly dabbled in a little coach-killing himself.
Many skeptics have pointed to Fizdale’s firing as evidence that he’ll have a hard time winning over Porzingis (because he obviously must hate all European 7-footers) or that he’s unqualified for his position as head coach. Kristaps himself doesn’t seem to share those qualms, and Steve Mills and Scott Perry were impressed enough by how Fizdale handled the topic during their interview process to reward the man with a job. There’s ample evidence that Fizdale is well-equipped to move forward from his issues in Memphis a wiser and more patient coach.
Indicative of Fizdale’s more patient, step-by-step approach is his early and deliberate commitment to the youngest members of the Knicks. Fiz was photographed at Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals with Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Damyean Dotson, a public outing which reinforced the importance of the three players in the coach’s plans. As for the New York’s brightest young star, Fizdale has reiterated that building a relationship with Porzingis is chief among his goals as head coach. “I won’t skip a step,” Fizdale told reporters regarding Porzingis, “I’ll spend a ton of time with he and his family. I want to hear their experience and what they see going forward for Kristaps and how I can interject and help him in any way.” Don’t call it a youth movement quite yet, but Fizdale’s efforts to connect with KP and his other young players are encouraging examples of the new coach’s charisma at work.
Fizdale’s emphasis on relationship building is thankfully not an end in itself, but rather a step towards realigning the team culture of the Knicks and furthering the development of his players. The Knicks could be the most buddy-buddy team in the league, but that will matter little if they continue to underperform on the court—especially after KP’s eventual return. Fizdale certainly recognizes that his job security is predicated on the performance of his team and the growth of his players.
Going back to his title-winning days with the Miami Heat and his brief stint as head coach in Memphis, Fizdale has been a part of organizations that emphasize becoming more player-centric with the eventual goal of bringing players further into the fold and fitting them into the team system in place. By building positive relationships with his players, Fizdale is able to mold them and help them grow down the line. Fiz allegedly convinced Zach Randolph to come off the bench his very first day as head coach in Memphis. Perhaps Kristaps is waiting for a coach he genuinely likes and respects to tell him to play the 5 more often.
Fizdale knows from experience that communication is key when convincing players to buy into a team culture and try something new. At a coaching clinic held in Las Vegas last summer Fizdale stressed the need to address “the why” when talking with players—why they’re asked to run a certain drill, for example, or why they’re tasked with a certain role within the team. For a team caught in the half-life of the Triangle Offense for the better part of the past three years, this clarity of direction will go a long way.
Fiz’s charisma and popularity are already on display as he breezes his way through an onslaught of introductory press conferences and interviews, but his openness and willingness to connect with his players will pay the biggest dividends in the gym—and eventually, on the court. With Kristaps unavailable for the foreseeable future, the Knicks are practically guaranteed another losing season. With Fizdale now at the helm and expectations for winning nonexistent, the Knicks have an opportunity to establish a cohesive team culture and develop their youth. Coaching isn’t a popularity contest, but if Fizdale can win his young team over, this approaching season might not be a loss despite all the losing.