The most controversial player on New York’s roster was lavished with a big contract last year. What must he do to wipe the naysayers away?
It’s been David Fizdale’s mantra since the New York Knicks hired him at the beginning of May; “I’ve got to connect with our guys.”
He’s preached it early and often during his brief tenure as Knicks’ head coach. It’s the first thing he says in the interview above with Jalen Rose and Michelle Beadle, and it was a big part of the league-wide intrigue surrounding Fizdale as a coaching candidate. He is billed, first and foremost, as a “player’s coach,” and not a “system coach.”
That’s great news for someone like Tim Hardaway Jr., right? New York’s most divisive talent, a 26-year-old spray-and-pray gunner, would fit with exactly one modern NBA system that is actively trying to win basketball games (the answer is Houston, where THJ would basically be a shorter Gerald Green with more off-the-dribble game). Anywhere else he’d shoot himself right onto the bench.
The crux of a Fizdale-Hardaway pairing is the alleged malleability of the former. Everyone, except for Marc Gasol, loves Fizdale. He made a name for himself in Miami and Memphis by “connecting,” to use his own buzzword, with his young players’ talents and personalities, both on and off the court. The very idea behind hiring Fiz, if you’re the Knicks’ front office, is to inspire the two-way growth many have tried to summon from THJ for the bulk of his polarizing NBA career. Forget Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina. They’re going to be very productive players regardless of their coach. Fizdale’s real value is in developing guys that could potentially make that next-level leap like Hardaway.
That isn’t to say Fizdale can afford to fail with Porzingis and Ntilikina. They are far more important to the Knicks’ future than Hardaway and, to be honest, Fizdale. There were surface-level concerns about how Fizdale’s disastrous experience coaching Gasol, another international player, would reflect with the Knicks’ two foundational building blocks from Latvia and France, respectively, but those concerns were squashed for the time being when Porzingis tweeted his support for his new coach yesterday:
Just had a great conversation on the phone with Coach Fiz. Man im excited!!!!! Lets gooo!!! ??
— Kristaps Porzingis (@kporzee) May 24, 2018
The truth is Porzingis and Fizdale were always going to get along. They want the same thing: a cultural, visionary overhaul combining a Pat Riley–era smash-mouth attitude with the modern spacing and other machinations of an NBA offense in 2018. KP is tailor-made for that style, both in terms of skill set and on-court demeanor, and Fizdale is equally ideal as the coach for it. In theory, and that really is the operative phrase here, Hardaway should be too.
At his best, THJ is a net-neutral wing defender with the ability to shoot hot flames out of his eyeballs on the other end. He’s got an incredibly fast release with good mechanics, and can make a shot from virtually anywhere on the floor. While his off-the-dribble game is limited, he’s been effective at attacking closeouts with decisive drives as well as in transition. He’s not an elite athlete (very good vertical, short wingspan for his size), but isn’t ground-bound or laterally slow by any means. Did I mention he can score a stupid amount of points in a very short amount of time?
At his worst, THJ is the NBA’s preeminent bricklayer. His shot selection makes J.R. Smith look downright conservative at times. At the other end, he is an absolute sieve, completely uninterested in or just plain lost on defensive rotations. Like most young players, THJ has a hard time concentrating on defense when he’s out of rhythm on offense. Throughout his career, he has never played basketball for a team that needs him to play “within an offense” or play “team defense” or “try and win games.” He is the king of inconsistency, an All-Star one night and a complete dud the next.
So, we’re left with this equation: the ultimate feast-or-famine player that could be a vital cog on a playoff team if he buys in meets a coach renowned for his ability to get young players to buy in. If you boil it down to those components, it should result in a breakout year for Hardaway.
Not so fast. While Fizdale is, by all accounts, infallibly relatable with the league’s youth—he impressed Chandler Parsons in Memphis when the two first met through his wardrobe, a Wu-Tang shirt and jeans—he’s also a Pat Riley disciple. He spent the bulk of his formative years as an assistant coach in Miami under Riley and Erik Spoelstra. While they aren’t rigid in the X’s-and-O’s sense like Phil Jackson’s triangle offenses or Mike D’Antoni’s Suns, they are strict insofar as their mentality. Riley-ian philosophy, if there is such a thing, doesn’t harp on winning as much as it does not being a loser. That can rub some guys the wrong way, and if management values them highly enough, they won’t hesitate to fire a coach like Fizdale like Memphis’ front office did.
That stubborn “stand up for what I believe in, at all costs” dogma is burned into Fizdale’s coaching DNA. Longtime Grizzlies announcer Brevin Knight described Fizdale as having “adopted a lot of Riley-isms … a lot of little control things that mimic Riley … messages to bring a winning-a-championship mindset to put on walls.” Hardaway plays with a genuine competitive fire, and I’m sure he’ll love those little “Riley-isms” off the court. But what happens when Fizdale benches him for an entire fourth quarter because Timmy is getting scored on every play and keeps launching 28-footers with 20 seconds left on the shot clock?
In the same interview at the top with Rose and Beadle, Fizdale laid out his plan for the Knicks: “It’s gonna take more than just me, it’s gonna take all of us,” he said. “It’s gonna take the whole organization making great decisions and developing our players. Then, once we get the culture in place [we need to] get that recruiting going and start selling New York the way it can be sold, and get the right players in here to take us to another level.” It’s hard not to think of players like THJ, Trey Burke, and Emmanuel Mudiay when he says that last part. The Knicks are chock full of similar guys that might get shoved out or traded to usher in bigger names. Hardaway’s contract status will keep him in New York longer than the young point guards, but there is no guarantee of his stay beyond the expiration of the deal.
That’s what many Knicks fans seem to have missed with Fizdale’s hiring; sure, this young, player-development specialist wants to develop the players already on the roster, but he’s also got a ruthless, Riley-ian eye on the future. So far, Fizdale has been in lockstep with Steve Mills and Scott Perry, mirroring their statements on plans for this organization. They will not approach the process of improving young assets like Hardaway Jr., Burke, and Mudiay with too much patience. If their market value stalls or declines, and the Knicks’ front office projects them as unable to play for a championship-caliber team, then they will be shipped out.
If we’re being honest, Hardaway Jr. is the only player out of that bunch with the potential to play for a contender. Mudiay is no better than he was as a rookie. Burke, even when he’s hot, will get played off the floor on defense in the playoffs. If Fizdale can bring out the best in Hardaway, he would be a prototypical 3-and-D guard/small-ball wing, the most valuable kind of role player in today’s NBA.
The two will start their relationship on a knife’s edge. Fizdale will try and help Hardaway transform into the invaluable small-ball cog he could very well be. But THJ is not Marc Gasol in terms of stature with his organization. If it doesn’t work out, the Knicks’ won’t fire Fizdale for Hardaway, and the latter will not be spared the proverbial guillotine.
It seems like Fizdale has already started to “connect” with his young talent. He took Damyean Dotson, Mudiay, Burke, and Ntilikina to Game 5 of the Cavaliers-Celtics Eastern Conference Finals to establish a bond with them and introduce them to playoff intensity. If Hardaway wants to be a part of this core under Fizdale for the long haul, he’ll have to do the inverse: reach out to his new head coach and “connect” with him.