While Jeff Hornacek failed to find minutes for the young guys, David Fizdale is poised to have plenty of opportunity to feature a youth-driven, bottom-dwelling team. Here’s what New York’s coach can do to have a successful, albeit probable losing, season.
Despite the patience bespoken by the New York Knicks’ leadership, at the end of the day basketball, like any other profession, is a business. That means seeing results in action.
Compound that with being a first-year head coach in New York, and you’ll find yourself in a tricky situation. David Fizdale, formally of the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat before that, steps inside the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden. While we’ve already asterisked the season, which begins for New York tomorrow, Knicks fans and league skeptics need to see Fizdale pull together a roster of former lottery picks (Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, Trey Burke), undrafted free agents (Ron Baker, Allonzo Trier), and wily veterans (Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, Enes Kanter). Oh, and there’s that Latvian unicorn casting a seven-foot shadow as the subtext of the entire season dubbed a rebuilding one. So how can Fizdale succeed amid sweepingly low expectations?
The first answer is short and sweet: lean into the youth movement and do justice to Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. Following that…it gets complicated.
Feature the High-Risk, High Reward Young Players
The biggest—and most justified—criticism of the previous head coach, Jeff Hornacek, a Phil Jackson hire, was his reluctance to lean into the youth movement that has guided the tanking New York Knicks since 2014–15. Hornacek preferred to play veterans on loose leashes rather than find ample time for the young guys (well, until Porzingis went down in the first week of February). That shouldn’t be an issue for David Fizdale, as the two-time NBA champion (as an assistant coach) has the green light to roll out the youngins with little to no consequences from his superiors—team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. Fiz has deployed a few starting lineups during the five-game preseason, but the bulk of those units included the 26-year-olds Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kanter, 19-year-old Knox, the vet Thomas who’ll likely start the season at power forward, and a rotating audition of 25-year-old G League alumnus Burke, Denver Nuggets cast off and still 22-year-old Mudiay, 20-year-old project Ntilikina, and the undrafted, $4.5 million earner Baker.
All signs point toward starting the Frenchman guard-of-no-position Ntilikina on Wednesday against Atlanta—watch out, Trae Young—but even if Frank doesn’t start, Fizdale can find success in his first season with the Knicks by deploying the versatile 6-6 sophomore across numerous positions and spots on the floor. Frank showed improvement from his rookie campaign in the final two preseason games when, yes, he was at point guard, but more importantly when he was on the floor. In simple terms, Ntilikina can be an impact player due to his instincts, mobility, and clamp-down defense. Now, whether he can figure it out on the offensive end remains to be seen, and this is where Fizdale can unlock the former eighth-overall draft pick.
fRaNk IsNt A pOiNt GuArD pic.twitter.com/eW1u10I9CK
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 13, 2018
Much of Fizdale’s success or failure will be tied to the development of The French Prince—and that’s not exactly fair, sure. The Los Angeles native was not in the war room when the Knicks drafted Ntilikina, but this is a guard’s league—hell, it’s a point guard’s league—and unlocking Mike Conley in Memphis earned Fiz praise throughout league circles. New York’s coach will have to bestow the confidence in Frank that Conley seemingly grew into during David’s tenure in Grind City. That means waving the green flag and putting Ntilikina in shoot first, think later role. We’ve seen Frank work the offense to moderate prosperity, but what’s holding himself back is himself. Fizdale’s guidance should provide Odell Beckham Jr. Jr. the courage to make mistakes and learn from them instead of worrying about getting buried on the bench. Besides, he’ll have to wait another year to legally consume liquid courage if all else fails.
The publicized slippings of Kevin Knox during the preseason were…unfortunate, but we hold value in Knox’s potential because he’s a bona fide playmaker. Despite fumbling the ball 15 times in five games—and 10 in two consecutive matches—the ninth overall selection could develop into a threat on the wing due to his spatial awareness, solid outside shot, and natural rhythm with his floater. His finishing around the basket will come, but Fizdale has shown trust in the Knicks youth in spades as Knox played the highest total minutes in dress rehearsal, 125, and the second-most field-goal attempts on the team with 49, per NBA Stats. The Kentucky Wildcat also recorded six steals while the squad averaged the second-most steals among NBA teams in preseason with 11.0. (You may not want to read into this stat, though: the Knicks had the 10th-best Defensive Rating in preseason—but still managed to earn a negative Net Rating, so it’s not all rosy.)
Knox with a TOUGH finish to finally get his first points of the night: pic.twitter.com/eOXYqjSuw7
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 13, 2018
Going forward for the lottery rookie, Fizdale can put his eggs in his basket by letting Knox run wild, pushing the pace off of rebounds, and encouraging the 6-foot-9 small forward to work in transition and get opponents off balance and not set on defense. Then, in the halfcourt, he can challenge his defenders off the dribble with long strides and in the pick-and-roll with slow-footed forwards dodging screens. The Knicks are young, they shouldn’t be afraid to dictate a grueling, fast pace. Kevin Knox can lead that renaissance; the team was 10th among preseason NBA clubs in pace.
Groom the Club to Produce—and Shoot—More Three-Pointers
Another hot-button issue for David Fizdale and the Knickerbockers is the proliferation of three-point shooting. Curiously, the Knicks were at the forefront of this basketball revolution under Mike Woodson. However, as widely reported, New York ended last season second-to-last in three-point attempts per game; so things have changed in five years. Additionally, the 29-win, playoff-drought-ridden team was 24th in the Association in true shooting percentage, per NBA Stats. While that needs to change, it’s not amiss that the Knicks don’t exactly have a roster fully-groomed to handle triple-chucking at an unseen rate in franchise history.
Fizdale was quoted by ESPN when asked about the low number of triples attempted in the preseason, per Ian Begley:
“I’d like to [shoot more threes] but right now the way we’re shooting it, I don’t think that’s a great shot for us. … Everybody can try to be Golden State but you’ve got to have the personnel to actually do it. … [R]ight now I’m not really concerned with the fact that we’re not shooting 30-40 a game because that’s not a great shot for us right now.”
The head coach isn’t wrong here, but certainly, there’s leeway to create more actions that free open shooters on the perimeter for clear looks. Lance Thomas is a low volume shooter yet he’s efficient in his role; Courtney Lee hasn’t seen playing time due to a neck strain, but the nine-year NBA vet will likely play a bench role demanding to fire from deep, and whoever starts at the 1 from day one—either Ntilikina or Burke—should adjust their shot selection accordingly to strike teams where it hurts—the three-ball.
And not to harp on the rookie too much, but again, Knox is a candidate to improve the Knicks’ reputation as a deep threat. The Kevin Durant-like wingspan clocking in just under seven feet provides the Florida native with a springboard to launch deep shots—further opening lanes, as we’ve discussed, for playmakers on this team to find paths to the rim or kick out for treys.
Impress with In-Game Adjustments
Unlike the laissez-faire coaching dogma of Phil Jackson—who famously felt the need not to overwhelm his players with in-game instructions—David Fizdale will have to be a professor on the sidelines, unafraid to dig into his mostly young players and lecture them on what they need to do on the hardwood. These aren’t experienced veterans, these are one-and-done players, overseas expatriates, and even a high-school grad who skipped a freshman year (a foolish eligibility rule the NBA grips to, which drains talent from both the NCAA and professional league by preventing top-tier talent to elect to become draft eligible immediately rather than either stay in school longer or test professional waters—but we don’t have to get into that, I suppose).
Fizdale has remarked in recent months how, despite being an inexperienced team, he wants the club to fight every game and be in a position to crawl out of late-game scenarios with a win. Obviously it takes the first 46 minutes to have solid footing to win a two-minute-warning close contest (or, in Miami’s American Airlines Arena, “¡DOS!”), but we’ll be quietly, and maybe not-so-quietly, observing how Fiz uses his growingly position-less roster to trick defenses out of timeouts and drawing up plays. Or perhaps, he’ll deploy the no-timeout strategy, letting his team bring the court up and find defense out of position and discombobulated.
All of these scenarios are in the realm of possibility, and there’ll be a stock market, if you will, measuring whether Fizdale’s in-game countermoves are trending upward and leading to wins, or whether he’s bankrupting the team with coach-guilty losses.
The circumstances surrounding both Hornacek’s tenure and the emerging one for Fizdale find comparisons and contrasts; yes, they inherit lottery pick begging for playing time, but Fizdale seemingly has the confidence handed by New York’s leadership to play with how he wants this team to operate. That will include discovering the core of this club’s identity while hopefully never giving up in games and featuring a youth-driven team learning the ropes in a cerebral league. We have tempered expectations on the team’s final win total, but nevertheless, the entertainment and value we place on the head coach are ongoing themes to keep an eye on to measure demonstrable growth throughout the season.