What have we learned from New York head coach David Fizdale’s tenure in Memphis that could point to growth in three select Knicks?
The “Fiz Kids” nickname is in full effect this offseason with new head coach David Fizdale at the throne. Immediately implementing his personal touch on this team, Fizdale has made a strong impression amongst NBA executives and players alike by making a strong connection with Knicks Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke, and most recently by visiting Kristaps Porzingis in his home country of Latvia.
It’s refreshing to have a coach care so deeply about his relationships with his players. Perhaps the last time the Knicks had someone like that was Jeff Van Gundy in the late 1990’s. As great as it is, the New York media and fans alike share an impatient threshold. If the Knicks start losing, and they’re expected to, it won’t be too long before the tides begin to turn against David Fizdale. The season begins in October, so we’ll know how the team will play under his system then, but here are a few things you can expect to change under his reign.
A change in the tide: Fizdale’s first run as head coach
Watching the Grizzlies during the 2016 season was a bit jarring. Having established a Grit ‘n’ Grind identity that went against the grain of the modern NBA, the Griz were a feared bunch when it came to the playoffs. Everyone knows that the half-court offense becomes much more prominent in the playoffs, as opposed to a fast-paced style. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph as the anchors in the frontcourt, the Griz wore down their opponents. To change that team with that identity meant an end of an era in the NBA. It was a sad day. No one could have predicted that the Grizzlies could successfully change their identity and improve.
In 2016, with just an offseason to prepare for his first go-around as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, the changes Fizdale made were staggering. Not only did the Grizzlies statistically outperform their expectations by making the playoffs, but nearly each player adapted to and played exceedingly well under his reign. The five most notable changes were as such:
- The 5-Out Offense
- Marc Gasol Shooting threes
- Liberating Mike Conley
- Playing the youngsters
|Memphis Grizzlies Stats:||2015–16 Season||2016–17 Season|
|2P/2PA||30.7 / 65.1||27 / 57.1|
|3P/3PA||6.1 / 18.5||9.4 / 26.5|
|Pace (estimate of possessions per 48 minutes)||93.3||92.3|
|ORtg / DRtg||105.4 / 107.8||107.7 / 107.1|
|MOV (margin of victory)||-2.24||.49|
The 2016–17 Memphis Grizzlies scored 113 more points despite shooting a lower percentage from the field. In part, this is due to the decrease in two-pointers and increase in three-point attempts.
In addition, the ’16–’17 Grizzlies averaged fewer possessions per game, while having a higher Offensive Rating (ORtg).
The most interesting stat, however, is the rather large difference in the margin of victories between the two years. The ’16–’17 Grizzlies won only one more game than the 2016 team—the surge in offensive production, namely Fizdale’s implementations, won the closer games by simply shooting and scoring on more three-pointers (read: more points=more wins.)
Kristaps Porzingis may not play in the 2018–19 season. That doesn’t stop Fizdale from glowing about his potential. That certainly didn’t stop Fizdale from attempting to bridge a unique relationship with our young Unicorn.
The emergence of Mitchell Robinson at Summer League took fans by great surprise. Not many had an idea of who he was as a player on and off the court, let alone the presence that he has on the court. Robinson, although having tantalizing potential, should not play a major factor in his first season. In due time, it’s possible that he will be the starting center for the New York Knicks, but for the near future, that position has Kristaps’ name written all over it.
In a modern NBA offense, a team that has a potent offense usually features weapons all across the floor, whether it’s inherent or due to mismatches. Kristaps at the center position will become a mismatch that almost no one will be able to stop. When Fizdale arrived in Memphis, he had a vision of turning Marc Gasol into Miami’s Chris Bosh. Say what?! How could you make one of the best post players in the league stretch the floor? Here’s how: Gasol, at 31, attempted more threes in his first season with Fizdale as head coach than he had in his previous seven years in the NBA—combined.
Kristaps Porzingis is no foe of the three-point line and he’s certainly not afraid to cannonball them from deep. KP, in total, has shot 785 three-pointers in his three years in the NBA. Prior to his injury, KP was shooting a blazing 39.5 percent from deep, an unprecedented number for someone of KP’s stature. Look for Kristaps to utilize Fizdale’s “5-Out” approach, with KP and Kanter on the outskirts of the perimeter, stretching the floor. Although this won’t help KP’s rebounding problems, it will address his points per game—giving the Latvian a brighter green light to shoot (well) from long range.
Additionally, this will address the Knicks’ transition defense problems. Having the team already on the perimeter, they should be able to sprint back and stay in front of their men. With the guards leading the way, this leaves KP trailing, giving him a perfect opportunity to swat away any opposition’s shots.
The biggest question mark for KP upon his return won’t be his athleticism, because let’s face it—it’s 2018 and players across all sports are returning just as well, if not better, from ACL injuries than they ever had before. Kristaps needs to change his game and slow it down like the 7’3” unicorn that he is. This means that KP will need to become more of a post passer—can someone say the Triangle Offense? In all seriousness, the Triangle will be utilized by Fizdale because the entire NBA still uses it. What Kristaps needs to do is learn how to make the right passes at the right time, and this comes with maturity within the system and within his own playing style. Averaging only 1.3 assists per game over his short three-year NBA career isn’t anything to boast about, but see here for KP’s unique potential as a passer.
If Fizdale can teach KP to play within his own game and within how Fizdale imagines his game will evolve, then we’re looking at a very scary and unstoppable force that’s unlike any player in the NBA.
The sense is the French Prince is Fizdale’s main project. Similar to Kristaps and Kevin Knox, what Frank possesses you simply cannot teach. He’s already an elite defender at the young age of 20, has a tremendous basketball I.Q., and floor general-like passing abilities. What he lacks is aggressiveness in scoring the ball, tight ball handling, and a few go-to moves. Once again, Frank is a project, not a finished product.
Fizdale liberated Mike Conley upon his arrival to Memphis. Fiz gave him the freedom that other coaches failed to give him. It’s always been a thing in the league to say “Mike Conley is underrated,” and while he is, Fizdale helped Conley live up to the potential that he has. Under Fizdale, Conley scored a career-high 20.5 points, 6.3 assists, and 3.5 rebounds. Conley, 29 at the time, possessed a quickness about his playing style that Frank just does not have. Conley’s ball handling skills often got him out of trouble, leading to a bucket or an assist. While that’s something that Frank needs to work on, the French Prince is 6’5” with a 7’0” wingspan.
Frank will work off the perimeter. He’s not savvy enough to penetrate the defense just yet; however, that Ntilikina could cut backdoor and sprint around screens constantly should give him the ability to snake free.
In the 2017–18 season, Ntilikina was not a scorer. He was not a stat line player—his presence and development were evident on the court. Having shot just 36.4 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from deep on 157 attempts, Frank needs to adjust to the three-point line line in order for Fizdale to liberate him. Gradually, through Frank’s adjustment to the league a full summer of NBA workouts under his belt, he can begin raising his shooting percentages and, with a rightful stroke, start shooting respectful numbers from the floor and, responsibly as a guard, from deep. After demonstrating a decent outside shot, Frank would give the team multiple threats around the perimeter, opening up space for cutting and dribble-drive penetration.
Fizdale is trying to light a fire underneath Ntilikina. “He and I are already starting the process of how I see the game and how I want him to see the game,” Fizdale told Newsday. “He’s a good basketball player,” he continues. “It’s going to be a process with him of constantly emphasizing aggression and always be in “go” mode and don’t be concerned as much about taking care of everybody and that his aggression will draw defenders to help him take care of everybody.”
What to expect out of Frank Ntilikina in the 2018–19 season? Aggression. Fizdale already has a defensive stalwart in Ntilikina, now he needs Frank to step it up offensively and take charge in leading this team on both sides of the court.
Boy oh boy. That boy is tantalizing. He is potent from all over the floor. He’s long, he’s athletic, he’s smart, and he’s 18-years-old. What’s not to love?
Knox has the potential to be a player that the Knicks haven’t had in a long time—a legitimate, two-way wing player. That’s what fans and teammates of Knox alike are looking to see this season—an increased defensive effort, which was a concern during the draft process, and a rare aggressiveness on the offensive end.
Knox is an element that the Knicks have been lacking. A wing player who can shoot from deep, drive the ball, and create for others—opening up opportunities for Ntilikina and Porzingis when the latter returns. The concern with Knox is not his abilities, but his drive. Standing at 6-9 with a seven-foot wingspan, Knox will play a similar role to what Chandler Parsons played in Memphis. What Parsons lacked in athleticism, Knox makes up for, however:
“I think he’ll be productive right away,” Fizdale said of Knox. “His body of work, his skill set says it and fits and translates. He can shoot the ball, finish well around the rim. He runs the floor well. He knows how to get to spots. Guys who are natural scorers, that stuff translates.”
While it’s uncertain if Knox will start in his rookie season, although it appears likely, an up-and-down year filled with low scoring games, as well as several 30-point games could be the end result of Kevin’s rookie year. That’s just who Knox is right now as a player.
Memphis Grizzlies 2016–17 Season vs. 2017–18 New York Knicks Season
|Statistics:||2016–17 Grizzlies||2017–18 Knicks|
|2P/2PA||27 / 57.1||32.5 / 64.4|
|3P/3PA||9.4 / 26.5||8.2 / 23.3|
|Pace (estimate of possessions per 48 minutes)||92.3||96.8|
|ORtg / DRtg||107.7 / 107.1||107.1 / 110.7|
|MOV (margin of victory)||.49||-3.56|
As you can see by the chart above, the Knicks’ offense wasn’t too far off. Under former head coach Jeff Hornacek, it was their defense that lacked, which is dependent on individual skillset and symbiotic team play. The team is anticipated to attempt fewer mid-range shots and an uptick in their attempts from beyond the arc. This Knicks roster has too much perimeter shooting talent to let it go to waste, and I can’t imagine Fizdale of all coaches would let that happen.
Despite a strong sense of optimism, Fizdale and co. have their work cut out for them. With just 1.5 seasons under his belt as a head coach, there’s plenty uncertainty as to how he’ll actually use the players on this team. We do know that he wants a transition-focused offense that features dribble-drive penetration and three-point shooting—lots of it.