Fizdale and company said all the right things during the new coach’s introductory press conference. But, like many coaches before, it’s time to see results and stop skipping shortcuts for the Knicks and their shabby reputation.
Mudiay, we gon’ get to work kid. We gon’ get to work. We gon’ get you right and you are gonna be tough to defend and you are gonna be a heck of a defender. We gon’ pick that up…
David Fizdale, the new coach of the New York Knicks, who sounds like he’s planning on dropping a cinderblock in front of the revolving door that just ushered him in, apologized right after he broke script for an impromptu “Come to Jesus” moment with his new point guard.
Fiz felt bad, but he remarked that the excitement of the moment got the better of him. If it’s one thing that became abundantly clear by the end of this press conference, it was that the new man in charge is pumped to be here. He’s also anything but bashful.
David Fizdale gets it. He embraces what many never figure out—that in the NBA, demanding accountability only gets you so far. For a franchise that has had as little accountability as any team in the league for going on 15 years, it’s refreshing to hear a coach who understands that respect is a two-way street.
Yes, he’s going to get on players and make demands. He will tell his guys the truth, as he did here. As one former player told Steve Mills, he will make you uncomfortable at times. He’s also going to treat his players like men—”invest in them as people,” as he put it—and make them partners in a journey that doesn’t succeed unless everyone is all in, as his mentor Pat Riley knew better than anyone.
The small act of both calling out and showing love to Emmanuel Mudiay gave us all a glimpse into what Fizdale meant when he talked about “winning your building first.” This isn’t a coach who will expect his players to feel accountable to the team if they’re not getting something in return. Culture only happens by “building something around the players that they feel like really services them.” He didn’t waste any time sending that message.
Fizdale is new here but seemed to know all too well that the Knicks are great at winning the press conference…and not much else. He went through the list of buzzwords: Defense. Tough-mindedness. Unselfishness with the basketball. Pace. Culture. And of course, accountability.
Knicks fans have heard them all before, and as Fizdale himself said, “they’re just words … clichés in a lot of ways.” The challenge will be to make them something more here, as they were in Miami, where Fizdale admittedly became the leader he is today.
Of course, every new coach talks about defense at their introductory press conference, but you got the sense listening to him on Tuesday that for Fizdale, it has a bit more meaning than any other tenet of the game. He spoke about “earning the right” to play the type of free-flowing offense that is so en vogue in 2018 by deflecting balls, getting steals, and being versatile. He spoke about “position-less” basketball, and while that usually conjures up images of a Warriors-style whirling dervish on offense, the term applies to both ends of the floor.
When thinking about how this will all translate to the court for the Knicks in the immediate future, it’s entirely possible that we’ll be able to see results without necessarily seeing wins. All parties involved were clear to preach patience, and that the days of New York taking shortcuts are over. That doesn’t mean progress won’t be made.
Last season, the Knicks were fifth from the bottom of the league in deflections per game. If Fizdale’s effect on the Grizzlies was any indication—they were tied for eighth during his one full season in Memphis—this statistic should see a jump. The Knicks were also eighth from the bottom in charges drawn this year, while the 2016–17 Grizzlies were eighth best. A “loud” and “disruptive” defense is the type that excels in these sorts of things.
It’s also the key to winning. In all his years on the bench for Miami, the Heat never finished in the bottom 10 of the NBA in defensive efficiency (a place wherein the Knicks own times shares), and only once were the Heat even in the bottom half of the league. In his one full season in Memphis, the Grizzlies were seventh in defense, up from 19th the year before he got there. Of all the words from his introductory press conference fans can expect to see put into action, defense is at the top of the list.
One term fans shouldn’t expect to get comfortable with is the NBA’s dirty four-letter word: tank. Scott Perry talked about trying to win every night, draft position be damned. This backs up what Fizdale said on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast in March, when he spoke openly of the burning desire he acquired from Riley himself to win every game he is involved in. No, the victories won’t come in droves, but neither will the losses, in all likelihood. This team will give maximum effort, as Tuesday’s reference to Miami’s renowned conditioning program made abundantly clear. They will win some games they shouldn’t.
They will also play a more modern style. Knicks fans know all too well the many ways New York was stuck in the stone ages under Jeff Hornacek, taking long mid-range shots like they were worth 2.5 points and giving up corner three attempts like they were warmups. The word “pace” was mentioned quite a few times, and although they were exactly league average in that stat last year, the Knicks were 29th in fast-break points. Again, it all goes back to defense, as New York was 27th in the percentage of opponents’ possessions that ended in a turnover, according to Cleaning the Glass (Memphis was eighth in 2016–17 in this category).
Finally, there is KP. When Fizdale referred to his 22-year-old star as the future of the NBA, he wasn’t blowing hot air. He knows full well that in Kristaps Porzingis, he has a queen that’s been deployed by someone who thought they were playing checkers. When ESPN’s Ian Begley opened the question and answer segment by asking whether KP would see more time at the 5, Fizdale was smart enough not to commit to anything without speaking to Porzingis face to face first.
He was also very clear that his young “mega star” is a player who he’s excited to try out in all sorts of ways. He knows the numbers with KP at the 5, and for all the consternation about his ability to relate to a dude who happens to be from the same continent as the guy who got him fired from his last job, you can bet playing more center is a topic he will broach soon. As Fiz said, he did his own homework on Kristaps. He knows what to expect.
Alas, it is May, and the reason all these words were said is because the Knicks are not currently playing basketball. That likely won’t change at this time next season, but many other things about the team could look measurably different 12 months from now. Only time will tell, but if there is one thing the owner now seems committed to giving this front office and this coach, it is time.
The last word that echoed loud and clear on Tuesday is something the Knicks as an organization haven’t had at all this century: sustainability. Fizdale knows what it looks like, what it takes to build, and relishes the opportunity to create a system and a culture from scratch. “A clean slate,” as Fizdale declared.
That culture—a word Fizdale admitted gets abused nowadays—starts with “great relationships,” the thing he wants to establish first and foremost in his new role. That process started today, and it was on full display for everyone to see. It will continue through the summer, and in earnest in the fall. It is what he has staked his claim on more than anything else in this league, and it is ultimately why he has this job, and his predecessor does not.
We gon’ get to work.
Music to the ears of every Knicks fan, indeed.