David Fizdale’s New York Knicks are radically different since the first few games of the season. What’s changed with the squad?
Although the New York Knicks are somehow one of the least dramatic teams in the NBA, they too have gone through their metamorphosis. For the first time in several years, the Knicks, as an organization, were in tandem on their mindset and goals for the 2018-19 NBA season. There were no false playoff hopes, no overbearing sense of dread, and almost no expectations to win this season. The focus was on the future, not on an aging, overpaid superstar. Coming into this season, coach David Fizdale made it known that player development was the most important factor in determining the results of the season—not wins and losses.
From Derek Fisher’s Triangle Offense to Jeff Hornacek’s half-Triangle Offense, the New York Knicks’ front office and fans alike were craving a more modern way of playing in the NBA. The Knicks then introduced Fizdale, the 29th head coach in New York Knicks franchise history. Ask anyone—from the moment Fiz entered the building, you could just tell things were going to be different.
Coach Fiz immediately began to implement a “position-less basketball” approach with a fast-paced offense, playing to the team’s youth and versatility. According to Trey Burke, it’s the fastest offense he’s played in.
“He wants us to get out and run and that plays to a lot of the guys’ strengths,” Burke said after Friday’s practice. “A lot of the personnel that we’ve got, we like to get out, we like to be able to create. He’s giving me the freedom to get in the lane, create for others and myself. That’s all you can ask for for a coach like him.”
All of the above falls into the coach and player-speak category. The New York Knicks needed to show that they were a changed team, one that was evolving and developing its players. Fans can read about a faster style of play and how the team wants to shoot more threes, but we’ve heard that before. Tangible results are needed.
Much has changed since the New York Knicks’ season commenced in October; injuries occured, players develop at different rates, and sometimes the coach just wanted to try out new things. For these various reasons, the New York Knicks have tossed out seven different lineups through 33 games.
In New York, we do things big. Fizdale began his tenure as head coach in perhaps the most unexpected way possible. In the 2017 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina, a point guard out of France who previously played for SIG Strasbourg. His strengths include his I.Q., defensive abilities and instincts, and his size—6’6” with a seven-foot wingspan. Rather than playing him at his natural position, Fizdale tossed him into the small forward position, where he had rarely played any time before, further emphasizing his “position-less basketball” mindset.
With Ntilikina at small forward, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. filled in the backcourt, and Lance Thomas and Enes Kanter filled in the frontcourt. An interesting tactic, Fizdale tossed out the players he believed earned it the most. “You keep what you kill,” he told reporters.
Following a victory in Game 1 of 82 against fellow tankers in the Atlanta Hawks, the Knicks went on to win only three more games over the next 13, with Frank Ntilikina being the common denominator in all their losses.
Fizdale is very fluid with his lineup changes. In an attempt to bolster the team’s defense against opponents’ starting lineups, Damyean Dotson was inserted for Trey Burke and Mitchell Robinson replaced Enes Kanter. Robinson, 20, was the 35th overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He is a center out of New Orleans, Louisiana who decided to forgo his year in college to train for the NBA Draft Combine, which he ultimately did not attend. Furthermore, prior to the start of this season, it was expected that Robinson would spend time in the G League to receive more playing time. Naturally, Fizdale’s first lineup tweak included throwing Robinson to the wolves.
Contrary to what was said before the start of the season, the Knicks were and currently are not a fast-paced offense in the league. Per Basketball-Reference, the New York Knicks’ average pace through the first 14 games was an estimated 98.7 possessions per 48 minutes; the league average is 99.7. They also weren’t shooting more threes, averaging just 29.1 attempts per game; the league average is 31.2. More importantly, the Knicks weren’t converting from beyond the arc, shooting a very poor 31.9 percent—the league average is 35.2 percent. So if the Knicks aren’t exactly playing how Fiz envisioned, how have they evolved since the start of the season?
Since their embarrassing 115-89 loss to the Orlando Magic on November 11th, the New York Knicks have turned a corner. There have been three major roster developments since this defeat. These major developments may come across as minor in the grand scheme of things, but the Knicks are slowly but surely developing Kevin Knox, Noah Vonleh, and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Knox was the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and showed tremendous potential in a Summer League he took by storm. The second youngest player in the NBA, the small forward rolled his ankle in the third game of the season. Out for several games, Knox’s confidence and feel for the game lacked once he returned to the court. In his first nine games since returning from injury, Knox showed plenty of rust in all facets of his game. In his 10th game, though, Knox regained his Summer League form, dropping in 26 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Since then, Knox is averaging 17 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on 41 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. The emergence of Knox has been perhaps the best surprise yet in a losing season. We have seen him snag rebounds and run the full court leading to layups. We’ve seen him in catch-and-shoot situations and we’ve seen him drive into the lane for a dunk. The 19-year-old, although just a rookie, isn’t playing like a rookie anymore—that’s one difference since the start of the season.
Noah Vonleh was a top-10 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Selected by the Charlotte Hornets and eventually traded to the Portland Trailblazers, and then the Chicago Bulls, Vonleh was prematurely tagged a journeyman. At just 23, Vonleh signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks. Since then, things have only gone up for him. Fizdale told reporters he’s been wowed by Vonleh’s development.
“The first day Noah got here, I was playing pickup with our guys and the first thing I told him was: ‘If you rebound the ball, you’ve got to push it. I don’t want you outletting the ball.’ And his eyes lit up, and I think from there he saw that I was going to have a lot of confidence in him to try some stuff,” Fizdale said. “Now he’s shooting the 3, he’s posting. He does everything. I think I’ve said it before, he’s our most complete player.”
Averaging a career-high 26 minutes per game has elevated Vonleh’s game to a new level. His presence on both ends of the floor is felt in different ways. Often times offensively, Vonleh will grab the defensive rebound and sprint up the floor with the ball. Running in transition has been preached by Fizdale since day one, and Vonleh has taken to that very well. In addition to grabbing 8.2 rebounds per game, Vonleh’s most important statistic thus far is his three-point shooting. Converting 39.4 percent on 2.0 attempts per game from downtown, Vonleh’s ability to stretch the floor has kept him in the starting lineup. Not only does he play tough, hard-nosed defense, he also pushes the pace and steps out beyond the arc—essentially the complete opposite of Enes Kanter.
Although he is still very young in society’s eyes, Vonleh has been tagged a veteran by this Knicks team. With more than four years of experience in the NBA—which more than half the roster of the New York Knicks cannot relate to—Vonleh has brought stability and continual growth to the starting lineup.
The final of three major developments since the start of the season is Emmanuel Mudiay, who has surprised quite possibly everyone across the NBA. In his fourth season in the league, Mud had seen little to no development. His inability to finish at the rim was laughable, his jump shot was broken with a hitch, and he couldn’t stay in front of anyone defensively.
Fizdale not only brought a new approach to the game for his players, but he instilled an ideology that the Knicks would be the fittest and most well-conditioned team in the NBA. To impress his new coach, Mudiay entered the 2018–19 season having lost 10-15 pounds over the summer and in the best shape of his life. Similar to Kevin Knox, Mudiay also rolled his ankle in preseason and failed to return to form until that infamous loss against the Orlando Magic. In the 19 games since that loss, Mudiay has been averaging 27.5 minutes—16.1 points, 4.2 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game on 46/32/77 shooting splits.
In his best season as a pro, Mudiay is also sorts of a veteran in the league. With Trey Burke injured and Frank Ntilikina inconsistent, Mudiay was given the keys to a starting spot in the world’s most competitive basketball league. What has changed in his game is his ability to finish at the rim without falling to the ground, and his ability to hit open and contested jumpers. Fizdale has previously said that Mudiay is the team’s best passer—a notion at which many Frank stans scoffed. While it may not be true, Mudiay has helped Fizdale and the Knicks become the fast-paced offense we all hoped they would be.
Since inserting Mudiay in the starting lineup, the Knicks are now averaging a pace of 100.2 possessions per 48 minutes. With the other starting lineup changes, the Knicks now attempt threes on 32.9 percent of their total field goal attempts. Their effective field goal percentage is up from 48.2 to 50.2 percent. Although they are last in the league in assists per game, they’re also moving the ball better, with 50 percent of their buckets coming from assists.
Although their record doesn’t show it, there have been small wins everywhere this season, which Fizdale has started to believe in:
“This season I’ve found that I’m finding victories in small things,” Fizdale told ESPN. “A victory for us is Kevin Knox getting a double-double. Mitchell [Robinson] not fouling when his hands are in here. Little stuff like that, where I start to see that more consistently. Because I know if I can get that part consistent, the real wins will come. So I’m really trying to stay focused on that, in the details of them just improving individually.”
Despite being 9-24 thus far this season, the New York Knicks have developed an identity different from the one they possessed in games 1-14. The embarrassing loss against the Magic and a three-day rest empowered Fizdale to make lineup changes, try something new, and hopefully spark this team. Since then, the Knicks have improved marginally in all facets of their game. The emergence of Knox, Vonleh, and Mudiay has been instrumental in this change. The starting lineup now consists of four veterans—Mudiay, Tim Hardaway Jr., Vonleh, and Kanter—far different than having Ntilikina and Robinson on the court. As the season progresses, Fizdale might be leaning on these young “veterans” more and more. Injuries to Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Trey Burke, and Damyean Dotson have hampered the Knicks but have given Knox, Mudiay, and Vonleh all the more playing time.
In just 33 games, these Knicks look completely different than what fans saw in game one. Finally adapting to what Fizdale envisioned for this team, New York is playing faster and shooting more threes than ever before. By Game 82, who knows what the team’s record will be, but as Fizdale says—small victories.