The Blame Game: On David Fizdale and his role in Frank Ntilikina’s lost season

With the unsurprising news dropping today that Frank Ntilikina is done for the year, it’s a good time to reflect on just how responsible he is for a season gone awry for the Knicks young guard.

Let’s start here, because starting anywhere else would be disingenuous:

I like David Fizdale.

I like him for a lot of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with basketball. He just seems like someone I’d enjoy grabbing a beer with. This probably shouldn’t matter as much as it does in my assessment of his coaching. Or maybe it doesn’t matter enough. More on that in a bit.

More than anything, I like David Fizdale because I’ve watched this team lose a lot of games over a lot of years, and I’ve seen coach after coach look like they’re out on their guys, the season and their job before the All-Star break. Larry Brown looked like he was out before camp broke. Don Chaney looked and sounded so miserable that I’m convinced he and that prick principal from Dangerous Minds are the same person. Jeff Hornacek made the color beige seem exciting in comparison.

When you’re a fan hanging on by a thread, searching for reasons to believe in bigfoot things might get better, if the guy in charge doesn’t even believe it, well…that’s pretty fucking depressing.

David Fizdale has been the opposite of that. He is the best type of salesman – the one who won’t only sell you the blue ray player that’s been sitting in the corner of his stock room since last Christmas, but who’ll make you think you got a great deal in the process. God bless a man who can walk in front of a group of reporters and say, with a straight face, that a team mired in a stretch of 7 wins and 46 losses just had its best practice of the season, as he did last weekend.

That doesn’t just take charisma. It takes balls. The Knicks needed a man with more than a bit of both to head up the operation this season, because it was always going to be ugly.

But even in an acknowledged tank job, a) it wasn’t supposed to be this ugly (more on that next week) and b) everyone was supposed to come out in one piece on the other end.

With today’s news that Frank Ntilikina is done for the year, that is officially not going to be the case.

One thing I can say for certain after this season is that having one foot on Frank Island and another in Fizdale’s bandwagon is a lonely combination, filled with more self-loathing than is usually associated with Knicks fandom. It is not recommended.

Other than obvious stars, I don’t know that I’ve ever believed in a Knick as much as Ntilikina. He represents all the things we’ve wanted so badly through the years – prototypical size, unselfishness, defense, intelligence, boyish good looks1 – and at a position that’s been filled with ineptitude, imposters or Pablo Prigioni since Clyde was traded to Cleveland.

Because of the offense he wants to run, Ntilikina was quite decidedly not what David Fizdale sought in a point guard. That much is pretty clear at this point. But hiring Fiz to run a particular style of ball was the intention of Scott Perry and Steve Mills from jump street. They knew exactly what they were signing up for, and telegraphed as much when they told an anecdote before this season about attending a Laker game last year and deciding they needed to get more athletic.

This was always going to be an offense predicated on ball handlers being able to break down a defense and opening up shots less with finesse and more by brute force.

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay.

There have been many critiques levied at Fiz, but most come back to the same place: his dogged insistence on playing Mudiay through thick and thin, seemingly at Ntilikina’s expense. To many people, after all the preseason talk of defense and ball movement, it proves he’s either clueless or full of shit.

Doesn’t it?

Of all the questions that have been asked about Fizdale this season, this is the fairest. It calls into question the very essence of teambuilding: is it better to set a tone by employing players who are already good at the trait you want to emphasize, or do you give weaker guys repeated opportunities to fail as long as they’re trying their best?

On one hand, I want to give Fiz the benefit of the doubt here. If he prioritized playing his better defenders, Mitchell Robinson never would have gotten an opportunity to learn on the fly, and Kevin Knox probably sees the floor for all of 13 minutes this season (and Trier ain’t far behind).

On the other hand, sometimes enough is enough. Mudiay may be a reasonable facsimile of the type of guard Fiz envisions running his offense, but there comes a point where you know what you have in a guy, and we reached that point with Mudiay a while ago. Yet the leash on him continues to stretch the length of the court, as it has for all of the young Knicks.

All but one, that is.

And that, more than anything, is what has so many in the fan base annoyed. Why the double standard? Why the seemingly harsher treatment for the only guy consistently doing the things Fiz himself professed were important to the development of this team? And to benefit someone with a very limited, not particularly high ceiling?

Fizdale told us why, again, and again, and again.

This was never about Frank vs Mudiay…or Frank vs Trey Burke…or Frank vs Dennis Smith Jr…or Frank vs anyone. It was always about Frank vs Frank, or more specifically, Frank vs the version of Frank Fiz so desperately sought.

Repeatedly, Ntilikina committed the one sin Fiz absolutely would not tolerate: he was hesitant. Frank knew that to play, he needed to shoot. He started to force it, his shooting got worse, and a vicious cycle began.

Next, Fizdale tried tough love, and it worked…for a hot second. The three-game stretch Frank had after his three-game benching was the best of his young career. The next game, vs Charlotte, he left early with an injury, and watched from the bench as Emmanuel Mudiay had perhaps the best night of his career in leading the Knicks to victory. Is it a coincidence that another downward spiral started from that point forward?

Ntilikina shot 28% from the field over the Knicks next nine games, which included another benching, this one on Christmas day. Then, after Frank missed three games with an injury, he bounced back with a six-game stretch where he was the head-and-shoulders leader in net rating amongst Knick regulars, the last two of which were starts. It looked like he had turned a corner. Maybe, after everything that happened, Ntilikina had gotten to a place where he could toe the line between being true to himself and being the guy Fiz wanted.

That was over two months ago. He’s played 32 minutes since then thanks to the groin injury he suffered in that final start vs Miami. They ended up being his last minutes of the season. And we are, of course, left with questions.

Was it Fizdale’s initial demotion from the starting lineup way back in November that hastened Frank’s shooting woes? Maybe, although he was 29% from the field and 17% from deep in the five games prior to his demotion.

Should Fizdale have known that the change would further shake up Ntilikina’s confidence? Maybe, although the results following the later, week-long benching would seem to indicate the opposite.

Was it wrong for the coach to prioritize playing a highly imperfect guard who happened to be better suited to run his offense of choice, even if it torpedoed the team’s defensive ceiling in the process? My guess is that Fizdale would have loved nothing more than to keep playing Frank and eek out a few more wins, but swallowed his pride and did otherwise because he thought it was more important to get his players used to playing in his offensive system – a system where there is zero room for hesitancy.

This has led many to claim that Fiz doesn’t care about defense, which never made any sense to me and still doesn’t. Anyone who’s coached on a championship staff knows the value of defense…when you’re trying to win games. That was never the goal of this season, or at least not above development. Does playing a better defender over a worse one impact the culture in such a way as to inspire poorer defenders to up their game? This would seem to be the philosophy of many, but I’d just as soon argue that giving bad defenders the chance to improve is an equally valid path, especially when they’re trying hard, as the Knicks have largely done this season.

The bottom line is that Frank’s increased presence on the defensive end would have been great for the bottom line this year, but the long-term gains would be uncertain at best.

So what should Fiz have done? Benched Tim Hardaway Jr. instead of Frank back in November? Try selling that to the locker room. Move Knox to the four? We’ve seen him get manhandled in that spot all year. Insert Frank back as the starting point guard when it became apparent Mudiay was who we thought he was, offensive preferences be damned? That’s exactly Fizdale did back in January, albeit due to Mud’s injury.

Then Frank got hurt. And now we’re here.

It’s our instinct to keep asking these questions because it’s impossible not to look at Ntilkina’s season and try to find someone to blame. Fiz became a natural target because he’s the guy trotting out the turnstile who makes a half-dozen head scratching decisions every game. I get it, especially when the alternative is to look at the delightful kid who does nothing but try his ass off and play the right way and say “it’s your fault.”

The sad fact is that Frank Ntilikina is quite literally the worst shooter in the NBA who didn’t come out of the gate like we would have hoped. Some of that has to go on his shoulders.

I still believe in him, of course. How could you not? I mean, look at that smile…

I just don’t know if it’s going to happen for him in New York.

The reality is that Ntilikina was drafted to play in an offense very different than this one. That the man who drafted him was fired 10 days later is an unfortunate part of that reality.

He can function in this system, in a role slightly different than the one originally envisioned, as Fizdale talks about in the clip above. As the coach has alluded to repeatedly, Frank and DSJ should theoretically make beautiful music together…if our French son can hit is shots. Maybe that can happen here. Maybe his confidence isn’t so shot that it requires a change of scenery to resuscitate. Maybe surviving the summer and starting next season on the Knicks roster will restore Frank’s faith that, yes, the organization who drafted him does still want him around.

Or maybe not.

A lot will depend on what happens in July, or, better yet, what the Knicks’ brass thinks will happen in July, and whether they’ll need every ounce of cap room available. The best chance to trade Ntilikina might be on draft night. That’s over a week before free agency begins.

And just how confident should they be? I’ll have more thoughts on that soon.

In the meantime, I will probably be the only one who remains neither in the “Fire Fiz” camp, nor the “Frank stinks” one. It’s a lonely place to be.

But hey, at least I got a kickass blue ray player to keep me company.

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