Unfiltered Thoughts on the Knicks Season, Part II: David Fizdale

Continuing with his end of season recaps, Jonathan Macri tries to take an objective look at someone he’s supported all year: Head Coach David Fizdale.

In case you missed Part I: The Players, find it here.

When I was in 8th grade, my best friend asked me for a favor.

There was this girl he liked, and she agreed to go on a date with him, but her parents couldn’t know about it so she had to go out with a friend. The girl’s friend didn’t want to feel like a third wheel, so my friend needed me to ride shotgun.

Being 12 years old with a bowl cut, I would have gone on a date with an English Mastiff, and didn’t put up much of a fight. I was curious, though, about what I was getting myself into.

“All I know is that she’s really nice.”

Even as a pre-teen, I knew what this was code for, so I mentally prepared myself as best I could.

I did not do a good enough job.

We live in an increasingly PC world, so rather than give an explicit description of my companion for the evening, I’ll just say she was soup that ate like a meal and we’ll leave it at that. I did, however, learn a valuable life lesson that evening: no matter how bad you think it’s going to be, it can always, always be worse.

Which brings us to this Knicks season. As I wrote last week, this year was always going to be ugly. But was it supposed to be this ugly? Um, no.

I fully believe that, internally, the Knicks thought they could have a Hawks-type campaign – one that started rough but smoothed out into a team playing .500-ish ball towards April. If that’s the case, then shouldn’t wins and losses factor into judging this season?

Let’s consider Kevin Knox as we try to answer. When the Knicks lottery pick has been off the court, New York has a negative 3.2 net rating during those 1718 minutes. That’s quite a bit better than the negative 13.1 rating in the 1998 minutes he’s played, and is smack dab in the middle of the 32-win Pelicans (-1.2) and 28-win Hawks (-5.3) in points outscored per 100 possessions.

It’s not an exact science, but here’s betting that if the Knicks had their top draft pick slumming it in the G-league, I wouldn’t have needed to expend nearly as much lipstick this season, and Wilbur would be few pounds lighter and a tad less stinky.

That, of course, would have been useless, not only because there still is a very real incentive to tank, but because Knox’s minutes at this level will theoretically pay off in the long run. As my personal Yoda reminded me this week when we were having a discussion about Mitchell Robinson, the only way to get better is to play:

Should Fizdale & Co. be held accountable for Knox’s struggles? Of course they should to some extent, and we’ll get to that in a second. Regardless, it seems silly to judge a coach (or a front office, for that matter) on the win total when over 70% of the minutes have been played by dudes who couldn’t get into some Manhattan clubs (because they’re under 25).

So if we’re not judging the season on the team’s record, let’s instead hold the Knicks to task and assess them on the two things they themselves proclaimed this year would be about: development and culture.

Deveopment

The Big D isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds.

Is it enough that certain young players have improved as the season has gone along, or does the fact that the collective product is still tough to watch matter more? They say a rising tide lifts all ships. In the Knicks case, the opposite has happened…a few individual ships are looking strong, but the tide is often barely above the ocean floor.

It’s also tough to pinpoint who gets credit for what, which is what Mr. Gaines and I were really trying to get to the bottom of. Are the coaches the reason that Mitchell Robinson no longer jumps at the sight of every shiny object? Or for Allonzo Trier getting to the line 7.2 times per 36 minutes since the All-Star break, as opposed to 5.0 before? Or for Damyean Dotson being one of the most efficient pick and roll players in the league and nearly doubling his assist rate since the calendar flipped to 2019?

On the contrary, how much blame should Fiz get for Frank Ntilikina being the worst shooter in the league this season? Has playing Luke Kornet, a net ratings darling, so infrequently this year hinder his potential growth? Do the one or two comically bad turnovers Kevin Knox still gets every game fall on Fizdale’s shoulders?

Even putting aside these issues, assessing the developmental success of this season is difficult for one major reason:

The key young players on the roster who either vastly exceeded (Mitch & Zo) or comfortably exceeded expectations (Dot, Kornet and Kadeem Allen) all kind of feel like house money. That’s great…as long as the bank isn’t about to default on your mortgage. There’s something unsettling about the sure things being anything but sure, even if you’ve picked up some nice surprises along the way.

That’s where Knox, Frank, and to a lesser extent, Smith Jr. come in.

Consider that when New York made the KP deal, those three were still considered the best young assets on the Knicks, as Zach Lowe noted in his post-trade deadline piece. Since then, Smith Jr. was inconsistent and is now hurt, Knox followed an abhorrent January with an even worse February, and Frank played 32 minutes total.

Injuries obviously aren’t the coach’s fault, and to his credit, DSJ did show some improvement in the short time he was here, cutting his turnover percentage this season from 20.3 in Dallas to just 13.5 in New York while upping his assist percentage from 24.2 to 32.2. Knox has even rebounded to somewhere close to his Rookie of the Month form, putting up a .413/.422/.739 slash line since March 1 (he was at .403/.384/.640 in December) to go with a 6.8 assist percentage (same as December). He’s also creating more on his own, as 57.1 percent of his March field goals were assisted, as opposed to 67.8 in December and January.

And then there’s Frank. I recently argued that his struggles are not primarily the fault of the head coach, but it has come under Fizdale’s watch, and that fact can’t be denied. There must be a modicum of blame, and maybe more than that.

All in all, even if the results didn’t exactly come from where we thought they would, this team will have somewhere between four and six young guys it feels good about heading into the offseason. As the head coach and team brass have said, part of development is figuring out who’s going to stick around and who isn’t. It’s incredibly rare that everyone gets to come along for the ride.

So let’s give a tentative “check” in faint, green pencil under the development column. Which brings us to the dreaded “C” word…

Culture

Why do I think New York’s brass wanted to end up in the neighborhood of 30 wins this season? Because there was one absolute, drop-dead necessity that had to take place this year: the Knicks as a franchise needed to be able to go into the offseason with their head held high, and not limp into July, hat in hand, begging for someone to take their money. They needed to feel good about their players, their program, and their progress. In other words, arguably the worst culture in the NBA needed a reboot.

If you’ve listen to the players themselves, that much has already happened. The one guy who seemed not to be on board is now gone (although there may be more to it than him simply not believing in the team’s progress) and the ones that are left seem to have bought in.

Is this simply youthful naivete? Does it even matter? As a wise man once said, it’s not a lie if you believe it. Fizdale wears his version of the truth across his chest like a badge of honor, and he has those around him believing it wholeheartedly as well.

While it isn’t always clear from the outside what Fiz emphasizes and what he doesn’t (more on that in a sec), the fact that we haven’t heard a peep about playing time from anyone outside of Slappy McGoo is telling. It indicates that players know what it takes to get minutes, and if they’re not getting them, they either agree with the decision or are simply accepting it for the greater good. The team also plays hard, and while the final score often doesn’t indicate it, the Knicks are almost always in games either early or late.

He’s also won over the media, which is important in this market whether we like it or not. As Chris Iseman reminded me on the podcast last week, David Fizdale hasn’t snapped at reporters once throughout this entire soul-seething campaign, which is kind of amazing.

This is all good stuff. It’s also necessary evidence for Fiz supporters like myself, because the health of the basketball culture he’s instituting on the court is far less clear.

On the Court

While there are certain things the Knicks head coach this year was never going to be able to improve – shooting, for one, which goes hand in hand with assists to some extent – certain numbers are inescapable.

For one, Fiz has unfortunately channeled his inner Patrick Swayze for much of this year. The corner three is the most efficient shot in basketball and the Knicks have taken proportionally fewer of them than all but two teams in the NBA. Meanwhile, on defense, teams get away with taking the lowest percentage of midrange shots in the league when they play New York. There is an urgency lacking on parts of many nights that one would expect to be present more consistently under a new coach. As we saw on full display many times this season – most recently against the Raptors – if you move the ball against the Knicks, you’re going to score, probably pretty easily.

It all goes on Fizdale’s docket. Every bit of it. They haven’t been as good as Atlanta this season, and the shot profile on either end isn’t as clean as Brooklyn’s was when Kenny Atkinson took over.

Here’s an important question that hasn’t been asked enough though: Would Atkinson, Pierce or anyone else have been able to do better in a similar spot, with this roster and these requirements to get minutes to the youngest members of it?

I’m dubious for the same reason we don’t know whether Fizdale’s X’s and O’s are any good: he was handed a roster almost completely bereft of shooting and shot creation in a league predicated on shooting and shot-creation. It’s why the low assist numbers have never been of much concern to me. With the youngest roster in the league, anyone who expected to see some Spurs-style, “beautiful game” offense this season was always dreaming.

Did you enjoy watching guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox play this year? Guess what? That comes with a price: a simple offense without a lot of moving parts. To some, this is maddening, and it certainly isn’t very pretty to watch, but it’s also an offense that has generated a higher frequency of open looks than any team outside of the Warriors, Spurs or Celtics. Sadly, the Knicks are the worst shooting team in the league this year by a country mile.

As I wrote earlier this season, even though their simplistic offense opens up some good looks, they miss out on the best looks – corner threes as noted above, as well as “wide open” shots1 and easy looks at the basket2 – but again, that’s the price of youth. It’s also the cost that comes with running a system built for a premier shot creator/ball handler and instead having Moe, Larry & Curly at your disposal3.

It’s also a system that has yielded some analytics-friendly numbers.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are 10th in the league in frequency of shots taken at the rim. They’ve also gone from taking the 3rd most mid-rangers in the league last year to the 14th most this season – tied with Denver, and less than the Celtics, Sixers and Warriors. They’ve also gone from the 29th to 23rd in attempted threes. Perhaps most impressively, after finishing bottom-five in free throw rate over the last five seasons, they’re 12th this year.

They’ve also gotten better since the trade. They went from dead last in corner 3’s before January 30 to 18th since, and from 13th in frequency of shots at the rim to 8th. On defense, they moved from the least midrangers forced to 9th from the bottom.

Small signs, but signs nonetheless. In the end, even after a year that at times made my pre-teen trip to the movies feel pleasant in comparison, Coach Fiz comes out arguably unscathed. If nothing else, his profile around the league doesn’t seem to have taken a hit.

(And yes, despite everything I’ve just written, there will be people who continue to kill Fizdale for the mere fact that he refused to quit Emmanuel Mudiay. I get it, as shown by my thoughts from Part I. He’s also one of 11 guards to be averaging over 19 and 5 per 36 minutes on at least 45% shooting4. It’s not a bad list. The Knicks are also 3 points per 100 possessions better when he sit. IDK. Kill the loyalty if you want, but it’s not enough for me to downgrade Fizdale’s performance by itself)

Will what he’s done be enough to help the Knicks land someone special in July? I’m sure that while their targets will certainly consider Fizdale’s Year 1 performance, their perception of the organization as a whole will be a far greater determining factor.

That’s what we’ll tackle in Part III of my end of season series…next week.

All stats through Tuesday, April 2

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