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How David Fizdale is impacting the Knicks’ players and style of play

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When is bad good? When it’s better than worse.

New York Knicks v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A little over six months ago, the Knicks hired David Fizdale. The job description called for winning someday, sure, but the initial objective was to fumigate the stench of business-as-usual that’s stunk up this franchise predating the current ownership (honestly, other than the 1990s and half of the 1970s, the Knicks have mostly been meh). By week’s end we’ll hit this season’s quarter pole. Has anything changed for the better? Has anything worsened? Yes! Let’s look where and how.

MINUTES

Last year, eight Knicks suited up who were 23 or younger. Excluding Kristaps Porzingis (‘cuz the other seven can’t do this), the other seven averaged a shade under 16 minutes per game. This year, eight Knicks 23 or younger have played. Excluding Luke Kornet, who’s played just 13 minutes all year, the others are averaging 21.5 minutes per game. That’s a 34% jump. While it’s clearly rubbed some veterans the wrong way, Fizdale is sticking to developing the youth. The big-picture minutes distribution is essentially what we imagined, yet some changes are noteworthy.

After Tim Hardaway Jr. enjoyed the greatest success of his career as a two-guard in Atlanta, the Knicks gave him a shiny new deal and stuck him at small forward most of last season. This year his time at the 2 has nearly doubled, from 29% to 55%. There are lots of reasons THJ is putting up career numbers in several categories. Can’t chalk it all up to what position he’s playing. Can’t ignore the fact that many people work better when and where they’re most comfortable.

Daymean Dotson didn’t play a ton under Jeff Hornacek; when he did, barely over half his minutes came at small forward. Maybe Fizdale saw something in the videos he liked, or maybe the push to get quicker and more athletic created a niche Dotson is uniquely suited to fill. Either way, he’s gone from 56% of his minutes at the 3 to 93%. Given his plus-rebounding for a wing and defensive intensity, it’s possible Dotson, who’s played almost as many minutes in 15 games this year as he did his entire rookie season, could find a home as an undersized but not underdog small forward. Wouldn’t be without precedent in New York.

Emmanuel Mudiay’s minutes at the point are up from 55% to 77%. Lance Thomas spent 45% of last year as a power forward; this year that number is 0. Even Ron Baker’s got a brand new bag, jumping from 7% of his playing time at the point to 64%.

Some say there’s a bit of a used car salesman whiff to Fizdale. That’s an easy charge to make when someone’s job description is more about the pitch than the product, easier still when that pitch man is shrewd, clever, slick. But the first proof of change is the appearance of change. Under Fizdale, front office mandate in hand, things literally look different.

PACE

Fizdale spoke during the summer and preseason about wanting to pick up the pace. So far the Knicks are playing faster and slower than last year. Their average possessions per game is up from just under 97 to just under 100, but their league ranking has dropped from 15th to 18th. There are two potential reasons for this that have nothing to do with Fizdale.

Pace is the rage all across the NBA, so while the Knicks are looking to push the tempo, everyone else is, too. Also, rules changes designed to increase pace may be re-defining the new normal. When a team grabs an offensive rebound the shot clock now starts at 14 instead of 24. The Knicks are third in the league in offensive rebounds. That alone could warp their raw numbers enough to suggest a quicker pace when in truth they’re actually going slower.

EFFICIENCY

In virtually every aspect of life besides basketball, New York City is ahead of the curve. The Knicks have been behind the times embracing ideologies prevalent around the league. Two early-season trends offer a hint that a dark ages may be ending and an enlightenment a-coming.

First, the Knicks are shooting more three-pointers! You know that kid who never drank or partied until college, and then their first weekend they got trashed? These Knicks are funneling Genny Cream Ale. Last year nearly 27% of their total shot attempts were from downtown. This year that’s up to 32%.

Second, this year’s team is doing something we haven’t seen since Linsanity: getting to the foul line. After finishing bottom-five in free throws attempted the past five seasons and a dismal 28th last year, these Knicks are 13th. Hardaway’s more than doubled his previous career-high for attempts per game. Allonzo Trier and Kevin Knox are getting there, too.

3>2. Free throws are uncontested. Getting more of each is good.

ASSISTS & SHOOTING

Two of the less-rosy trends this year have a chicken/egg dynamic: assists and shooting accuracy are both down.

Last year four Knicks were at least league-average shooting threes on 2+ attempts per game, with Lance Thomas nearly making it a quintet. This year the only Knick hitting that mark is Knox. After breaking just above the middle of the league rankings in dimes last season, the Knicks are 28th. Six of their top-seven minutes earners have assist-to-turnover ratios below two-to-one. Some of these errors are the hallmarks of youth. Like ambition.

Thinking it’s all about you.

Trusting the wrong people.

But it takes two to assist, and even when the passes are on the money the shots ain’t. New York ranks 24th and 28th in two- and three-point accuracy. That doesn’t feel new.

TURNOVERS

This feels new: after finishing 28th forcing turnovers last year, this year they’re sixth; their 16.6 points per game off turnovers ranks 10th. Some of that’s from being younger and more athletic, free to experiment with nothing to lose except 60 or so games. Some of that is building a roster with more players who can defend. Last year only one Knick had a steal percentage as high as 2% (Guesses? It wasn’t Ntilikina). This year there are three.

Oh, is that your first-round pick from two years ago? He’s kinda cute...in a no-wingspan, no-defense, poor man’s Derrick Rose sorta way.

Sometimes youthful ambition pays off.

EMMANUEL MUDIAY

In the brief sample seen since his return from a hurt ankle, Mudiay has shown more growth than any returning Knick. The numbers are a bit at odds about this. His assist percentage is by far the lowest of his career, nearly identical with his turnover rate. Not you want from your point guard. But while Mudiay’s minutes at the point are up, much of his improvement has been where you’d expect from a two-guard.

His true shooting, two-point and three-point percentages are all well-above his career marks. His share of shots from zero to three feet has risen from 25% a year ago to nearly 40% this year. Ever since New York acquired him from Denver, he’s improved his finishing at the rim.

It really is quite exquisite, at times.

Too early to call it a comeback, but if Fizdale and Co. turn Mudiay from a shoulder-shrug to an asset or a part of the future, it would be one of the more surprising resurrection stories out of Madison Square Garden this century.

FRANK NTILIKINA

If stats are the Matrix, Ntilikina = Neo. You can’t define or confine him with your binaries and your cold lifeless data, parce que Frank est la vie. If you insist on bringing a turd to the punch bowl, so far there are only two counting stats where Ntilikina has improved. He’s attempting more three-pointers (up nearly 30%). Basketball-reference.com says he hasn’t made a corner three all season, so I don’t know what this is. But I’ll take it.

He’s also improved his free-throw percentage from 72% to 92%. Maybe that means his jumper will come in time. Remember: he’s still younger than Mitchell Robinson. And the defense? Le sigh. The defense...

A continuing trend that’s as disappointing under Fizdale as it was under Hornacek: getting to the line. Last year Ntilikina averaged less than one free throw attempt per game. This year he’s actually a tick worse. But he ‘s still growing, literally and figuratively. There are glimpses of awareness when he has a mismatch.

P.S. Sometimes you can use numbers to capture Frank’s Frankness.

ENES KANTER

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┻┳| •.•) Enes Kanter is scoring more, shooting more, rebounding more, and playing
┳┻|⊂ノ as many minutes as last year.
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(By the way, did you know last year and this year Kanter has more defensive win shares than Ntilikina? If anyone ever brings up defensive win shares in an argument, kick them in the chest.)

TO BE DETERMINED: RESILIENCY

The Knicks have played 17 games. After Sunday’s loss in Orlando they’re already on their second 5-game losing streak of the season. Looking over their schedule, it’s not hard to see that stretching to a dozen. Lineups are shuffling. Veterans are grumbling. Noobs are adjusting to the league adjusting to them, and the rookie wall will eventually strike. Can Fizdale keep the ship afloat? Recent history suggests no:

  • In 2014, after beating Milwaukee opening night, New York lost 13 of 15; that season featured losing streaks of 9, 5, and 7 games.
  • In 2015, they opened 2-1, then went 3-35; there were losing streaks of 7, 9, 15, 7, 5, and 8 games.
  • In 2016 they started 22-22, then finished 10-28; there were four 4-game losing streaks and a 6-game skid.
  • In 2017 they opened 16-13, then went 15-38, failing to win consecutive games the rest of that season; there were 6-, 5- and 4-game losing streaks, as well as four 3-game slides.
  • Last year they opened 16-13, then went 13-40, featuring losing streaks of 9 games, 7 games, and 4 games twice.

The optimist will note this team, more than any in memory, is working to break with history.

It’s easy to feel up after a win. It’s easy for a loss to trigger the hopelessness we’ve associated with the last 1000 or so losses. We’ve been adrift for nearly two decades. It’s natural to feel any breeze and hope it’s the storm. As natural as yet another Knick team losing yet another Knick game angrying up the blood.

We talk less about stories and people, less about facts and numbers, because we talk more and more about data. Data gives us big sweeping conclusions, and we see the games and watch the players, the physical expressions of that data, failing to sync with its implications. “We know what you should do!” we cry, “So do it already!”

We know this team is less symphony orchestra than middle-school band. You can show a young pianist the sheet music for Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C-sharp minor.

But that doesn’t teach them how to use the third pedal to make the piano a living, breathing creature, nor why they should play black-note octaves with their fourth ringer instead of their pinkie; it won’t impart a sense of how to phrase dynamics, something they’ll only learn as they live and love and suffer and rise. First youth tries, then youth fails, all the way until it doesn’t.

David Fizdale doesn’t watch the Knick offense and grow misty-eyed like its some sublime clockwork. He’s seen the top of the mountain; he knows this ain’t it. Success is flow. Freeze-framing any one part of that is an autopsy of the whole. This band’s not making any sweet music yet. But listen to the notes they’re not playing. It may be the opening of a masterpiece. It may be nothing more than the orchestra tuning. Either way, the new sound’s not like the old sounds. That alone is reason to listen.