A day after the bizarre impromptu press conference delivered by team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry in the aftermath of an embarrassing home beatdown at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers two weeks ago, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Mills was set to pin the Knicks’ early season failures on head coach David Fizdale. This was met with much furor by fans and media alike, as Fizdale has been portrayed as the fall guy for the Knicks front office’s ineptitude in constructing the roster.
I’m not so sure about that, chief!
Let’s start with the great unknown: none of us know what the front office’s internal expectations were for the team’s expected performance this season. What we have heard are mostly vague generalities. In Woj’s report he claims that Mills had sold owner James Dolan on a “highly competitive” roster in the Eastern Conference. Now, if that implies the front office believes this team should be worried about playoff seeding, not just dreaming of clinching a postseason berth, they’re delusional. Even most super optimistic Knicks fans weren’t projecting such an outcome for this team.
However, prior to the season, Zach Lowe claimed that “the Knicks seem to think they have a 35-win team.” That would indicate the front office — while certainly more optimistic than I was about what this team could do — wasn’t projecting a surefire playoff team, but rather a team that was competitive on a nightly basis or rather a run-of-the-mill mediocre team. Certainly they expected the team wouldn’t be getting outclassed, out-coached, and outfought at home by the likes of the Sacramento Kings, or on the road to the point guard-less Detroit Pistons.
Is that an absurd expectation? Maybe. Some certainly felt that way prior to the season. In the P&T season preview roundtable I projected 30 wins, and even said that was optimistic. Realistically, I felt that — barring an inordinate number of injuries — the team should win right around their over/under of 27 games. Good job, Vegas!
What I was most concerned with, however, was the development of the young players and establishing a cohesive, structured offense which adhered to Fizdale’s own stated goals of shooting more threes and playing fast. Now, even using my lower bar of judgment, has Fizdale met expectations? Not only has he failed to do so, but he has actually managed to have this team playing at a lower level than last year’s objectively less talented, overmatched, incapable squad.
Don’t believe me? Fine. Let me prove it to you.
Knicks really got worse pic.twitter.com/dVmrWdsKaE— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) November 13, 2019
The Knicks’ offensive rating, pace, effective field goal percentage, turnover rate, assist rate, 3-point attempt rate, opponent effective field goal percentage, etc. are all basically flat year over year with marginal differences either way.
Now, you can certainly argue the roster is clunky and injuries haven’t helped. How many teams in the NBA only have perfect roster fits with zero redundancy and no injuries to worry about, though? And even if this is true, it’s on the coach to optimize his roster to the best of his ability. If you’re a chef and all you have left in the kitchen is bread, cheese, and some ham, just make the best basic sandwich you can; don’t make a shitty soufflé and then tell me there was nothing else you could do.
The problem with David Fizdale is he constantly makes confounding decisions that he’s not even being forced into making! Take the opening night of the season. After talking up the totally legit point guard competition all preseason (and with all three actual point guards healthy) he randomly inserts Allonzo Trier (or RJ Barrett if you want to be pedantic) into the role without having ever tried it out in preseason. The Knicks immediately fell behind by nine points to start the game. They would lose the game by nine points.
Before the game against the Sputnik Dimwitteds on Sunday night at the Garden, word came down that RJ Barrett would miss the game due to illness. With three healthy shooting guards at his disposal, Fiz instead inserted Kevin Knox into the lineup as the starting two, despite having cut his playing time drastically in recent games due to his defensive struggles. How does that make any sense? Did anybody expect anything else than for Knox and the Knicks to struggle in that lineup?
Additionally, how he’s gone about building this team’s offensive identity is entirely wrong. He is forcing players like Julius Randle and Marcus Morris into positions where the team is not just leaning on them to score, but to do so independently on the strength of their own shot creation abilities. Then when they have struggled — and even worse, had stretches of piss-poor shot selection — there hasn’t been any accountability for their actions. Same goes for those two when they’ve had zero effort defensive stretches, more so Randle than Morris.
This is a terrible pass from Barrett, but it's the laziness from Randle afterward that will get you booed at MSG. If you aren't going to be competitive, get off the court. Didn't intend to spend my Sunday harping on Randle's lack of effort in a blowout, but here we are. pic.twitter.com/8sENhMEGZ9— Tom Piccolo (@Tom_Piccolo) November 24, 2019
Most frustrating about this is that in order to get these two going, Fiz is using the young core — whose development should be his priority — in subservient roles to supplement them. Rather than putting Barrett, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr. in a steady stream of pick-and-roll action in which they excel to initiate the offense, they too often are running telegraphed actions which inexorably devolve into Randle and Morris isolations. This wouldn’t be as concerning if many of the issues we’re seeing now weren’t in line with those voiced by many who didn’t agree with the view that last season should have been a complete write-off for Fiz.
Then there’s the constant lack of attention to detail we see on the court. Poor spacing, zero-contact screens that break down the already telegraphed sets that teams are prepared for, bad shots early in the shot clock, repetition of the same defensive breakdowns constantly, etc. The list goes on and on, but it’s all indicative of poor fundamentals, which ultimately leads back to the coaching staff.
If there’s any argument in favor of keeping Fizdale at this point it usually is that the Knicks have a bunch of new players, the team is still playing for him, the young guys are young and do young guy stuff (which is often bad) and lololol power forwards make a clunky roster. It’s very rarely about his actual positive qualities as a head coach, but rather a focus on the situation he finds himself in.
Many of the refrains from his defenders in the national press have been that not only can he not be expected to do any better, but that he is being made out to be the fall guy. That isn’t true, and not only that, if Mills and Perry really think that firing him is going to take the bulls-eye off of them them they are sorely mistaken. They have backed themselves into a corner with this team’s roster and this head coach. No matter what, how the team performs the rest of this season will reflect on them, because they used over $70 million in cap space to construct it.
If they choose to fire Fiz, it should be under the premise that he’s underachieving with the roster he’s been handed and that a higher level of basic competence on the bench would reveal that. That’s the standard they must be judged on whether or not they make a coaching move.
So the choice facing them is keep David Fizdale with the belief that he can turn things around and deliver what you promised James Dolan, despite reams of evidence to the contrary, or fire him and appoint an interim. Under no circumstance should the front office be allowed to appoint a permanent head coach immediately if they do choose to fire Fiz.
And really, that’s it. If they, like I, are convinced that Fizdale is an unimpressive head coach failing to get the best out of what he’s been handed, then sticking with him for the sake of optics is the truly reactive decision. Moving on from him and seeing if an interim can get more of what you imagined out of the current roster — with more logical use of their skills and better rotations, while developing young players — is the proactive decision.