“Are the David Fizdale Knicks improving, worsening or stagnating?”
Department of Analytic Zags
University of P&T
This study seeks to determine whether the New York Knicks have improved, worsened or flatlined after 104 games under David Fizdale. In his only previous NBA head coaching job, Fizdale led the Memphis Grizzlies for 101 games; ergo there is insufficient prior data from which to draw overarching conclusions. This study will focus on certain performances and trends of Fizdale’s Knick teams from October of 2018 through the present.
MATERIALS & METHODS
This study draws its data from statistical measurables, in particular categories delineating meaningful degrees of change from last year to this. Examples of such categories include three-point accuracy, steals, turnovers and pace, as well as contrasting the quantity of high- (single-digit) versus low-quality (double-digit) losses.
In addition to examining areas where tangible change is evident, we will also consider categories that have remained unchanged in any statistically significant ways. Examples of such categories include field-goal percentage, opponents’ three-point percentage, assists, and offensive- and defensive-ratings.
There will be the occasional video. One does want a hint of color.
Last season the Knicks lost 65 games, 41 by 10+ points. This season the Knicks have lost 17 games, 8 by 10+ points, meaning their percentage of double-digit losses has fallen from 63% to 47%.
Last season the Knicks’ field-goal accuracy was dead-last. It is this year, too. The team has improved significantly from behind the arc, jumping from 28th out of 30 teams to ninth this year, though the improvement is mitigated by the team shooting so rarely from deep, and in fact having fallen from 22nd to 25th in threes attempted.
The Knicks have risen from 10th in free-throw attempts to 7th. After finishing 23rd in turnovers forced last season, they are currently 18th; correlatedly but not necessarily causally, they’ve climbed from 24th to 14th in steals.
Ntilikina defending the post again. Steal leads to a bucket for Bobby Portis. pic.twitter.com/4kN6pdhoe9— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) November 9, 2019
Last year’s squad was dead-last in assists and 17th in committing turnovers. This year they remain at the bottom in the former, but have risen to 13th in the latter. The cumulative effect is that the Knicks have gone from committing nearly one more turnover a game (14) than opponents (13.2) to being virtually equal (15.1 for, 14.9 against)
Fizdale has stated he wants the team to play faster: “We’ve got to get more possessions in the game to get over the hump and give ourselves more shots at the rim…got to get to our stuff quicker...to get up the floor faster, get into our actions faster.” However, New York’s pace has fallen from 17th to 28th. There has also been regression defending the three-point shot, from 24th in 2018-19 to 28th so far this season.
A year ago the Knicks were dead-last in offensive rating and 26th in defensive rating; this year they’re dead-last and 24th. The team’s effective field goal percentage has bumped up from dead-last to 28th.
In New York’s nine single-digit losses this year, they’ve made 65% of their free throws, an even-lower mark than their league-worst average of 67%. In four of these nine losses, the Knicks entered the fourth quarter with the lead, only to falter.
The uptick in steals is almost assuredly the direct result of Frank Ntilikina playing more. At a career-high 26 minutes per game, Ntilikina is averaging nearly one steal more per contest (0.7); the Knicks as a team are up exactly one steal per game (from 6.8 to 7.8). Does Fizdale deserve credit for Frank’s improved play? Or did that have more to do with Elfrid Payton’s hamstring and Dennis Smith Jr.’s personal tragedy?
Are losing coaches subjected to biases that winning coaches are not when such serendipities occur? Steve Kerr is lauded for turning Golden State from a good team to a historic dynasty, but the Death Lineup only emerged after a hamstring injury to David Lee led Kerr to make Draymond Green a starter.
While defending free throws may be possible by invoking the dark arts, Fizdale can’t be held responsible for the Knicks not hitting them. The only Knick this year to play more than 150 minutes and shoot higher than 77%, the league median, is Marcus Morris. Of the five Knicks who’ve gotten to the line the most, Morris is the only one over the team’s league-worst level (Julius Randle shoots 67%, Kevin Knox 66%, Mitchell Robinson 61% and RJ Barrett 53%).
How might the Knicks’ fortunes have changed if they were simply an average free throw shooting team, rather than abominable? Ignoring chaos theory’s notion that changing any one aspect of the game creates a potentially infinite number of consequent changes, the extra points the Knicks would have earned by hitting the median rate at the line would have won three of the nine games (both Brooklyn losses and the first Boston match-up) and sent the 76ers game into overtime.
At 4-18, the team is on pace to win 15 games, a regression from last year’s 17 and a mark that’d be the fewest in team history. Add those three free throw wins and even if they’d still lost to Philadelphia the Knicks would be 7-15 and on pace for 26 wins, a nine-game improvement from last season and a jump they’ve exceeded only twice in the past decade: 2015-16, a season that featured Carmelo Anthony playing 72 games after 40 the year before plus the debut of Kristaps Porzingis, and 2012-13, the Knicks’ lone good season this century. If they’d held the four fourth-quarter leaders they couldn’t, they’d be on pace for 30 wins.
Regarding whether the Knicks have improved, worsened or flatlined after 104 games under David Fizdale, this study’s answer is “yes.”
Two of the most highly-valued shots in today’s NBA are three-pointers and foul shots; the Knicks have improved the quality of their long balls and the quantity of their freebies. They’re turning opponents over more while coughing it up less themselves; the potential exists for this to be the first Knick team with fewer turnovers than their opponents in six years.
While the team is still losing a disheartening number of games, the losses are closer than before, and with a few more free throws made or a handful of breaks they could be closer to a double-digit increase in wins rather than threatening to be the worst Knick team of all-time. There is at least a modicum of modernization happening, and the team, while failing, is failing a bit better.
The Knicks continue to fail in those areas — assists; pace; offensive rating — commonly associated with point guard play. The growth of Ntilikina and encouraging early play of the rookie Barrett could mean better days ahead in all three areas, but that doesn’t explain away some of Fizdale’s more confusing practices. Chief among these is how Randle is employed.
Randle leads the Knicks in field goal attempts, assists and turnovers, while also ranking second in three-point attempts. Having a player who isn’t a number one scoring option take on that role is putting the player in a position to fail. Having a career 52% shooter on two-pointers (better than Patrick Ewing) taking more three-pointers than ever before despite shooting just 29% from deep for his career (barely better than Charles Barkley) is putting the player in a position to fail. Having a competent-and-no-more-than-that ballhandling big to play point forward is putting the player in a position to fail. Having the same player to do both suggests madness, desperation, a lack of creativity or all of the above.
As far as flatlining, the Knicks under Fizdale have shot terribly, failed to generate passes that lead to baskets, and do not attempt a meaningful number of threes. They lost a lot last year and are losing even more this year.
An obvious shortcoming of this study is the absence of a reliable control group for purposes of contrasting data. The turnover from last year to this is enormous; four of the five Knicks leading the team in minutes this year weren’t here a year ago. This season, three of their top five minutes-earners are 25+ years old; last season only Tim Hardaway Jr. was. So while some of the measurables under Fizdale have been consistently awful, or regressed, it’s problematic to hold any of last season against him as proof of his acumen, given that the 2019 Knicks were a lab experiment in consciously uncoupling the process from the end-product.
That this season’s roster is better on paper does not necessarily indicate the product on the floor should be, at least as of yet. The team’s two biggest additions, Randle and Morris, ideally play the same position, meaning pairing them together often results in diminishing returns for one even if the other is playing well. While Ntilikina has shown growth and Smith Jr. has had his moments, the team still features two point guards shooting below 40% from the field and making 33% or fewer of their three-point attempts. The third point guard, the injured Payton, also shoots below 40%, as do this year’s first-round pick (Barrett) as well as last year’s (Knox). Robinson’s inability to stay on the floor due to foul trouble is something Fizdale can suffer from but likely not do much about.
This team has problems. Deep-seated, fundamental problems. There are maybe a handful of people walking the Earth who could make this team into something more than the sum of its supernumerary dysfunctions. Fizdale does not appear to be one of these people. On the other hand, there are maybe a handful of people walking the Earth responsible for putting together this team of so many players whose greatest and perhaps singular skill is scoring without any of them being elite-level scorers, and Fizdale isn’t one of them, either.
A good NBA team is an orchestra featuring strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The Knicks are an ensemble made up entirely of second violins and one-man bands. Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Whether Fizdale has a plan is the subject of much debate; whether he has enough time seems less controversial, even if that’s not fair.
This study was made possible by me repeatedly forsaking urgent personal and professional obligations to devote even more of my life to this frigging team. It’s an obsession, but it’s pleasing.
basketball-reference.com, pretty much