Since 2001, no team in the NBA has a worse winning percentage than the New York Knicks. In averaging 29.2 wins and finishing no better than fifth-worst in the NBA the last five years, the Knicks have not had much reason to celebrate recently either. That all changed with the hiring of head coach David Fizdale, a bright young star in the coaching ranks who finally provides hope to a moribund but once-proud franchise.
For his part, the 43-year-old even added a bit of levity during his news conference Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
“The risk/reward thing was, I just said to hell with it,” Fizdale said of joining the franchise. “It’s the Knicks, what are we talking about here? I think you’ve either got to go after it or you’re afraid, and I’ve never been afraid.”
Despite getting fired by Memphis early in his second season, “Fiz” has earned a tremendous amount of equity in league circles. One former head coach told Yahoo Sports that he admires Fizdale’s ability to relate to players. A current league assistant said Fizdale is “a good coach.”
What makes Fizdale special and such a commodity is not merely the X’s and O’s, but his ability to connect with people — and not just his players — but also in handling his staff and understanding how to properly incorporate upper management. Take a look around the NBA at some of the most successful “programs.” Whether it’s the Spurs, Warriors or Rockets, one thing they have in common is a harmonious relationship between the head coach and his staff, along with the general manager and even the owner.
During All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, Fizdale showed why he should fit so well with the Knicks, and it wasn’t basketball talk but how well he connected with different people. He was laughing with Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade one minute and seamlessly shifting toward a couple executives the next. This is significant because Fizdale will be tasked with myriad personalities in New York. Owner Jim Dolan is one of those people, as are desperate fans yearning for something to believe in.
Fizdale has taken ownership of his issues with Grizzlies All-Star Marc Gasol, though it should be noted that Gasol is known around the league as a challenging player to deal with. Regardless, the Knicks’ front office clearly feels that’s a non-starter.
“When someone owns an issue like that, we all hit adversity, but it’s how you deal with it and how you learn from it,” Knicks executive president Steve Mills said, “and that’s one of the things that really impressed us about David.”
Of course, none of this really matters without players, more specifically Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ franchise cornerstone and only true building block.
Assuming he makes a full recovery from a torn ACL — either next season or in 2019-20 — Porzingis’ ability to play positionless basketball provides great roster flexibility. More importantly, it affords Fizdale — who will be Porzingis’ fourth head coach in four years — the opportunity to showcase Porzingis’ talents in a less clunky, more dynamic half-court offense than Jeff Hornacek’s failed triangle.
That means maximizing Porzingis’ shooting and rare open-floor skill, while also getting him away from the basket at times defensively so the young Latvian doesn’t have to bang with burly centers. Porzingis has proven to be a legitimate rim protector, but it would appease him and gain his trust by allowing him to switch ball screens and guard more spots on the floor.
Fizdale’s blend of game-planning and executing in-game adjustments will also help him. As things stand today, he has a functional shooting guard in Tim Hardaway Jr., whom Fizdale knows well because of his relationship with Hardaway Sr. Fizdale will also be tasked with the development of young guards Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay, both of whom have struggled in the early stages of their careers.
But make no mistake, other than Porzingis, this roster is pretty bare, with no real hope of improving until 2019, when the Knicks should enjoy more roster flexibility with an expanded salary cap and some potential marquee free agents — think Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard (player option) — on the open market.
Whether Fizdale represents a new era of exciting, winning basketball that also transforms New York into a hot free-agent destination remains to be seen, but it can be done.
Ultimately, Fizdale can excel in New York — not only because of his pedigree, basketball acumen and relationship-building — but because he understands how to handle expectations. He got a firsthand look under Pat Riley during his eight-year tenure on coach Erik Spoelstra’s bench in Miami. And, it says volumes about Fizdale that Riley provided such a glowing endorsement.
“Pat had some real insight, what [Fizdale] left with Miami and planned on instilling in Memphis, what went wrong and how he came back to fix it,” Mills said. “Pat was very open about the conversations he had with David and gave a us a lot of faith about him having learned from the experience.’’
For his part, Fizdale has a thorough understanding of the task at hand.
Said Fizdale: “The history of the Knicks, I don’t take lightly.”
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports.