New Knicks Coach David Fizdale Must Win over Kristaps Porzingis to Succeed in NY

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IMay 4, 2018

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 1: Head Coach David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies coaches during the game against the Orlando Magic on November 1, 2017 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Since the pitiable Isiah Thomas era ended in New York in 2008, the Knicks have employed five head coaches in 10 seasons. In the embryonic career of All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, the tally is three coaches in three seasons.

David Fizdale, who will be named the team's new head coach next week, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, ratchets those numbers up to six and four, respectively, necessitating a piece of advice for the next man up:

Rent, don't buy.

Madison Square Garden may still be identified as the World's Most Famous Arena, but the truth is, it's the place where NBA head coaches go to watch their careers unravel. Mike D'Antoni, the Knicks' longest-tenured head coach since Jeff Van Gundy at a whopping three-plus seasons, has only recently restored his reputation in Houston after the coach-killing Garden spat him out six years ago. Though he didn't officially coach the team, not even Phil Jackson emerged from MSG unscathed.

Take that for data, if you will, but Fizdale, 43, does come to New York with a couple of distinct advantages over many of his predecessors.

To hear Knicks president Steve Mills tell it, Fizdale checks the box that the Knicks prioritized above all else during their coaching search: The next bench boss at the Garden, Mills said, has to understand "today's players."

"You have to be a person who understands who these guys are, where they come from, what their basketball journey is," Mills told reporters recently.

Fizdale, one of Erik Spoelstra's top assistants during the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era in Miami, maintains strong bonds with the former Big Three. When Memphis fired him 19 games into his second season last November, James and Wade, in particular, expressed outrage. James tweeted at the time: "I need some answers. Feels like my man was a fall guy."

Fizdale's legacy, if you can call it that for a guy who has served as an NBA head coach for barely 100 regular-season games, is modernizing the offensive play of the big men he's coached. Fizdale deserves much of the credit for transforming Bosh into a three-point shooter and perimeter defender as the Heat advanced to four straight NBA Finals and won two championships. He did the same with Marc Gasol in Memphis (minus the rings).

Though David Fizdale's heading coaching resume isn't long, his work with the Heat during their Finals run from 2011-14 has garnered him the respect of players around the league.
Though David Fizdale's heading coaching resume isn't long, his work with the Heat during their Finals run from 2011-14 has garnered him the respect of players around the league.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

In 2015-16, Gasol was 2-of-3 from three-point range the entire season. In Fizdale's maiden voyage as Grizzlies coach in '16-17, Gasol launched 268 threes—and made 39 percent of them.

His latest project, Porzingis, doesn't need any arm-twisting to let it fly from behind the arc; Porzingis has attempted 785 three-pointers in his first three seasons. If Fizdale has thought this through, his first priority will be to compel Porzingis to do this work from the center position, a role he has rarely occupied during his three seasons in New York.

"You put Porzingis at the 5," a rival scout said, "and you have a mismatch every night."

Now, the bad news. If the Knicks are truly, finally embarking on a long-term, sustainable rebuild, they just hired a coach whose most significant experience has been with established, successful veteran teams in Miami and Memphis. Fizdale has never presided over a ground-up reclamation project like this one. It's an isolated incident, but it was on Fizdale's watch that the Grizzlies released 17th overall pick Wade Baldwin after only one season.

And for all the talk from Mills and general manager Scott Perry about wanting a coach who knows how to connect with players, they hired one who was fired from his only head coaching job…because he didn't connect with his best player.

Fizdale and Gasol clashed on and off during his season-and-a-half on the job. It reached a tipping point when Fizdale benched Gasol during the fourth quarter of a loss to the Brooklyn Nets. He was fired the next day.

"It got really nasty," a person familiar with their relationship told Bleacher Report. "He just felt he couldn't coach him. What it came down to was, he wanted to [know who would] win the battle: me or Marc Gasol? Well, they let him know who."

Fizdale went 50-51 in leading the Grizzlies for a little more than a season but was fired last November after it became clear he and Grizzlies star Marc Gasol were at odds.
Fizdale went 50-51 in leading the Grizzlies for a little more than a season but was fired last November after it became clear he and Grizzlies star Marc Gasol were at odds.Brandon Dill/Associated Press

That kind of bravado won't fly with Porzingis, who has endured nothing but tumult in his three seasons in New York. To Fizdale's credit, he recognizes the importance of building that relationship from the beginning. In his first official play drawn up as Knicks coach, Fizdale will fly to Latvia next week to meet with Porzingis in person, league sources confirmed.

"What he's learned is, in this league you have to get along with your star players," a Western Conference executive said. "Bottom line, you can't not get along with Marc Gasol. And you better get along with Kristaps. That's why he's flying over to Latvia to meet with him right away. That's going to be the critical factor. If he learned from that, I think he'll work out great."

Fizdale's falling-out with Gasol wasn't limited to X's and O's or a random fourth-quarter benching. According to a person familiar with the situation, a key source of the unrest was that Fizdale diminished Gasol's Euroleague accomplishments.

"He literally said to Marc Gasol, 'I know what real championships are, not that fake stuff in Europe,'" the person said. "'That Euro championship stuff doesn't cut it.'"

Young coaches make mistakes; the key for Fizdale will be to learn from them. Fewer sound bites and more substance would be a good place to start.

"He's young, energetic and connects with players," the Western Conference executive said. "But he's still unproven. What has he done?"

In the coaching purgatory that is Madison Square Garden, we'll soon find out.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.