Why the New York Knicks Are Still the Laughingstock of the NBA

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterDecember 5, 2019

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 8: Steve Mills, David Fizdale and Scott Perry of the New York Knicks during a press conference announcing David Fizdale as the new head coach on May 8, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  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 2018 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — The Knicks don't just have commitment issues. They have a commitment crisis.

The latest example came Friday when management fired head coach David Fizdale, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. But this is about so much more than the Knicks' 4-18 start.

The Knicks' problems aren't flawed player-development tactics. Not poor offensive systems or defensive schemes. And not necessarily commitment issues from free agents, though that's become a separate problem as a result of a deeper one.

The front office's inability to stick to a rebuilding plan and youth movement has consistently set the franchise back since the end of the Patrick Ewing era.

When the Knicks hired Fizdale in May 2018, team president Steve Mills suggested he was taking a long-term approach to team-building.

"And I've seen a lot of mistakes ... and maybe not the right patience in terms of trying to build things the right way," he said. "... I think you've seen a lot of shortcuts and swinging for the fences, trying to hit home runs all the time."

Clearly, Mills was hoping for some kind of shortcut. Firing a head coach doesn't signal patience. But this is the Knicks, for whom only the now matters.

Charlie Ward, the No. 26 pick in the 1994 NBA draft, is the last first-rounder New York has extended beyond his rookie contract. That's absurd when considering all the losing seasons and draft picks that have come with them. Kristaps Porzingis recently became the sixth top-10 selection the Knicks sent away (post-Ewing era) before he signed his second contract.

One Knicks source told Bleacher Report the Porzingis trade was a "disaster" that led to Kevin Durant's removing the Knicks from consideration in free agency.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 25: Taurean Prince #2 of the Brooklyn Nets looks on as Marcus Morris Sr. #13, Julius Randle #30 and Kevin Knox II #20 of the New York Knicks react to a call during the second half of their game at Barclays Center on October 25
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

A fractured relationship did play a role in the Knicks' decision to move Porzingis, but the draw to the Dallas Mavericks' offer was the cap space it would create to sign bigger stars.

"We have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents," Mills and general manager Scott Perry wrote in an April 2019 letter to season ticket holders.

The rebuilding plan quickly changed, leading the team to where it is today: with the second-worst record in the league, led by Julius Randle and Marcus Morris while recent lottery picks have plateaued or regressed.

Knicks sources say that when Durant and Kyrie Irving spurned the Knicks and signed with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, Mills and Perry felt as though they had to demonstrate some type of progress, and that they believed the players they signed would actually help them compete.

Not only have the six new rotational veterans failed to make the roster more competitive, but their arrivals have also resulted in reduced roles for key young players.

"What happened to Allonzo Trier?" one scout texted B/R before the Knicks' 44-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. "I'm so confused. Almost second-team All-Rookie last year. DNPs now."

Trier has lost minutes to Wayne Ellington. Bobby Portis is playing over Kevin Knox. Point guard Dennis Smith Jr., whom New York received as part of the package for Porzingis, is playing 17.9 minutes with Elfrid Payton on the verge of returning from injury.

Heading into their game against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, the Knicks' trio of young top-10 picks Knox, RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina has played a total of 58 minutes together. Those three plus Mitchell Robinson have shared the floor for 15 minutes all season.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 28: Allonzo Trier #14 and Kevin Knox #20 of the New York Knicks reach for the ball against Wilson Chandler #22 of the Philadelphia 76ers in the second quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on November 28, 2018 in Philadelphia, Penn
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The team's young players will inevitably get more playing time after the trade deadline. But that garbage time late in a lost season won't feel the same as the minutes they could have received in a competitive early-season game like the one against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 20, when the score was tight (109-104), the stakes were higher and the atmosphere was intense. Morris, Randle and Portis combined for 100 minutes, while Knox, Smith and Robinson combined for 38. Trier received a DNP.

Once Durant and Irving signed elsewhere, common sense suggested Fizdale wouldn't be judged by the Knicks' 2019-20 record, and that the new goal would be making sure the team's recent draft picks made a jump with their development. But that hasn't been the case.

When Mills and Perry expressed their displeasure with the team's performance during an impromptu press conference Nov. 10, it disincentivized Fizdale, the Knicks' fifth coach since 2012, from allowing his youngsters to play through mistakes:

"Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now. We think the team is not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at, and that's something that we think we collectively have to do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season."

Fizdale has leaned more heavily on veterans to keep the Knicks competitive, with pressure suddenly building under his seat like steam rising through a manhole cover in Midtown. That's because Mills and Perry had to cover themselves and justify the Porzingis trade by painting a narrative that they put together a strong roster.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 24:  Head Coach David Fizdale of the New York Knicks looks on against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on November 24, 2019 in New York City.Brooklyn Nets defeated the New York Knicks 103-101. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Fizdale isn't entirely blameless. Knicks sources believe he slowed Ntilikina's development and confidence last year by taking the ball out of his hands and giving it to Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay even before Smith arrived. Not recognizing that Knox is better suited to play the 4 rather than shooting guard or wing deserves criticism. He's also created minimal lineup continuity, with players' roles frequently changing.

But in Fizdale's defense, he started the Knicks job with a franchise player in Porzingis and a presumed long leash for developing young prospects. One season later, he was being asked to win games without any stars, a weak backcourt and an overload of bigs following the front office's botching of both the Porzingis trade and free agency.

From May 2018 to November 2019, the Knicks went from patiently building around an All-Star to trading him and chasing bigger stars to trying to compete with a lineup featuring Randle and Morris.

When it comes to distrusting the process, the common denominator over the years in New York is owner James Dolan, who's been in charge while the team has traded away prospects and picks for big names like Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani.

Also, no head coach has been safe under Dolan. By their second losing season, they begin to steer away from giving minutes to young players.

On the bright side, the 19-year-old Barrett is off to a promising start. Robinson still oozes defensive upside, and Ntilikina has taken a step forward. Plus, the Knicks figure to come away with another high draft pick in 2020 that could be used on LaMelo Ball, our No. 1 overall prospect, Georgia's Anthony Edwards or North Carolina's Cole Anthony.

Since Porzingis and Luka Doncic have elevated the Mavericks into the playoff picture, it looks like the picks they'll send to the Knicks via the Porzingis trade will fall in the Nos. 15-30 range. But those will still be additional assets with which to build. And Mills and Perry figure to shop some of their veterans on one-year deals at the trade deadline in hopes of getting back more draft compensation or prospects.

Hope does exist in New York. Knicks management just continues to delay its arrival.

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