In firing head coach David Fizdale, the New York Knicks tackled two issues with one swing of the ax: They found a fall guy for their franchise-worst-tying 4-18 start and afforded themselves yet another opportunity to reset and repair their smoldering heap of a franchise.
For their sake, this dual-purpose dismissal needs to mean something—not over the summer or next season, but right now.
What the Knicks do with this new, albeit far from clean, slate is still a matter of course.
Short-circuited rebuilds take time to do right, and permanent head coaches aren't typically installed midseason. The Knicks have compounded their situation through habitual self-sabotage, steering into one redirect after another for roughly two decades, rarely having a coherent process in place or the patience to stick with a singular plan over the long haul.
Dumping Fizdale does not rewrite the past. Nor does it portend anything specific about the future. The Knicks are still the Knicks. History tells us this is a means to more of the same: that they will claim epiphany only to thoroughly plan and play and spend themselves into nowhere.
To call this even a fresh(ish) start rings painfully, laughably hollow. Team president Scott Mills and general manager Scott Perry are still with the franchise. They are part of the problem. The former, specifically, is as culpable as anyone:
No one is more to blame for the Knicks' longstanding listlessness than team governor James Dolan. Anyone who mildly suggests he's held up his end of the bargain by spending whatever and staying out of basketball matters suffers from willful ignorance.
Dolan went on the radio last March, a little more than a month after the Kristaps Porzingis trade, and essentially guaranteed New York would successfully woo marquee players in 2019 free agency. Mills and Perry only held their early November, highly unusual postgame presser after reportedly meeting with their caricature of a boss.
Competent team governors recognize how and when to put the right people in place, and they don't meddle to a detriment. Dolan has done neither.
Still, Fizdale is a convenient scapegoat precisely because he's not blameless. He wasn't the problem, but he was one of them. They hired him for his player development, to implement clear identities at both ends of the floor and, yes, to help bag star free agents.
To what extent Fizdale failed New York in the latter department is unknown—and probably trivial. But he most certainly didn't help the vast majority of its prospects progress or instill a discernible style.
Granted, the Knicks didn't make it easy on him. They are guilty of moving the goalposts, segueing from a Porzingis-focused rebuild to an attempted insta-turnaround in free agency. This is not the team he was hired to coach.
But Fizdale failed to show the faintest sign that he deserved to oversee any iteration of the roster. As Jared Dubin wrote for SportsNet New York:
"Other coaches in similarly dire situations—Brett Brown with the [Philadelphia] 76ers and Kenny Atkinson with the [Brooklyn] Nets, to name two—at least established clear, distinct styles of play while their teams were racking up losses left and right. The Knicks never came all that close to doing the same. It was often difficult to discern their goals on offense, and it would only be guesswork to say if they had any on defense."
New York isn't going to stumble into a lasting identity now. Interim head coach Mike Miller figures to have only so much sway, and the roster is still a funky mix of veterans, younglings, power forwards and non-shooters.
Immediately, though, the Knicks' play style is the most actionable part of their unending limbo. Prioritizing development doesn't take a Coach of the Year candidate—just an iron stomach for losses New York is already racking up. And deploying more sensible lineups isn't rocket science. It's a matter of who best complements the team's most important building blocks.
Investing in Youth
Kevin Knox stands to be the most obvious bellwether for the Knicks in the immediate post-Fizdale era. His playing time has fluctuated, mostly dropping, after a relatively encouraging start. Fizdale called these wild swings "tough love," a response to Knox's poor defense.
That's some galaxy-brain logic. Knox's defense has not been good—especially off the ball. (Full disclosure: I thought he showed more moxie on the less glamorous end out of the gate.) Accountability is important, but Fizdale took it too far.
Rotations are thought to be a meritocracy. It is seldom that simple, particularly for rebuilding squads. At the very least, the Knicks have an obligation to play Knox. He is a No. 9 pick, their reward for enduring a 29-win 2017-18. That kind of draft equity cannot be reduced to sub-prominent usage less than a season-and-a-half into his career.
At the absolute worst, New York has stunted Knox's growth with its approach to his playing time. His offensive rhythm has seemingly cratered amid tough love. His shooting percentages have plummeted since the middle of November, and he doesn't look as decisive with the ball.
Frank Ntilikina knows this same strain. Ankle and groin injuries limited his availability through his first two seasons—Fizdale wasn't there for his rookie campaign—but the Knicks gave him neither consistent playing time nor a well-defined role. This year might not have unfolded any differently if not for absences from Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr.
Some won't lose sleep over this pattern. In Ntilikina's case, he was one of the league's worst offensive players as a rookie and sophomore, more of a cult hero among the fanbase than high-end prospect. Narrowing his opportunity—he barely averaged 20 minutes per game his first two years—still didn't make sense.
Never mind that he's a defensive workaholic, or that the Knicks' net rating improved with him on the floor in 2017-18 and 2018-19. They invested a top-eight pick in him. Such steep draft equity, again, doesn't warrant restraint without a good reason. The Knicks didn't have any.
This season has only reinforced that flawed approach. Ntilikina remains an unreliable finisher in the lane and at the rim, but he's burying 37.2 percent of his catch-and-fire threes and making better reads on the move:
He is definitely more aware of where shooters are standing:
The Knicks are 10.4 points per 100 possessions better with Ntilikina on the floor—second-highest mark among everyday rotation players. This isn't meant to demand they should play him more. They could, but he has a regular role. Rather, it is proof of the potential payoff that can be reaped from allocating actual time to important prospects.
Grooming the kiddies isn't always that easy. Look no further than Mitchell Robinson. He should be averaging way more court time than last season, but he's committing 6.1 fouls per 36 minutes. New York would be hard-pressed to play him north of 21 minutes per game.
Some of his issues are symptomatic of the Knicks' situation. It'd be nice if they could stop primary ball-handlers from waltzing into the paint. But his lack of discipline is maddening:
The list is long: Robinson has to pump the brakes on his closeouts; he can get handsy when guarding players outside the paint; he must start to set sturdier screens; he too often leaves he his feet or doesn't go straight up around the rim; and he needs to stop haphazardly going after defensive rebounds.
He deserves ample blame, but the frenetic recklessness with which he plays, while sometimes endearing, is also an organizational failure.
More Sensible Lineups
Functional development is harder to impart than extra playing time. The Knicks cannot snap their fingers and override Robinson's bad habits, or fix Knox's defensive attention span, or force Dennis Smith Jr. to shoot better from the perimeter and charity stripe, or give RJ Barrett the gift of more explosion. But they can give them the freedom to fail.
That doesn't entail more minutes in every instance. New York can control more than just playing time—like who that playing time is coming alongside.
Almost half of Robinson's minutes have been spent next to Julius Randle. Uneven roster construction necessitates their partnership, but not to this extent. Neither spaces the floor, which makes life hell on the Knicks' ball-handlers. New York is getting blasted when they share the court, with offensive and defensive ratings that both fail to crack the 11th percentiles.
Forcing the issue doesn't track when the fit is so obviously awkward. The Knicks don't have the shooters to offset Randle-Robinson minutes—they're 22nd in three-point-attempt rate and a so-so 14th in accuracy—and aren't winning games. Separate them.
Nobody would benefit more from smarter minutes distributions than Barrett. Most lineups with him feature three non-shooters plus himself. So, four non-shooters. The Knicks aren't teeming with flamethrowers from beyond the arc, but they have the optionality to do better.
Lineups that include Barrett with Marcus Morris at the 4 are working well and have the bandwidth for additional burn. New York can at least limit the time Barrett logs with two of Randle, Robinson and Taj Gibson, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to play him independent of Ntilikina, Smith and, when he's healthy, Payton.
The Search for a (Temporary) Identity
Carving out other bright spots will be even less involved.
The Knicks are fourth in long-two frequency. Those are looks that can be converted into more threes. They're 22nd in average possession time, according to Inpredictable, and 22nd in transition volume. This would all be fine if they didn't have the league's worst offense. They do.
Reworking shot profiles and rotations is more scientific in winning situations. New York isn't that or anything close to it.
Play faster. Take smarter shots. Invest in the kids—the future. Recognize that a misassembled roster that's 4-18 isn't, in fact, supposed to be much better. And, yes, shop the veterans and fringe-rotation players (Allonzo Trier) who don't factor into the long haul.
This isn't asking a lot. More importantly, these changes can be implemented now. The bigger picture is bleak. The Knicks, despite their win-loss finishes, haven't been rebuilding so much as repackaging the same aimless product.
That's a macro problem for another time—likely this summer, when it's more convenient for New York to assess not just the coaching landscape and roster but also reevaluate the entire front office.
For now, the Knicks need only concern themselves with what they can actually control: accepting this season for what it has become and running the team accordingly.