By. Matt Brooks
On May 7th of 2018, it was announced that the New York Knicks had hired David Fizdale to lead their team, making him the fourth Knicks coach in four years.
Unlike his predecessors, Fizdale has the willpower and leadership to remain in charge, with the possibility of becoming the best Knicks coach since the days of Jeff van Gundy.
Fizdale is a culture changer.
Outside of lucking out in the draft and selecting a star, the best thing a rebuilding team can do is put in place a strong management team. Having the right guys in charge can be the difference maker when it comes to success. Just take a look at the San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat from last season. Neither of those teams had any business advancing to the playoffs, but their coaches (Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, two of the league’s best) willed the teams to the first-round in spite of subpar talent.
David Fizdale shares many characteristics with both Coach Pop and Coach Spo: he runs a motion-heavy offense and places emphasis on becoming a defense that talks and works together. Most importantly, Fizdale is able to connect with his players on an extremely personal level, building strong and trusting relationships throughout his entire career. Directly after being announced as the Knicks coach, Fizdale hopped on the first flight to Latvia to meet with Kristaps Porzingis: the team’s star who (admittedly) has a somewhat prickly personality and has clashed with the team in the past. According to Mike Rose of NewsDay.com, the trip was a success, as Fizdale was able to build a strong bond with Porzingis while learning about the Unicorn's upbringing in his home country.
This is merely one example of Fizdale’s commitment to his players.
When Fizdale was (wrongly) fired by the Memphis Grizzlies back in November of 2017, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, both of whom played for Fizdale in Miami, took to Twitter and made these strong statements:
I need some answers. Feels like my man was a fall guy— LeBron James (@KingJames) November 27, 2017
I need answers!!! WTF https://t.co/z39oNRQok0— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 27, 2017
It says something when two of the league’s biggest stars, both of whom have very busy lives, take time out of their days to defend a man that hasn’t coached them in years.
So we’ve established that David Fizdale is a leader, a player’s coach. But the question remains:
How does he plan to coach the Knicks? Will it work?
David Fizdale made many promising statements in his first press conference. What stood out to me the most were his comments concerning the team’s defense, and to my chagrin, he appears to share the sentiment that the Knicks have the potential to be elite on that side of the floor.
According to Fizdale, he “want(s) to establish a top-ranked defense, a fast defense, a disruptive defense, a versatile defense, a loud defense, that sparks offense, and gets us into the open court.”
David Fizdale stated that plans to assign a larger workload to the team's strongest defenders, such as Lance Thomas (whose role has been limited since signing the 4-year, $27 million dollar contract back in 2016). Interestingly, Coach Fizdale plans to solve the Knicks overflow of talent at the point guard position by placing a heightened importance on defense (and not just offense!) when it comes to minutes distribution. He specifically named 22-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay as someone he expected to take it to the next level on the defensive side of the ball.
There's a perception that we live in an offense-first league.
In reality, the top teams in the league (Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, and Golden State Warriors) all have one thing in common: their foundation is a strong defense. These defenses kick-start a lethal transition offense, producing a dizzying amount of three-pointers. David Fizdale understands the best-kept secret in the NBA:
Basketball hasn't changed. We still live in a defense-first league.
In Memphis, Fizdale's coaching helped the team rise from the 19th-ranked defense to 7th best in the league. David Fizdale is capable of similar things in New York, based on his strong defensive philosophies and the team’s talent, and I expect last season's 23rd ranked defense to improve dramatically with Coach Fiz at the helm.
So how does Fizdale plan to coach the offense?
Going back to his press-conference, Fizdale stated the offense begins the second that the basketball is rebounded on defense. It doesn’t really matter who grabs the board, Fizdale wants the team to push the ball up the court and move on offense. Who knows, we may see a play next season where Enes Kanter leads the break!
On offense, what makes Fizdale truly unique is his tendency to run the offense through a big-man rather than through a score-first point-guard.
In Miami, Fizdale transformed Chris Bosh into one of the first modernistic stretch big-men, even after Bosh had spent years dominating in the low-post. Helping Bosh to become a threat from the three-point line allowed his teammates (i.e. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) to do what they do best: cut to the rim off-ball and finish Bosh's passes with breathtaking dunks or gorgeous lay-ins.
In Memphis, David Fizdale did similar things for center, Marc Gasol, and challenged him to become an outside threat. Prior to his hiring, Gasol had taken 66 career three-point shots between 2008-2016 and posted a measly average of 18% from three. Since Fizdale’s hiring, Gasol has taken 588 three-point shots and has posted a respectable average of 36% from long range.
While coaching the Knicks, I expect Fizdale to run a similar offense to his days in Memphis and Miami, considering the Knicks star player is (fittingly) a big-man. This time however, Fizdale will not have to convert his big men into becoming an outside threat, as Porzinigis is already lethal from that range, posting an absurd 39.5% from three last season on 4.8 attempts per game.
With Fizdale in charge, I expect Porzingis’ style of play to change. Last season, the greatest share of Porzingis’ shots came from mid-range, and he shot a not-so-great 40.2% (see: video above). However, Porzingis also shot above-the-break 3's at an outstanding 39.2%, but took a whopping 100 fewer shots from this area of the court (compared to mid-range). Fizdale’s offense will likely place Porzingis above-the-break in shooting position more frequently, and I could see this greatly helping the team, as statistically speaking this is a more efficient shot.
With Porzingis at the top of the key, he will attract a majority of the opposing defense’s attention similar to a Klay Thompson (except, you know… He’s 7”3”). Because of this, his teammates will have more room to operate. For the team’s centers, this may mean scoring in the post at will (hello, Enes Kanter) or rising high for alley-oop dunks (i.e. Mitchell Robinson). The players that will benefit the most from Porzingis’ change in style will be the team’s guards. In the aforementioned press-conference, Fizdale emphasized that the Knicks’ guards will being playing “positionless,” and we will see this the most when Porzingis grasps the ball at the top of the key. For some guards, such as Courtney Lee or Mario Hezonja, their offense may entail curling off of ball-screens into open threes. For others, this may mean using their speed to blow by their defender, receive an entry pass, and finish at the rim. In the best case, this could be how Mudiay finds his footing on offense. For players with better ball-handling capabilities (a la Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr.), they can receive the ball from Porzingis via a hand-off and either: drive to the rim, pull-up off the dribble, or even get off a nifty floater in traffic.
Porzingis could even hand the ball off to a willing distributer like Frank Ntilikina and curl off-ball to the corner for an open three point-shot (see: video above). Last season, Porzingis somehow only took 12 total corner threes. This is asinine given the shorter distance of these shots compared to other threes, especially considering his strong shooting numbers from this range (60% from the left corner and 57.1% from the right).
The Knicks need to increase these types of shots, and luckily for the team, Fizdale's offense will do so. By pushing the ball up the court, the team will give itself more time to run their offense correctly. Giving the ball to Porzingis at the top of the break leads to the greatest amount of options on offense (thanks to his shooting capabilities), and it allows for the young talent on the roster to excel at what they do best. With more time on the clock and more offensive movement from his teammates, Porzingis will take the most efficient shots possible (ideally alley-oop dunks and spot-up threes!).
The David Fizdale hiring is a huge moment in Knicks history.
Outside of the LeBron James signing and the Chris Paul/Paul George re-signings, I could see looking back at his hiring as the 4th most significant move of the 2018 off-season (yes, I have this higher than the Boogie signing!).
I expect Fizdale to greatly connect with his players and lead the charge of a suffocating defense. On offense, I expect to him to feature Porzingis correctly and allow him to ascend to that 7’3” Dirk Nowitzki role that we have all been craving for.
In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks shocked the world by winning the NBA title. Equipped with one of the best coaches in the league (Rick Carlisle), the best scoring big-man in the league (Dirk Nowitzki, whose sheer presence allowed his teammates to get easy buckets), and the 9th ranked defense, the team shocked world by defeating the Big-3 Miami Heat in 6 games.
Given the shared characteristics between the 2011 Mavericks and this Knicks roster, there’s plenty of reasons to get excited as a Knicks’ fan. Led by a top tier coach, a great defense, and a sweet-shooting big-man, the team can ascend to unforeseen heights. In fact, if you really squint and think about the future, you might be able to see Coach Fizdale and Kristaps Porzingis, hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in unison, and celebrating the team’s first title since 1973.