Fans and management alike must remember the New York Knicks’ record is not reflective of David Fizdale’s ability as a coach.
David Fizdale’s first season as head coach of the New York Knicks has been, in a word, rough. The team handily won its first game against the Atlanta Hawks but has gone 1-6 since then. Sure, the Knicks have done a good job of looking competitive in all but two of those losses, but losses are losses. Long-suffering Knicks fans can only take so much more losing.
My biggest fear as a fan, knowing owner James Dolan, is impatience will take over. Fizdale’s team can’t finish a game properly, so Fizdale will be shown the door. This is, in short, a terrible idea. At season’s end, New York will have finished paying off the remainder of former coach Derek Fisher and former executive Phil Jackson’s contracts. Fizdale’s predecessor, Jeff Hornacek, had a year left on his deal when he was fired after last season.
Fizdale, should he fall victim to Dolan’s George Steinbrenneresque tendencies at season’s end, will have three years left on his deal.
The team’s start isn’t inspiring, but changes are already noticeable. Patience needs to be shown with David Fizdale, or the Knicks will truly be lost as a franchise.
A great coach in waiting
Most fans remember David Fizdale for his brief tenure as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Coaching in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, Fizdale went 43-39 in his first season and Memphis lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio regularly fields great teams with even greater depth, so the playoff loss cannot be fully blamed on Fizdale.
Except, Fizdale was fired after a 7-12 start the following season. However, it had nothing to do with the team’s performance. You see, Fizdale had a nasty falling out with Grizzlies star center Marc Gasol, who he benched in the fourth quarter in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Gasol took his complaint to the front office and with Memphis already on an eight-game losing streak, Fizdale was fired. GM Chris Wallace took sides, and Fizdale lost despite his solid reputation.
What reputation, you ask? Well, prior to being hired by Memphis, Fizdale spent years as a successful assistant coach. He spent nine years with the Miami Heat as part of Erik Spoelstra’s staff, winning two championship rings. Spoelstra himself even waxed poetic about Fizdale’s abilities as a coach not long before the Knicks hired him:
“He’s a brilliant basketball mind that has exceptional, gold-standard level communication skills,” Spoelstra said recently. “He’s one of my best friends. But I say that objectively. I just think he’s one of the most talented coaches I’ve been around.”
The young Knicks need a calm, communicative, and patient mind coaching the team. David Fizdale is that to a tee. If the team plays well in defeat and the wins don’t show up for a year or so, so be it.
Winning takes time
I’d like to take a trip back in time, specifically to 1991. New York had just gone through six head coaches in the last decade. Sure, the Knicks were a playoff team, but hadn’t gone past the Eastern Conference Semifinals since winning a championship in 1973.
Enter former Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, who led the Showtime Lakers to four titles in nine seasons. Riley also coached the team to three other trips to the NBA Finals and lost, but the hire made sense. He knew how to win.
Cut to Riley’s first season in New York, and the Knicks went 4-5 before going on to win 51 games. They won 60 under Riley the following year and made the East Finals, only to lose to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. A year later, the Knicks lost in the NBA Finals. Results aside, the team’s culture had changed. Winning and playing elite-level basketball was the norm again.
Now, let’s look at the 2010-11 Miami Heat team on which Fizdale was an assistant. This was the star-studded team that had LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all in the starting lineup. James famously predicted the team would win seven championships (the core trio wound up winning two).
Patience is a virtue
Well, building a winning team takes time, folks. Not only did this stacked lineup lose its first regular season game, but the Heat were also 9-8 at the end of November. For a team built to win championships, LeBron & Co. sure didn’t look like one. But was Erik Spoelstra fired? No, management let him stay the course and next came a hot streak. Miami won 21 of its next 22 games before losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. With David Fizdale as an assistant, the team won rings each of the next two seasons.
And who was the architect of this Heat dynasty? None other than former Knicks and Heat coach Pat Riley.
So long as the Knicks’ front office is patient, the same results could be had with Fizdale coaching. He knows how to balance fast-paced offense with old-fashioned, hard-nosed interior defense. He understands the value of every player having a role and no one carrying more influence than the other. Most important of all, he made the extra effort and visited team star Kristaps Porzingis in KP’s home country of Latvia, where Porzingis spent the summer rehabbing a torn ACL. This is huge considering Porzingis’ strained relationship with Phil Jackson, with whom he famously skipped an exit interview.
You think the Knicks look competitive in losses under Fizdale now? Well, just imagine what could be when Porzingis is ready to play again. Some of those L’s may very well turn into W’s.
David Fizdale is a good coach. With time, he can blossom into a great one.
That, however, is up to the management arm of the New York Knicks. Hopefully, patience wins out. The fans certainly deserve it.