The New York Knicks can’t be happy with a 1-5 start, but David Fizdale is starting to figure out this whole head coaching thing.
His first season was marked by roster confusion, injuries, a blockbuster trade, and plenty of losses. Although there are still concerns about his viability as a head coach, putting the 17-win season on Fizdale’s shoulders is unfair.
In the spirit of fairly judging Fizdale’s tenure with the Knicks, we must give him credit for a few recent developments.
Starting Frank Ntilikina
Sure, Fizdale only went to Frank Ntilikina as the starting point guard when he was out of pretty much every other available option. That being said, when Fizdale finally tapped the Frenchman for the starting gig, he gave the 21-year-old a wide berth to play through his mistakes.
Ntilikina’s confidence is growing with every rep and playing big minutes in crunch-time against the Boston Celtics is huge for the young point guard’s development.
Fizdale is planning to keep Ntilikina in the starting lineup for the time being. The Knicks will host the Sacramento Kings in Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. He’s already committing to matching up his defensive wiz against rising star De’Aaron Fox.
Ntilikina sets the tone defensively and although his offense is still a work-in-progress, the Knicks are a team that needs to establish a strong defensive identity before anything else.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the Knicks hang their hat on as a team, but Fiz’s willingness to play Ntilikina big minutes could work wonders for the team defense.
Speaking of defense, the Knicks employed a switch-heavy scheme against the Celtics that worked for the majority of the game. In today’s NBA, holding a team to 104 points is significant.
The Knicks are allowing an average of 99 points over their last three games. Despite losing two of those games, the improved defense is a major positive for a team that finished 26th in defensive rating last season.
Let’s dig deeper into the defensive scheme Fizdale utilized in Boston. Watch Ntilikina on the next play. He ends up covering all five Celtics on the floor at some point during this possession.
This is the best example of Fizdale’s switch-heavy scheme and it gave the Knicks life against Boston. This was a savvy defensive adjustment that took advantage of a shorthanded Boston frontcourt.
Enes Kanter and Robert Williams were both out with injuries so Daniel Theis and Grant Williams split time at center. Theis stands at 6-foot-8 while Grant Williams measures up at 6-foot-6. As a result, the Knicks felt comfortable switching their guards onto Boston’s undersized bigs.
This specific defensive coverage is vital when the playoffs come around. Of course, the Knicks aren’t going to need to worry about the playoffs this season, but it’s smart to instill these principles in a young team.
But the real damage came from Walker’s ability to draw contact. He was a perfect 14-for-14 from the free-throw line. That can be attributed to the players more than the scheme though. As the bigs grow more comfortable with covering the perimeter without fouling, this should improve.
It’s not going to be perfect, but Fizdale’s willingness to adjust his defensive schemes is a positive step forward.
Keeping It Close
The Knicks’ fourth-quarter collapses are one of the pressing storylines from the first handful of games this season. In three of their five losses, Fizdale’s squad fell victim to embarrassing lapses in the final frame.
The offense tends to bog down late in games due to a lack of ball movement. Fizdale refers to this as the ball “sticking” and it’s something his fresh-faced roster is struggling with through their first six games.
Does the head coach deserve the blame for these late collapses? To a point, yes. Every head coach in the NBA shoulders a considerable amount of blame after every loss.
But this isn’t a situation where Fizdale is some clueless coach who is letting a talented roster underperform. The Knicks are a team with plenty of new faces and four rotational players below the age of 22. It’s going to take some time before the Knicks figure out how to close out victories.
Keeping games tight against playoff teams is a step in the right direction for this roster. Asking Fizdale and the Knicks to close games as if they’re a seasoned playoff team is a tall order. The late-game execution will come with time and experience.
All in all, Fizdale deserves credit for the job he’s done so far this season. It’s been far from perfect and there are definitely areas that need improving, but Fizdale is flashing encouraging signs thus far.