RJ Barrett, Julius Randle
ESNY Graphic

The New York Knicks’ biggest issue this season has nothing to do with head coach David Fizdale and everything to do with the players.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—The New York Knicks have plenty of problems. It’s unclear whether or not David Fizdale is “the guy” for the job. Although there are some signs that the youth is developing, there have been significant roadblocks for nearly every young player on the roster. The newly-signed veterans can’t finish out close games down the stretch. Not to mention, marquee free agents won’t touch the team with a 10-foot pole.

All of these are significant problems for the organization, but there’s one glaring issue that is making this Knicks season more infuriating than this writer ever thought possible—free-throw shooting. This is something that fans can’t possibly blame Fizdale for.

The Knicks are the worst free-throw shooting team in the league by a wide margin. At 67.5% as a team, New York is nearly four whole percentage points behind the 29th ranked Milwaukee Bucks (71.4%). The last NBA team to shoot that poorly across an entire season was the Detroit Pistons in 2015-16.

They are historically bad in this regard. Even a thesaurus runs short of synonyms to describe how bad they’ve truly been.

Since the 2000-01 season, only six teams have shot 68% or worse from the line. Sure, the Knicks have three-quarters of the season to improve in this regard, but they’re not off to a promising start.

Missed free throws are not a symptom of the losing, they’re a direct cause. In six of the team’s 16 losses, they missed more free throws than the number of points they lost by. Now, some context for that tidbit.

On Sunday night, the Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics by nine while missing 11 free throws. Saying New York “should” have won this game is a stretch. But had they converted just five more times from the line, they would have given themselves a chance.

However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Call it an oversimplification if you like, but it’s not. The Knickerbockers have lost three one-possession games while missing five or more free throws. An average free-throw shooting team would have at least three more wins under their belt.

A 7-13 record isn’t anything to write home about, but in the Eastern Conference that would be good enough for a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot. At the very least, it would completely change the narrative from “this season is a complete disaster” to “who knows in the East?”

Marcus Morris Sr. is the only player on the roster who is carrying his weight from the charity stripe. He’s shooting 83.9% on 87 attempts so far this season. Of the five players who’ve taken the most attempts for the Knicks, Morris is the only player converting at higher than a 66.7% clip.

Julius Randle is shooting 65.1% on 109 attempts and RJ Barrett is at a woeful 52.4% on 103 attempts. Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox are a combined 58-for-88 (65.9%). That’s downright brutal.

“Like I said before I don’t think this is going to be a long-standing issue,” Fizdale said about Barrett prior to the Knicks’ Nov. 16 matchup with the Charlotte Hornets. “The kid is in the gym every day. He’s not rattled. He’s just getting to the line and working on it, putting in the time and the technique to iron out the wrinkles. Eventually, he’s going to get to a place where he’s well over 70.”

Since Fizdale’s comments, Barrett is shooting 64.7% from the stripe. That’s an improvement, and it’s hard to hammer the rookie as he adapts to the NBA, but it’s simply not good enough.

Fizdale is pumping in crowd noise into practices and even talking half-jokingly talking about burning sage in the room, but this isn’t something that falls on the coach.

This falls squarely on the players even if they don’t want to admit it. After falling to the Philadelphia 76ers, Robinson was asked about the team struggling from the free-throw line all year.

“Not me,” Robinson—who shot 1-for-6 from the line that night—said to reporters. “This is the first time I shot bad free throws.”

The second-year center was shooting 73% from the line entering that game. That’s not bad, but is it good? No.

Fizdale is the first person who has to face the music after each loss. Eventually, these losses could cost him his job and free throws—something he doesn’t have much control over—are one of the main culprits for the team’s horrendous start to the season. This isn’t to say that Fizdale is doing a tremendous job, but he doesn’t deserve all the blame for the 4-16 start.

At some point, the players are going to have to convert on the shots that are literally “free” points.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.