Steve Mills, David Fizdale, Scott Perry
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Knicks’ defensive scheme to wall off the paint mirrors their offseason plan. Both are backfiring spectacularly.

Danny Small

There was no question to prompt David Fizdale‘s opening statement during his postgame press conference on Thursday night. The New York Knicks head coach stepped to the podium and made his frustration clear.

“The three-point line killed us again,” Fizdale said. “Until we figure that out, we are going to keep feeling this pain.”

The Denver Nuggets converted on 21 of their 39 three-pointers in Thursday’s 129-92 drubbing of the Knicks. This is nothing new for Fizdale’s squad. On Monday, the embattled Knicks allowed the Milwaukee Bucks to shoot 16-for-35 from deep en route to a 44-point blowout.

On the season, the Knickerbockers are allowing opponents to shoot 38.6% on threes, ranking 29th in the league. Their inability to defend the three-point line stems from Fizdale’s insistence to wall off the paint and cut off easy looks at the rim.

“Our defense out there today was to protect the paint,” Julius Randle said after the game. “We started off with that identity and we have to be able to adjust to that and build off of that. We’ve been talking about it, hammering it home, drilling it, we just have to do it. They had 21 threes. That’s a lot.”

The decision to wall off the paint isn’t wrong, in theory. In fact, the Knicks are fourth in the league in opponent paint points. But again, when this strategy results in wide-open threes time and time again, it’s not working.

Fizdale deserves plenty of blame for this disaster of a season. Anytime a team starts off with a 4-18 record, the coach is the first person who feels the heat. Right or wrong, that’s just the nature of the beast.

“I don’t care about all that,” Fizdale said when asked if he fears this poor start will come back on him. “I don’t even think about that. I think about the next team we’re playing and I think about the guys in the locker room and how we can help them. At the end of the day, that’s all I care about.”

It certainly feels like Fizdale’s firing is a matter of “when” not “if.” After winning twice during a three-game homestand in November, the Knicks have lost eight straight with three of those losses coming in epic blowouts.

Again, the head coach is often the scapegoat in these situations, but the blame shouldn’t fall squarely on Fizdale’s shoulders. The coach is committing to packing the paint, but only after the front office went a similar route when it came to free agency.

After missing out on marquee stars in free agency—and failing to even land a meeting with any—team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry pivoted to signing veterans on team-friendly deals. Part of the offseason calculus after missing out on superstars was to solidify the frontcourt. Adding rebounding and toughness was at the top of the to-do list for Mills and Perry.

“This is a team that’s consistent with how we said we were going to build the team,” Mills said during media day way back in September. “This is a team that New Yorkers are going to like. The grittiness of these guys, the toughness of these guys, and it’s a group of guys that has places that they could go.”

Signing four power forwards—Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, and Taj Gibson—stole the headlines for the Knicks. All four players can play multiple positions, but there is a major difference between can and should.

Morris, Randle, and Gibson are all guys who should be playing the four-spot. Instead, Fizdale is starting them at the three, four, and five, respectively. It should be noted that this lineup has a relatively neutral net rating of 0.6 in 196 minutes together, per NBA.com.

However, when Portis is subbed into that three-man lineup, the results are disastrous. The net rating drops to -13.7. Moreover, the offensive rating drops from 110.1 to 95.7 in 119 minutes despite the fact that Portis is a much more versatile offensive player.

That’s just one snapshot of the wonky roster construction in action—or better yet, inaction.

The national media pounced on the Knicks for their spending spree on a plethora of power forwards. Knicks fans cried bias and felt like the attacks were unwarranted and unfair. The argument was that the national media’s criticism was fueled by hate for the New York outfit and a desire to generate clicks and attention.

In fact, that criticism was fueled by a healthy skepticism of the plan in place and the people executing that plan. One can argue that the plan wasn’t necessarily doomed from the beginning, but the proof is in the pudding.

Could Fizdale be doing a better job with this roster? No doubt about it. However, the fit was clunky from the beginning and that falls at the feet of the front office. The coach is having to mix and match endless permutations of lineups that simply don’t work.

Building the defense from the inside out is a tactical decision from Fizdale, but the front office also made the decision to build the entire roster from the inside out. What we’re seeing is an implosion as a result of that plan.

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