By: Landon Jaeger
With the recent dismissal of New York Knicks’ coach David Fizdale, there has been outrage among many NBA coaches and fans alike, calling for more blame on the front office of the Knicks rather than Fizdale. Respected coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich came to Fizdale’s defense stating, “If I had gone to New York that would have been me like three years ago” and, “He’s a fine, talented young coach… it’s ridiculous to think you’re gonna bring in a young guy and after being there a minute-and-a-half, you expect him to fix everything” respectively. Fizdale’s firing was called for after a 4-18 start, even worse than a 7-15 start through 22 games in the 2018-19 season. Despite spending upwards of 70 million and the acquisition of 3rd overall pick RJ Barrett during the 2019 offseason, the Knicks have seemed to get even worse, as their record indicates, and have lost their last two games by a combined 81 points (on the date of Fizdale’s dismissal). The Knicks’ organization has appointed Mike Miller as the interim coach (no, not that Mike Miller, yes the 2017-18 G League Coach of the Year Mike Miller), and seem to have no current direction. Amongst all the noise from the NBA community, I’m here to tell you why firing Fizdale, while not fixing the New York Knicks’ dysfunctional organization, was the right decision.
To start off, Fizdale’s offensive play calling and gameplan was rudimentary at best. In effect, the Knicks are currently averaging the worst points per game (PPG) in the NBA at 100.5 and have the worst offensive rating at 101.9. A handful of Fizdale’s play calls were isolations for Julius Randle, resulting in a 17.6% isolation frequency for the sixth year big, higher than players like Giannis Antetokounmpo (16.4%), Kyrie Irving (14%), and Luka Doncic (13.2%). Because of these frequent isolations for Randle (and him not being the most stellar ball handler), he has had a knack for turning the ball over, averaging 3.2 turnovers per game in the 2019-20 season thus far. This has caused the Knicks to have the 2nd highest turnover rate for team isolation plays at 15.7%. Creating 3-point shots off the catch has been difficult for Fizdale’s Knicks, as the only real solution for this has been curls. You can be sure that Fizdale will call a curl whenever either Daymean Dotson or Wayne Ellington enter the game, and teams have quickly caught on. Both sharpshooters are now averaging career lows, Dotson at 30.4% and Ellington at 31.5%. The Knicks also have good pick and roll (PnR) bigs in Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle, yet rarely run the PnR, at 24th in the league for PnR handler shots at 16.2%, and 27th in the league for PnR roller shots at 5.1%.
Fizdale’s play calling in clutch moments also left much to be desired. On November 16th against the Hornets, the Knicks were down one with 2.1 seconds to go after a clutch three from breakout player Devonte Graham. The play that ensued was a high elbow jumper from Julius Randle, who is currently shooting 33.8% (and 36 eFG%) on pull up jump shots. Fine, maybe we can say that the play Fizdale called just fell apart, and they were forced to pass it in to a bad jumpshooter in Randle. But after the game, Fizdale went on to say, “We were just trying to get Julius (Randle) the ball near the elbow area and maybe put pressure on the rim and draw a foul and get to the line.” This also doesn’t make much sense, as Randle is not a great free throw shooter, at 66.1%, and those numbers likely only go down in the clutch. Not to mention, just 8 days later, in a game vs. the Nets, down 4, with 6.8 seconds left, Fizdale drew up the same exact play the Hornets ran to get Graham open for a go-ahead three. Both plays passed it in to a big man at the top of the three point line (PJ Washington in the Hornets’ case and Taj Gibson in the Knicks’), who then passed to a guard (Devonte Graham and Wayne Ellington) cutting from the backcourt to the top of the three point line, both big men then set a screen for the cutter, who then lets it fly from just left of the middle of the three point line. Only one difference. In the Hornets’ case, the play resulted in a wide open three, banged in by Graham, and in the Knicks’ case, Ellington shot a three heavily contested by Taurean Prince, resulting in an airball.
As we can see, Fizdale’s play calling and gameplan just don’t seem to be working. Fizdale is also known for his “Grit and Grind” scheme, emphasizing slowing down the game (like the Grit and Grind Grizzlies Fizdale previously coached). This has the Knicks running at the 27th slowest rate in the league, 98.59 possessions per 48 minutes, while winning teams like the Bucks (105.74) and Rockets (105.34) are 1st and 2nd. Pace isn’t always an indicator of the success of a team, but more often than not, teams who play faster end up making the playoffs (pace has been steadily rising since the early 2000s).
While Fizdale’s offensive game plan is terrible, his defensive schemes seem no better. He has the Knicks switching on every single pick play, which ends up in mismatches for opposing teams. In effect, opposing guards often have good scoring games against the Knicks, when guarded by slower big men like Julius Randle or Bobby Portis. The Knicks have capable defenders, like Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton, Daymean Dotson, Mitchell Robinson, and Taj Gibson. Yet, switching on every pick negates these players defensive prowess, due to the fact that they have to go against players much larger or much quicker than they are. The former Knicks coach also pushed an emphasis on locking down the paint, yet this let opposing teams shoot open threes against the Knicks. Opposing teams are shooting 38.6% from three against the Knicks, good enough for second in the league.
One aspect of his coaching that some say was Fizdale’s worst, were his rotations. Firstly, his refusal to play Allonzo Trier. Trier, a premier scorer, averaged 10.9, 3.1, and 1.9 as a rookie, on good shooting splits, 44.8% from the field and 39.4% from three. Though, through 22 games in the 2019-20 season, Trier has racked up 11 DNPs, and in the games he has played, has only averaged 12.9 MPG. Some may say Trier isn’t a good team player, as he mostly scores off isolation plays. However, why is Randle allowed to run isolation on over a sixth of the Knicks plays (while averaging 3.2 turnovers per game), yet Trier can’t seem to find minutes? Notably, Trier only had a 10.6% isolation frequency in the 2018-19 season, lower than Randle’s 17.6% frequency this season. Not only this, but Fizdale has played veterans (that likely won’t even be on the team next year) like Ellington and Gibson in favor of the Knicks’ young talent. Fizdale also refused to play big man Enes Kanter during the 2018-19 season. Fizdale effectively pushed the fan favorite out of New York. Fizdale has had many episodes like this, including with former-Knick Kristaps Porzingis. In November of 2018, Fizdale claimed that KP, “hadn’t made significant progress since the start of training camp,” in relation to KP’s ACL tear the previous season. In response, Porzingis posted a video of him sprinting on a track on Instagram. This lack of communication between Fizdale and his players has clearly negatively affected the team and organization.
As we can see, Fizdale has had his fair share of dysfunctionality while in New York. So what has Fizdale done for the New York Knicks? Turn a 20.7% win team into an 18.2% despite the addition of RJ Barrett and free agency signings such as Julius Randle and Marcus Morris? Drive out a solid player in Kanter? Utilize players (such as Randle and Trier) wrong? Take that for data.