Knicks coach David Fizdale coaches against the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 26, 2018, at Madison Square Garden.

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Schmeelk: David Fizdale Might Finally Be The Right Guy

Even In 1-5 Start, Knicks Coach Proves His Worth

John Schmeelk
October 29, 2018 - 4:19 pm
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The Knicks are 1-5 and their first-round draft pick is out with a sprained ankle, yet the first two weeks of the season should make Knicks fans very optimistic because of David Fizdale. The Knicks’ young head coach has not been without some mistakes, but he has shown that he understands how you win in the modern NBA.

Fizdale’s biggest decision was his starting lineup change against the Warriors on Friday. When changes were first discussed, the general assumption was that a struggling Trey Burke would be replaced by Frank Ntilikina at point guard with Damyean Dotson playing small forward, and that Lance Thomas might be rotated out of the lineup as well. None of those moves would have been radical, and they all made sense in the context of how the players and team were doing.

When it was announced that Enes Kanter would be departing the starting lineup, it showed that Fizdale was able to see beyond the raw numbers and recognize what type of players help you win games. Kanter’s counting stats are excellent. He’s averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds on 56 percent shooting in only 27 minutes per game.

Kanter’s advanced numbers, however, are problematic. Here are his on/off court numbers:

                           OFF RATING                       DEF RATING
On Court:            100.6                                     112.8
Off Court:            101.1                                     101.1

The Knicks’ offense is unaffected by Kanter’s presence, but their defense craters, by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions, when he is playing. Playing against another team’s starting unit, which generally includes its best offensive players, makes things all the worse.

Even more important than Kanter’s struggles defensively is how poor the defense is when he is on the floor at the same time as Tim Hardaway Jr. When that duo plays together, the team has a defensive rating of 115, which would be the fourth worst in the NBA if sustained over an entire season. Kanter and Hardaway are the Knicks’ two best one-on-one players, but also two of their worst defenders.  

MORE: Schmeelk: Good, Bad And Ugly Of Knicks Season So Far

By separating the two, Fizdale improves the starting unit’s defensive prospects (along with replacing Burke with Ntilikina at point guard) and gives both the starting and bench groups someone who can score one-on-one. Especially with Kevin Knox hurt, Kanter can be the offensive focus of the back group, and his struggles defending in space are not as exposed against other teams’ secondary players. It was exactly how Oklahoma City used Kanter when he was at his best.

The move also turned the starting five into a group without a real weakness defensively, spare Hardaway. Ntilikina and Dotson can both defend well on the perimeter. Noah Vonleh plays well at power forward and helps rookie rim protector Mitchell Robinson on the boards.

Fizdale also understands that this year is much more about development than wins for the Knicks, and the new starting lineup pits the Knicks’ youngest and most promising players against opposing starters. It gives them the best chance possible to learn and develop. When Knox becomes healthy, don’t be surprised if he eventually gets an opportunity to fight his way into the starting lineup.

With Ntilikina at point guard with no big scorers on the floor with him besides Hardaway, it forces Ntilikina to be more aggressive and look for his shot. In just 25 minutes Friday, he took the most shots (11) he has so far this season, made the most (six) and shot his highest percentage (54.5). He had grown far too comfortable just dumping the ball to Kanter in the post, and to Hardaway on the wing.

Aside from the lineup change, Fizdale has done other things that garner confidence. He has made offense/defense substitutions at the end of games. He has harangued players as they come off the court for defensive miscues, even if they are playing well offensively. Even when he makes a mistake, like leaving the bench players in for too long against Golden State, he gives a logical reason that explains it (they were tired) after the game.

Before the season, Fizdale preached that his teams would play with great energy defensively and push the pace. So far, the team has resembled that vision. The Knicks are shooting more 3’s this year, something all good offensive teams do. It shows he is reaching the players. There wasn’t even any verbal sniping from any players when they were pulled from the starting lineup.  

Ignoring for a moment that Fizdale indicated point guard Emmanuel Mudiay will soon have the chance to recapture a prominent role in the rotation, or even start, there isn’t much not to like. The Knicks’ new coach understands where the team is and what their real goals are this season. He understands the type of players and style necessary to win in the modern NBA.

The Knicks might just have their coach of the present and future.

You can follow me on twitter for everything on Knicks, Giants and the world of sports @Schmeelk.