Knicks coach David Fizdale

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Schmeelk: Knicks Should Be Worried About David Fizdale

It's Still Early, But There Are Warning Signs With New Coach

John Schmeelk
January 18, 2019 - 1:55 pm
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Before I write what I am going to write, I need to throw a few caveats out there.

I’m operating under the assumption that Knicks coach David Fizdale is actually trying to win games and not coaching for pingpong balls. I think this is an extremely safe assumption and those that think he is actively tanking are fooling themselves.

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The Knicks are one of the least talented teams in the league, and on most nights, Fizdale is doing the equivalent of trying to win at Texas hold 'em with only being able to use four cards when everyone else uses five.

The Knicks should not even be considering firing their head coach now, or in the summer. He deserves a chance with a real roster, and the team needs continuity as it continues in its rebuild process. I am not advocating otherwise, but ... 

The Knicks might have to start worrying about whether they hired the right head coach. The way they lost to the Wizards in London was disconcerting, and not the first time they lost in such horrible fashion. The Wizards, at 18-26 heading into the game and without John Wall are not that much more talented than the Knicks and are nearly as troubled.

The Wizards looked downright uninterested in the first half of the game defensively. The Knicks had what seemed like a dozen uncontested shots at the rim and hit half their shots from the field and from behind the arc. They were on pace for 126 points.

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The Knicks even won the third quarter, outscoring Washington 26-24, giving New York an 89-77 lead entering the fourth. The Wizards scored only two points in the first 3:50 of the fourth quarter while facing a group of Knicks that featured Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson and Mario Hezonja. They would score 22 points in the final eight minutes or so.

Washington shooting guard Bradley Beal checked in with 8:23 remaining in the game and the Knicks leading 89-79. The Wizards went with a small lineup featuring Beal, former Knick Chasson Randle, Trevor Ariza, and Otto Porter Jr. and Sam Dekker as their two big men. The Knicks could not figure out how to guard that group, or score against a constantly switching defense.

New York scored only 11 points in the fourth quarter, shooting 4-of-14 from the field and turning it over an astonishing seven times. It looked as though the team had never played against a switching defense before and settled for a lot of isolation plays. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kevin Knox were inserted to play the final six minutes of the game, but combined for only one missed shot (a desperation 3 by Knox at the end of the shot clock) and a turnover by Hardaway.

It was the Emmanuel Mudiay Show the final 8:39, as the point guard shot 2-of-7 from the field, making his only two free throws and turning it over twice. No other Knick took more than two shots in the fourth quarter. The offense was stagnant and sloppy.

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On the final play of the game, the type of poor defense the Knicks have played all season reared its ugly head. With just 3.3 seconds to play, the Knicks got caught in a modified virtual pick-and-roll situation at the top of the key. Somehow, rather than switching, which Fizdale said was the plan, Hardaway left Thomas Bryant after being screened by him and went toward Beal. Beal found a cutting Bryant, and despite there being no time for a second pass on the possession, no one helped on time from the weak side (Fizdale said Mudiay was supposed to get there) onto Bryant rolling to the basket. Trier should be credited for trying to make a play, but he showed up late to commit a goaltending violation with 0.4 seconds left. The Wizards won, 101-100.

The Knicks haven’t guarded those situations well all year, and it showed there. It is inexcusable to give up an easy layup like that on an inbounds play with only 3.3 seconds remaining. An easy switch could have prevented such a play. The players are certainly to blame on the final possession, especially given Fizdale’s directions, but the coach has to take some blame for such an inept fourth quarter against a team that isn’t very good.

There’s little doubt Dotson might have helped defensively on a player such as Beal in the game’s closing minutes. Trier played all 12 fourth-quarter minutes and missed the only shot he took. Hardaway didn’t attempt a shot, and Knox had just the one desperation heave. If those players aren’t going to be used offensively, why not play Dotson or some of the team’s other defensive players?

Noah Vonleh, whom Fizdale has called the team’s most complete player, was on the floor for only 24 minutes, including just four in the fourth quarter. He actually scored four of the Knicks' final seven points on two hook shots on high-percentage opportunities in the paint. Why didn’t he play more?

Hardaway should face some kind of punishment, in either playing time or some other fashion in the film room, for such a critical mistake at the end of the game. He is supposed to be the veteran leader of the team. To not follow a rather simple defensive strategy on the most important possession of the game is unfathomable.

The Knicks are not talented, but a good coach is supposed to get the most out of the players on the roster. It is true there have been some promising moments from some young players, but the Knicks are not displaying the style of play Fizdale preached at the start of the year. They do not defend, nor do they share the ball offensively.

The Knicks' 19.8 assists-per-game average is the worst in the league. The Knicks only assist on 50.2 percent of their field goals, also the worst rate in the league. Those two numbers point toward selfish play, lack of offensive flow and an unwillingness to share and move the basketball. Considering Fizdale rarely disciplines a player like Hardaway, who has never seen a shot he won’t take, part of the blame goes on the coach.

The Knicks' other terminal issue is their defense. They have the second-worst defensive rating in the league at 113.1, and no other team since the NBA started tracking defensive rating in 1996-1997, except the 2008-09 Kings (113.4), has finished a season with a defensive rating as poor as the Knicks. The entire league is scoring more offensively, so the numbers are skewed, but it is still a stat that should embarrass the organization.

The most frustrating part of the defensive struggles is the Knicks' inability to guard a simple play like the pick-and-roll. Fizdale has admitted his team does not rotate well on the weak side when it hedges high screens, yet he continues to try to do it instead of using a simpler strategy like switching. The Knicks also have a stable of capable defenders (Dotson, Vonleh, Ntilikina, Robinson, Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee) that Fizdale simply refuses to play together enough to improve the team’s defense.

I am not suggesting Fizdale should be fired now or at any time this summer. I am not suggesting he is a bad coach. Continuity is important right now. Judging any coach given the talent the Knicks are putting on the floor would be unfair. But -- and it’s a big "but" -- there are some warning signs from Fizdale that should raise the front office’s antennas in how it evaluates his performance going forward. A team that does not move the ball or defend has no chance of winning. The Knicks do neither. The results so far are not encouraging.

You can follow John on Twitter at twitter.com/Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can also check out his new podcast, "The Bank Shot," which you can find here.