Are the New York Knicks failing to implement their plan? Or muddying the waters by trying to change it on the fly?
At 1-7, the New York Knicks own the worst record in the NBA and are off to their worst start in 10 years. Their two biggest summer signings, Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, don’t appear to fit well together; whenever one shines, the other shrinks. Breaking the pair up could be tricky: David Fizdale isn’t a lame-duck coach but he’s developing a limp. Signing veterans to essentially one-year deals across the board plays well in the papers, but also means most of the rotation knows the organization isn’t committed to them.
Aside from the lone win against Chicago, Bobby Portis, who — entirely because of his offense — is tied with Morris as their second-highest-paid player, is averaging seven points a game on 34 percent shooting. Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton were expected to compete for the starting point guard spot, but bereavement and injuries mean they’ve missed half the team’s games; both are out for Friday’s tilt in Dallas. The Knicks have played three home games and heard boos in most of them. The “Fire Fizdale” chants came early this season. There’ll be more.
Or, another way to look at things: at 1-7 and despite five of their first six games coming against playoff teams from last year, the Knicks held fourth-quarter leads in all but one. Rookie R.J. Barrett has been better than advertised, showing the ability to score, rebound, set up others and defend. Second-year forward Kevin Knox is doing more with less, playing fewer minutes but raising his efficiency: after shooting 37 percent from the field and 34 percent on 3s, this season he’s at 44 percent from both. Center Mitchell Robinson put up 13 points on 70 percent shooting and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes last year, and he’s up across the board. Even Frank Ntilikina, for most of his career a living, breathing Rohrschach test for whether your basketball IQ is “OK boomer” or “performative wokeness,” has shown greater comfort on offense of late while continuing to defend at a high level.
When Charlie Brown is running toward Lucy and the football, could he recognize the feeling of his luck finally changing if it did? Or does his faith that an unknowable feeling exists condemn him to fail? Are things looking up for the Knicks? Are they worse? Perhaps the more telling question at this point is: what’s the difference?
R.J. Barrett is playing nearly 40 minutes a game. New York’s lost their last two by 21 and 20, yet Barrett averaged 37 minutes even in those blowouts. No Knick draft pick has signed a multi-year contract with the team after their rookie deal expired since Charlie Ward. That’s dozens and dozens and dozens of draft picks. The latest, greatest would-be messiah, Kristaps Porziņģis, faces New York on Friday for the first time since being traded to the Mavericks.
A vocal portion of the fanbase worries the Knicks may jeopardize Barrett’s future by overextending him in a present whose only purpose is as prelude to a future forever just over the horizon. Given the growing awareness of the benefits of load management, coupled with New York’s culture of failure in developing young talent, the worrying feels fair. Other franchises have played rookies similar minutes and not heard a peep; all-time greats have put up similar minutes, albeit in prior epochs, when the slower pace of play may as well have come from a different league. 20 years ago, Sacramento led the league in pace at 96 possession per game. This year the Knicks are averaging 99. That ranks 27th.
This is true: New York had the best odds at the top pick in last year’s draft, fell to third and still lucked into a possible Rookie of the Year. This is also true: rookie years often tell us little to nothing about how a career will unfold, the road to hell is paved with eight-game sample sizes, and a franchise that’s historically incapable of developing young talent is playing arguably their most promising draft pick in 35 years more minutes than any Knick rookie since 1987.
Fizdale’s status is somewhat in question. So is whether that’s fair. Sure, his rotations can be head-scratching, as are the team’s offensive and defensive identities (or lack thereof). Fizdale is no stranger to early days angst: Memphis fired him 19 games into his second season. And New York is as fickle with coaches and draft picks. Owner James Dolan has hired nine coaches this century. The only one to last as long as three full seasons was Mike D’Antoni. Like Fizdale, D’Antoni wasn’t expected to win his first year, or his second. He got about two-thirds of a year to run his system before Dolan made the Carmelo Anthony trade and D’Antoni’s job description went from “Do your thing” to “You know that guy who’s the single-most antithetical player alive to your system? Here.”
Remember why Fizdale was hired. It wasn’t because of rotations or Xs and Os. It was because of his communication skills and player development rep. So does it matter that he’s 18-72 in New York? Or that Barrett, Knox, Robinson have all flourished enough under his watch to suggest they’re the first glimpses of what’s past the horizon? What does it say when a franchise gives a coach maybe a year to do what he was hired to, then changes the job description? What does it say when only eight games into the change, fans are ready to give up?
We don’t know if Fiz is in danger, or whether there’s a clear-cut answer to how many minutes Barrett should play. We kind of do know a culture of high-turnover and low-trust — and Knick culture, for however much it’s metastasized under Dolan, includes strains that precede his ownership — leads people to seek a new direction, even after eight games, because when your eyes are always on the horizon, the here-and-now can get as ugly as ugly gets. Knick fans know salvation is prophesied to take the form of young multidimensional talent, and that they have one in Barrett, yet their culture also means failing its youths. How do you hope when what you know you need collides with what you know you can’t have? One must imagine Charlie Brown happy.