Moving Forward

Amidst the sky falling, let's start charting a path forward

We’ve all been there.

The breakup that has us sitting in a dark room, knee deep into a second bag of Haribo Gold Bears, listening to Jagged Little Pill on repeat, wiping tears with our remaining shreds of dignity after she ended things in the damn airport drop off zone.

(Just me? Maybe just me.)

Regardless of how bad it gets, at some point you have to put your pants back on and get back out into the world, even if it is just to make a Taco Bell run and quickly return to the weekly Law & Order marathon.

Face it: the last 36 hours have been rough, even by the standards of Knicks fandom. Like I wrote yesterday, it all but put a nail in the coffin of any hope that this season would be more than an 82-game prelude to “What’s next?”

That’s what happens when games start to become meaningless, at least where a greater in-season goal is concerned. Sure, RJ Barrett ($1.01 per PredictionStrike share, -25%) and Mitchell Robinson ($2.37, +6%) and the rest of the lot have a chance to get better every time they step on the court, regardless of the circumstances. But there’s a difference between performing when something real is on the line and when something isn’t.

I’ve written and said many times that I don’t know what “culture” is in the NBA, but that it is real, and you know it when you see it. Guys playing for more than just individual stats, even in meaningless games, is a good sign.

In so many years past, this didn’t matter for the Knicks because the only question hanging over the majority of every season was “How fast can we get these guys out of here?” That started to change last year, with the arrival of a new coach, and a couple of young guys we thought might be around for a while.

Now, RJ Barrett, Iggy Brazdeikis ($4.00, +100%) and for all intents and purposes Frank Ntilikina ($0.19, no change), who may have finally escaped red-headed stepchild status, have been added to that list. The urgency has increased that much more. The rest of the season cannot be a waste. Too much has already been invested and too much is still on the line.

Here, then, are the questions of the hour: what coach and what roster makeup will help make the most of the rest of this year?

Who should coach this team?

Let’s start here, as it’s both the easier and more complicated change to make. David Fizdale is going to be the fall guy. Whether that’s fair or not, at this point, is almost immaterial. As I argued on Monday night’s podcast, there’s evidence that even now, the things causing issues on this team - even aside from the clunky roster - are outside of his control.

At the same time, he hasn’t done himself any favors (for a deeper explanation on that, just follow @ShwinnyPooh on Twitter. I don’t always agree with him, but he has valid points). After over 100 games, we don’t know what he wants his ideal Knick team to look like on offense, and his defense of choice (as I’ll be examining in depth later this week) raises questions as to its long term viability, regardless of the players involved.

Perhaps most damning, on Monday night, in a game his team should have put forth their best effort of the season, they didn’t show up thinking they could win (his words, not mine). As a result, the last defense of the Fizdale regime - that his guys bought into what he was preaching - took a major hit.

Thus, barring the most improbable local turnaround since the ‘69 Mets, he will be out. The only question is when. Here’s the tricky part: a major argument for axing him (that his guys may be starting to tune him out) is also the best one for keeping him, because nothing says “no accountability” like the words “interim coach.”

That’s not to say there aren’t good candidates. Kaleb Canales, who became the youngest head coach in NBA history when he nabbed the interim title in Portland after Nate McMillan was let go and before Terry Stotts was hired, has an infectious positivity about him that needs to be seen to be believed. A five-year veteran of Rick Carlisle’s staff in Dallas before joining Fiz here, there’s an argument that he’s exactly the type of spirited presence a young team needs, especially one with a perpetual black cloud following around the franchise they play for.

Then there’s Mike Miller, the 2017-18 G-League Coach of the Year in Westchester, an achievement previously garnered by the likes of Quin Snyder and Nic Nurse, among others.

The year Miller won, the WC Knicks had the fourth best defense in the G-League, and were second last season. Much like Fizdale’s crew, last year they gave up a healthy number of threes and a decent percentage, but unlike the big club, successfully and consistently walled off the paint.

While that defense won them 32 games in 2017-18, it also worked in part because they played at the second slowest pace in the league. They also had the sixth lowest assist percentage. Even less encouraging, last season Westchester took the lowest percentage of field goal attempts from deep in the league after finishing fourth from the bottom the year before. All of these stats are a reminder that the organization has a style of play they seem to believe in, and swapping out Fiz for Miller, Canales or Pat Riley isn’t likely to change that.

In the end, they should go with whoever has the greatest chance of keeping camaraderie at its highest. Jim Boylan showed us last year that a coach willing to shake things up may actually wind up sticking around for a bit (the Bulls are an almost decent 7-14 with a negative 3.4 net rating this year, but have had their fare share of ups and downs)

Regardless of who it is though, there’s a bigger elephant in the room that will remain an issue for as long as he’s here…

Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?

A popular refrain from this day forward will be that every minute given to a veteran and not to one of the nine first, second or third year players on this roster is a minute wasted.

With apologies, this is utter idiocy. Even aside from accountability concerns, players grow better in stable situations, and the more they can rely on the guy next to them to do their job, the easier it will be for them to do theirs. If one of the young players clearly isn’t able to willing to buy into what you’re selling, playing them 20 minutes a night just because isn’t forward thinking, it’s foolish.

Of course there’s also a balance to this, and it certainly isn’t the status quo…which gets us to the elephant in the room: Julius Randle.

I railed on Randle ($2.49, -8%) pretty good yesterday, both on the pod and here, and I admittedly feel kind of bad. It’s not his fault that he was promised he’d have every chance to score in bunches upon signing here. He is a client of CAA, which has an ignominious history with the club (just google any combination of “Knicks,” “James Dolan,” “CAA,” and our old friend, “Andrea Bargnani”).

I remain convinced that Randle’s resistance to eschew any and all post-ups or ISO’s (because even one is too many, or so the numbers say) goes above Fizdale’s head. Will another coach get him to, oh, I don’t know…actually set an occasional screen, move meaningfully without the ball on offense, or not do shit like this:

(That’s a play from the night before Thanksgiving featuring Randle inexplicably falling asleep on a wide open OG Anunoby from deep even though Taj was covering middle, and then leaking out in transition despite an offensive rebound, which led to another 3-attempt, which went down.

I went back and watched all 41 Raptor 3-point attempts from that game, and grouped them into good D, passable D, bad D, and inexcusably bad D. I counted seven instances of the last category. Randle was involved in six.)

I doubt a new coach changes much of any of this, but you never know.

Can Randle help the development of the young players on this team? Yeah, he can. He’s the only player on the roster besides (occasionally) RJ Barrett who draws the attention of a defense, and that opens up opportunities for teammates. That has happened some this year.

It hasn’t happened nearly enough though, at least not to justify the negatives. That’s not necessarily Randle’s fault, but the fact remains that the idealized vision for this team had Randle being the best version of himself - better than anything he’s consistently shown throughout his career but which we’ve seen in snippets here and there. That version might have helped coalesce the motley crew this front office put together, and the plan everyone has mocked since June 30 might have actually worked.

Instead, he’s just been…himself. That player has a role in this league, and honestly in the right situation, his production might justify his salary. It’s just not here.

If the Knicks did unload him, they would undoubtedly struggle more, not less, as a result. His shot-making has occasionally kept them in games, and he seems (at times) to have genuinely embraced his role as a leader of a young roster. He has tried mightily to make the right play more often than not, even though that effort and the accompanying results have been inconsistent at best.

It is a classic example of taking one step backwards to take two steps forward. The sooner this offense runs through RJ Barrett and the Knicks’ young point guards, the better off they’ll be for it long term, even if it will be incredibly ugly at times (but really, is the alternative any better at this point?)

Better yet, whoever is in Randle’s place should move without the ball and be someone defenses respect from outside, both of which will make life easier in his absence.

Will it happen? Who knows. It would be the ultimate admission of failure by the front office, and might cost a job or two in the process. Or maybe, if the return were sizable enough, it might buy them some more time. Either way, it’s the right move.

The rest of the vets can stay. If Marcus Morris ($3.35, no change) can’t get them a first, I’d actually prefer to keep him for the year. I’m nothing if not a gullible consumer of any and all Fizdale press conference snippets, but I buy the stuff about Morris being instrumental to holding this team together (the cell phone won’t call itself at 3 am, after all). That has incredible value, and not one I’d be looking to throw away for a middling return.

I have genuinely no idea which approach they’ll take, but I imagine we will start getting answers to these questions soon. If it’s one thing that’s true about this club, it’s that the status quo never stays the status quo for long.

Right now, that’s probably for the best.