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OK, NOW it's Rock Bottom
That is, of course, until tomorrow.
I was on the train this morning, clipping some plays from last night’s game in an effort to show how the Knicks’ defense is completely broken and why it might be time to make a coaching change after all (not that it’ll fix much…more on that in a bit), when I had an epiphany.
It came as I was analyzing the sixth Denver 3-point shot of the night, one that would start a stretch of eight makes in 11 attempts from deep - so basically a layup line conversion rate - and it hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. I didn’t even bother with the clip, opting for a screenshot instead, because so perfect a symbol for a team and an organization at a given moment in time, I’d never before seen in my life:
On its face, it’s a great example of why the Knicks “wall off the paint” defense is fraught.
Earlier in the possession, Mitchell Robinson - the best young shot blocker the league has seen in some time - was switched onto Will Barton, because the Knicks switch everything now. But Mitch was also serving as the rim protection on the floor, so (as he’s instructed to do), he left his man to help wall of the paint and help Mook defend the man with the ball, Nikola Jokic. Jokic - maybe the best pure passer in the league today - could have made the pass to an open Barton with a blindfold on while holding a turkey on rye. It’s unclear which of RJ or Julius was supposed to make the next rotation, but as we see from above, does it really matter?
And finally, for the real kicker: the Knicks were leading this game even after this shot splashed through the net.
That, more than anything, is why the last stragglers in Fizdale’s corner have abandoned their post this morning, and there is a universal expectation not of if, but when (my guess? It happens before they go west).
There is talent on this team, or so the saying goes. For as haphazardly as they may or may not have been tossed together like a salad made with whatever happened to be in the fridge, they should be better than this. A bowl of olives, egg whites, craisins and kale is still edible, after all (I guarantee you this exists on a menu somewhere in Park Slope. Keep reppin’ those Biggie jerseys, though…)
It’s all fair. By any measure, he has done a poor job coaching this team. The lack of meaningful movement on this offense is staggering on some possessions. I mean, when this is how the first offensive sequence of the game ends, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong:
The defense that has looked downright competent in spurts this season has also fallen off a cliff. Whether it’s because guys are no longer making the extra effort, because they’re over-committing to a fraught scheme in a sort of subtle mutiny, or simply because they’re being exposed by better teams is immaterial. Their fourth quarter defensive rating – now down to 24th in the NBA after last night – speaks to the fact that maybe they were never really close to a breakthrough.
Last night’s effort may have been the final straw. Despite our collective reactions to Monday’s curb stomp, every team is entitled to a dud, most especially a bad one on the road against the best team in the league. Their response was always going to speak more about their level of commitment to this coach than the game itself. At home, against a Denver team that had lost two in a row, we got our answer.
All that being said, now I’m going to get myself into some trouble, because for as much as Fiz has been part of the problem, maybe a big part, firing Fiz is no more the solution than replacing the team’s PR department with Dennis Smith Jr. and instructing him that any tweet which doesn’t involve slangin’ wood is a tweet not worthy of being sent.
Don’t get me wrong; I get why it’s tempting to place the lion’s share of the blame on Fizdale. If we do that, all of us who defended this offseason (raises hand proudly from corner of room, dunce cap squarely positioned atop head) don’t look like complete assholes. And really, no one wants to look like an asshole.
But it’s time we all took a good, hard look in the mirror, and for that, I turn to none other than the man whose name this newsletter bears:
For this weird science experiment to work, we all had to have some trust.
We had to trust that the front office sat down with their coach and mapped out a style of play that would accentuate the seemingly mismatched strengths that did (and do) exist on this roster.
We had to trust that, given the pure number of subpar defenders and lack of plus shooting on this roster, not to mention a true lead guard (at least in the modern sense), such a style would probably involve running like hell, constant movement on offense, and playing a rotation of 12 guys to accommodate that sort of constant overdrive.
We had to trust that they would lean into the strengths of this team (multiple ball-handlers, especially big ones) and not only have anyone who grabbed a defensive rebound be ready to grab and go, but also get a bunch of different folks involved in the pick and roll.
We had to trust that they’d figure out a way to lean into their one true match up advantage: the human lob that is Mitchell Robinson (Speaking of Mitch, we had to trust that there was a plan for how to incorporate him with Julius Randle, whether it was to stagger them, or surround them with three shooters anytime they were on the court at the same time. See Zach Lowe’s excellent look at this shortfall from earlier today for more info.)
We had to trust that all these power forwards everyone laughed at would combine to form the best screen-setting team in the league.
We had to trust that the few shooters on this team would be used strategically and sprinkled generously throughout every lineup so as to vaguely resemble a modern offense, and that they’d consistently and smartly utilize everyone as a cutter to get water from this potential rock of an offense.
We had to trust that that would embrace the three and ditch the mid-range.
We had to trust that certain guys - namely, Julius Randle and Marcus Morris - would drastically divert from their preferred style of play in favor of the greater good, accept playing fewer minutes, and that all of this was made clear to them from jump street.
In short, we had to trust that this offseason wasn’t throwing a bunch of shit against the wall.
The Knicks sit 28th in pace
They’re dead last in frequency of cuts
Julius Randle and Marcus Morris rank 11th and 42nd in isolation possessions per game, respectively (and even this is deceiving because of the slow pace)
Randle (tied for 10th), Mook and Bobby Portis (both tied for 23rd) are also among the league leaders in post-ups per game
They have fewer completed pick and rolls per game than all but five teams
Mitch, specifically, is too often relegated an afterthought. His 1.8 roll man possessions per game is tied for 50th in the NBA
You can choose to put all of the above on David Fizdale (and again, to be clear, he’s anything but free from blame), but so much of the above comes from giving into the desires of the team’s dominant players and personalities - Julius Randle chief among them, with Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis not far behind.
It isn’t an accident that besides RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, these three have been the only Knicks to stick in the rotation every game. They were all but anointed as team leaders early and often.
Because of this, they have collectively played far too many minutes, and instead of always having either Randle or Morris on the court at the same time, they too often play together. Both are averaging 32 minutes a night. They have also played 511 minutes together, second most of any combo on the team.
Again, blame all of this on Fiz if you want, but if you don’t think certain promises were made when these guys came aboard, you’re nuts.
Either way, the team that was constructed is a house of cards. So much needed to go so right for this to ever work, including a coach that could bring it all together. If the front office knew that this coach wasn’t the guy to take on this challenge - and again, it can’t be emphasized enough how great a challenge this was - then they should have gone a different path and brought in guys who would have made for an easier fit. Guys who didn’t demand the ball in inopportune ways. Guys who were really good at being supporting players, and handing the roster over to the kids from Day One. It’s the reason I wrote way back in June that Thad Young would have made a lot more sense on this particular roster than the more talented Randle.
But that would have required the front office to go to James Dolan with their tail between their legs on June 30 and admit “we lost.” Instead they got a flashy former lottery pick who averaged 21 and 8 last season. When they brought in Morris, there was no concern given to overlap, and how such an addition of 30+ more minutes a night to an already crowded roster might have very serious, very negative trickle down effects.
Is all of this a bit unfair? What if Reggie Bullock - someone who at least provides some of the things this team is missing - was healthy, and his injury never occurred? Or more big picture-esque, didn’t we all drink the KD/Kyrie Kool-Aide, and shouldn’t we all take some responsibility and accept the fact that we deserved to be left with coal when that plan didn’t come to fruition?
Here’s the thing though: going all in without a real contingency plan is the definition of poor management. Maybe they couldn’t have prepped Dolan for the possibility of failure without losing their jobs, and maybe this was the best way to go about preserving their employment, in which case, who could blame them. When people talk about a culture of fear, that’s what they mean. I was reminded of this when I saw what I thought was JB’s most important tweet of the night:
Until that fear subsides, it won’t matter who is the coach of this team, or for that matter, who is in a position to acquire the players on the roster. Phil Jackson and Donnie Walsh both had the closest thing we’ve seen to ultimate authority on all things basketball. One got fired when he pushed things too far, and the other slowly, silently parted ways, as opposed to quitting outright, because he’s the ultimate class act.
That picture I started the newsletter with? It hit me like a ton of bricks because that is the Knicks organization right now: flailing in the nearest direction of seeming importance. We look towards individual failures, when really, the system is at fault.
By the time you read this, Fizdale will probably be gone. In his place will be someone who may be able to make some adjustments, but my money would be on the fact that they won’t be enough to make a difference.
Once that happens, perhaps this will be a wake up call that the way of doing things needs to change, or maybe this latest go ‘round as the league laughing stock will be enough to finally get Dolan to take bids.
Either way, systematic change must take place. Until it does, everything else - including the coach - is secondary.
Welcome to rock bottom.