To absolutely no one’s surprise—outside of Madison Square Garden, anyway—the New York Knicks are a complete and total tire fire only 10 games into the 2019-20 season.
After ruining Kristaps Porzingis’ #RevengeGame on Friday with a 106-102 win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Knicks returned home two days later only to get blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 108-87.
That loss dropped them to 2-8 on the season. Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry addressed reporters after the game to express their disappointment.
“Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now,” Mills said. “We think the team is not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at, and that’s something that we think we collectively have to do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season.”
On Monday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews reported that prior to the “startling news conference,” Mills “had started to lay the internal groundwork for the eventual dismissal of coach David Fizdale.”
“Mills is selling owner James Dolan on a roster constructed to be highly competitive in the Eastern Conference, leaving Fizdale vulnerable to an ouster only weeks into the second season of a four-year contract that league sources say is worth $22 million,” Wojnarowski and Andrews reported.
Although Fizdale deserves his fair share of the blame for the Knicks’ miserable start to the season, he’s far from the only guilty party.
It was not difficult to foresee how the Knicks’ offseason Plan B—after striking out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency—could backfire. Signing a quartet of power forwards (Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris) put Fizdale in an impossible position, as there aren’t enough minutes for all four 4s.
Fizdale has tinkered with lineups featuring Randle or Portis at the 5, but that limits the amount of playing time for second-year center Mitchell Robinson, who is one of the Knicks’ highest-upside prospects. Although his foul rate remains unsustainably high—he’s averaging 3.1 fouls in only 17.6 minutes per game—it’s unconscionable for a Knicks team that’s barreling straight toward the lottery not to prioritize his development.
Inconsistent rotations have been the chief complaint about Fizdale dating back to last year. Morris, Randle and rookie RJ Barrett are the only Knicks averaging at least 30 minutes per game, while eight other players (!) have played at least 100 minutes during the team’s first 10 games. The Knicks have already trotted out six different starting lineups, which doesn’t afford players the opportunity to grow acclimated with one another.
NBA players are creatures of habit who often thrive because of routine. If they know they’re going to start every night or will be coming off the bench with four minutes left in the first quarter, they can mentally prepare themselves for what lies ahead. But with Fizdale routinely shuffling players in and out of his rotation, it’s difficult for anyone know what to expect on a night-to-night basis.
Then again, what option does Fizdale have?
Perry and Mills are the ones who cobbled together an ill-fitting roster loaded with power forwards and shooting guards, yet woefully devoid of traditional wings and point guards.
“Rival coaches and executives see a mismatched Knicks roster slow of foot, without legitimate NBA guard play, but Mills is selling Dolan on a poorly coached team that is underachieving at 2-8 to start the season,” Wojnarowski and Andrews reported.
From a talent perspective, it’s fair to argue that the Knicks are underperforming. They go 10-plus deep in terms of NBA-caliber rotation players, although point guards Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr. have been limited to four and three games, respectively.
With their top two point guards out, the Knicks have been forced to turn to forward- and big-heavy lineups that struggle to create offense. They’ve averaged a league-low 99.3 points per 100 possessions on offense and have the NBA’s worst net rating at minus-10.2 as a result.
Payton has already been ruled out for Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Bulls, but Smith, who hasn’t played since Oct. 26 as he mourns the unexpected death of his stepmother, could be nearing a return. Having another guard who can create offense for both himself and others could do wonders for the Knicks, although Smith won’t single-handedly pull them out of their early-season tailspin.
This was always the most likely outcome for the Knicks.
By signing Portis, Gibson, Payton, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock to two-year contracts with second-year team options or lightly guaranteed salaries, they effectively hired a band of veteran mercenaries who had every reason to focus on stat-padding rather than team success. They know they’re playing for their next contract and likely don’t have a long-term future in New York, which incentivizes selfish play.
Blame for that falls upon Mills and Perry—and on Dolan, to some extent—rather than Fizdale.
Fizdale isn’t the one who panic-signed a bunch of overlapping veterans after striking out on Durant and Irving in free agency this summer. He isn’t the one who traded Kristaps Porzingis for Smith and two future first-round picks in February, clearing the requisite salary-cap space for Durant and Irving and setting the stage for a go-big-or-go-home summer.
When Durant and Irving spurned the Knicks to sign with the crosstown Brooklyn Nets, Perry and Mills likely felt enormous pressure to make fans forget about the Porzingis trade. Although their plan to corner the market on power forwards may eventually pay off—the Portland Trail Blazers seem like a logical trade partner come Dec. 15, when free agents who sign this summer become eligible to be traded—they have more than a month before beginning to entertain that possibility.
Until then, Fizdale will have to choose between continuing to run out 10 or 11 players each night or trimming the fat on his rotations at the expense of some veterans’ trade value. Either way, he’s likely to continue finding himself in hot water with Mills and Perry.
And ultimately, as Jason Concepcion of The Ringer noted, there’s been one common denominator with the Knicks’ rampant dysfunction over the past two decades.
If a team sucks for a couple of years, maybe that's on the coach. If it sucks for five or six years, that's on management. If it sucks for 20+ years that's on the person hiring the managers. https://t.co/ALfFKS4VAd
— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) November 11, 2019
During a radio interview in early October, Durant delivered what should have been a wake-up call to the Knicks.
“I think a lot of fans look at the Knicks as a brand and expect these younger players who, in their lifetime, don’t remember the Knicks being good. I didn’t grow up with the Knicks,” he said. “I’ve seen the Knicks in the Finals, but kids coming up after me didn’t see that. So that whole brand of the Knicks to them is not as cool as, let’s say, the Golden State Warriors or even the Lakers or the Nets now.”
The Knicks can’t keep pinning their hopes on luring marquee free agents, even though they have the allure of New York and Madison Square Garden working for them. They’re so far removed from championship contention that no top-tier superstar will sign with them until they can prove they’re being run competently.
In essence, the Knicks need to trick themselves into acting like a small-market franchise that prioritizes player development and savvy exploitation of salary-cap maneuvers. If they allow Portis, Morris, Gibson, Ellington, Payton and/or Bullock to walk next summer, they shouldn’t be looking to splurge on the splashiest free agent with their available cap space. Instead, they should use that cap room to take on bad contracts if it nets them future draft picks and/or young, out-of-favor prospects.
Until the Knicks realize just how far away they are from returning to legitimate competitiveness, they’ll keep making the same mistakes every offseason. Firing Fizdale—or even Perry and Mills!—won’t fix that so long as the impetuous Dolan remains in charge.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.