The Knicks have gone full rebuild and their lineup is arranged appropriately with an average age of 22.6. But the four most important pieces have been spectators to David Fizdale’s creation.
One of them, Kristaps Porzingis, isn’t going to play any time soon, and may not step on the court before becoming a restricted free agent in July. The second, Kevin Knox, is recovering from an ankle sprain and will play again next week. He competed in a 3-on-3 scrimmage Saturday and is on track for activation Wednesday against the Hawks. The third important piece is still in college as the Knicks’ 2019 draft pick. The fourth is the free agent they’ll sign with their cap space in July.
At least Frank Ntilikina is on the court.
In other words, Fizdale is working with 1/5 of his deck, just in terms of significance toward being a contender. And in that respect, the coach could learn from Brett Brown, who did the same for four seasons in Philly while waiting for the health and arrivals of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
I once asked Brown about how he dealt with the avalanche of losing, and he articulated, quite convincingly, how he could make progress with a 75-253 record. Despite coaching the worst roster in the league, Brown kept the environment positive and held everybody accountable. Along the way, he developed lynchpins like Robert Covington and TJ McConnell.
“We talked lots about relationships and development," Brown said. "We went overboard trying to keep the locker room together and find ways to help people. Along that path, the guys stayed together. …We could lose 20 games in a row, win 10 games in a season, it never got messy.”
That’s all Fizdale and the Knicks can hope for, too, as he waits for the difference makers to show up. It’s progress through losing. Thus far, that process has been encouraging despite the 3-6 record. Ntilikina is getting better. Mitchell Robinson, the second round pick, is showing potential of sticking in the NBA. Undrafted Allonzo Trier has been plucky off the bench.
Tim Hardaway Jr. remains Tim Hardaway Jr.: a strong scorer as long as he’s shooting well, with deficiencies on defense. On a contender, Hardaway’s the fourth option or coming off the bench. On the Knicks, he’s taking 20 shots per game.
Fizdale, just like Brown, is the perfect spokesman for such a team. He’s the star personality because they need him to be right now, because the Knicks star (Porzingis) hasn’t spoken to the media since September.
Take, for instance, Fizdale’s answer about Sunday’s opponent, the Wizards, who are the hottest mess in the NBA with a 1-7 record. The coach has a way of saying something interesting or entertaining without ever making it inflammatory.
“Nothing shocks me anymore, to be honest. You just don’t know what’s going on in another person’s building. Ron Rothstein (former longtime NBA assistant coach) used to always say that,” Fizdale said. “Even when you think you’re the most screwed up team in the world, never underestimate how screwed up somebody else is. But that’s just this league. It goes in ups and downs and waves. And it’s the teams that can really stand the test of all of that end up having success for years.”
Of course, rebuilding is not an exact science. At the end of last season, Brown and the Sixers were the shining of examples of doing it correctly. But now it’s easier to talk about how they screwed it up by drafting Markelle Fultz and going through the 2018 free agency with a brain freeze.
Even great development can be a curse. The Heat is widely regarded as the best at extracted the most talent out of its players, but that won’t get Pat Riley’s squad out of mediocrity if the baseline is below average. Miami turned Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson and James Johnson into better players than anticipated. Then Miami rewarded them with huge contracts, leaving it out of the conversation of contenders for the foreseeable future.