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David Fizdale focused on foundation, not wins this season for Knicks

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This is the first of NBC’s NBA preview stories, with at least one a day appearing on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, starting with the Knicks.

Phil Jackson was once in this exact same spot, saying almost the exact same things.

When he was hired, the Zen Master talked about changing the culture of the New York Knicks. He talked about defense, about building slowly and laying a foundation that would last long beyond his tenure in New York. He promised sustained success.

Then he decided to shortcut all of that and go get Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee and try to win now with what was left of Carmelo Anthony’s career. (He did a lot of other things wrong, too, in the name of the triangle.) When that inevitably failed, the Knicks were back to square one and stuck with contracts that are still an anchor on the franchise today. If there has been one consistent thing from the Knicks for more than a decade now, it has been taking the quick fix.

For the Knicks, the 2018-19 season is about getting back to foundation building. This time patiently. No shortcuts. No skipping steps.

“Culture and accountability. I’ll be putting those words on walls in a lot of places” new coach David Fizdale said at his introductory press conference. “They’re very cliché in a lot of ways, but I’ve really learned through my experience that I’ve gotten to live a lot of these words and fail through these words and achieve great things with these words and I hope I’d be able to communicate that and share that with these group of men. It takes so much to win in this league and if one person is off in one way it crumbles.”

Fizdale — with Steve Mills and Scott Perry running the front office — have talked about culture, accountability, building slowly, laying a foundation that will last through Kristaps Porzingis’ tenure and beyond.

Those need to be more than words this season — which starts with patience and buy-in from owner James Dolan. Not a man exactly known for those things. Dolan is the reason for the constantly shifting tides and sense of paranoia that seems to pervade the organization. Fizdale, Mills, and Perry all said they had a commitment from Dolan to do this the right way this time. No step skipping. Dolan needs to stick with that, and those three need to manage their owner when he starts to read tabloid headlines about his team and gets an itch.

With this being Fizdale’s first season, those three should have room to operate for a while, which makes the 2018-19 Knicks season about Fizdale building a foundation — not about wins or making the playoffs this season. (It’s not impossible that happens in an East that gets a little shaky around those final few playoff slots, but decisions can’t be made with that as the goal.) It’s about not “skipping steps,” a phrase that came up repeatedly (almost to the point of annoyance) when Fizdale was introduced as the Knicks’ coach.

The first step? When asked at that press conference what the first thing he needed to establish, Fizdale didn’t hesitate: “Player relationships.” Weeks later, he backed that up by getting on a plane and flying to Latvia and meeting with Porzingis in Europe. A meeting that reportedly went well. Fizdale challenged him.

“The best way to describe him is he’s the future of the NBA,” Fizdale said. “Look around who’s playing (deep in the postseason). They all got guys super long, super athletic, super skilled, super tough-minded. He fits all of the qualities of a megastar and a guy who can really propel a franchise forward to high places.”

All true, but it will not help the Knicks on the court in the short term, Porzingis remains out following a torn ACL and his return date uncertain (my guess is we see him later in the season, but he could miss it all). In the short term, Fizdale needs to develop other players, starting with building the game of rookie Kevin Knox, who showed a lot of potential at Summer League.

Then Fizdale needs to work with and decide how good Frank Ntilikina really is (he did not impress in Las Vegas this summer). Is a change of scenery and a new coach what Mario Hezonja needed to get closer to his potential? Where does the talented but raw rookie Mitchell Robinson fit in?

None of those players mentioned above have even turned 24 yet — player development is going to be crucial for the Knicks. Not just this season, either, but critical if the Knicks are going to draw a big free agent next summer (big names will want to know the Knicks core is ready to take the next steps).

Next on the agenda, Fizdale has to make the defense respectable — and make playing hard on defense part of that new team culture. The last time the Knicks had a defense in the top half of the league it was 2012, and you were still listening to “Gangnam Style” and “Call Me Maybe.”

“I want to get up and down the court. I want to share the basketball. I want to attack the paint. But none of that will start without us being a great defensive team,” Fizdale said. “You know, we’re going to be a team that really plays a pressure, physical style of basketball. Get a lot of deflections, try to get a lot of steals, get into the open court, earn the right to go play a more free-flowing, attacking style of offense.”

That attacking offense will be more modern and positionless if Fizdale has his way.

“You hear him talk a lot about positionless basketball, not being afraid to try different combinations,” Mills said. “With where the game is going today, that’s a really appealing quality that he brings.”

Last season, the Knicks shot selection sucked — they were third worst in the league in percentage of shots either at the rim or from three. Expect that to change. Fizdale’s problems with Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies became trying to drag a veteran team into the modern age against its will (and not handling those relationships well enough), but with the Knicks he will not meet that resistance.

Does that mean what Knicks fans have begged for — more Porzingis at the five?

“Why limit it? Why put a ceiling on it?” Fizdale said. “I just see so many different ways to use him. Obviously, if you play him at some 5, it’s like that super-lineup you’re always seeing from different teams—I don’t even know how you match up with him. He can play some 4. If you have another speed guy at the 4, you might even be able to play positionless.”

It all sounds good, but getting that foundation in place this season will be a bumpy ride. Mistakes will come and players will have to learn from them. Wins will not be easy to come by, losses will pile up. This is New York, the pressure will come with those losses. Fizdale and the Knicks have to focus past all that on the long term — it’s not about this season. It’s about the foundation, it’s about the culture.

Install that right, get Porzingis back, land a free agent next summer, then the focus changes. But to get there, the Knicks have to learn the lessons of Phil Jackson — and so many before him — and can’t start skipping steps. That is the most significant culture change needed at Madison Square Garden.

Video: Carmelo Anthony says he’d have won 2-3 titles if drafted by Detroit

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In an Instagram Live chat with friend Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony said he’d “have won 2-3 championships if drafted by the Detroit Pistons:

Anthony was drafted third overall in the 2003 NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets. LeBron James went off the board first to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pistons then drafted Darko Milicic with the second pick. Chris Bosh was drafted fourth by the Toronto Raptors, and Wade was selected with the fifth pick by the Miami Heat.

James, Wade and Bosh would famously team up in Miami seven years later. Those three and Anthony all put together Hall of Fame careers. Milicic was another story entirely.

Detroit had that second overall pick by virtue of a 1997 sign-and-trade with the then Vancouver Grizzlies for forward Otis Thorpe. Vancouver didn’t even keep Thorpe for one full season, as he was shipped to the Sacramento Kings at the 1998 trade deadline. By the 2003 draft, the team had moved from Vancouver to Memphis.

The Pistons went on to win the championship in 2003-04, despite relatively limited production from rookie Milicic. The seven-footer played in just 34 games as a rookie during Detroit’s title run. Milicic then appeared in just 62 games over the next two seasons before he was traded to the Orlando Magic at the 2006 trade deadline.

Despite never living up to his draft position, Milicic did carve out a 10-year NBA career. On the other hand, Anthony blossomed into a 10-time All-Star.

Anthony went on to make six All-NBA teams over the course of his time with the Nuggets and New York Knicks. He holds a career average of 23.6 points per game, but has yet to win that elusive title.

Detroit passing on Anthony is one of the more interesting  what if’s in recent NBA history. The Pistons only got the one championship, but made the Finals back-to-back years. They had a multiple year run of contention behind a core of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamiltion in the backcourt. The frontcourt was anchored by Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. The one thing that group struggled with on occasion was scoring, which Anthony would have provided.

Had Anthony been drafted by the Pistons, he’d likely have a ring and Detroit would have a fourth banner. Who knows? Maybe they’d each have a couple more beyond that.

Former NBA player OJ Mayo to sign in China

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When the Liaoning Flying Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association return to play, they’ll have a familiar face to NBA fans suiting up for them. Liaoning announced they are signing former NBA player O.J. Mayo to a contract for the remainder of this season.

Mayo has been out of the NBA since the end of the 2015-16 season. The scoring guard was banned from the NBA due to a violation of the league’s anti-drug policy. He was eligible for reinstatement at the start of the 2018-19 season.

Since being banned from the NBA, Mayo has signed to play with various clubs in Puerto Rico, Taiwan and with a team in China’s second division.

During his eight-year NBA career, Mayo played for the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks. The 32-year old guard holds a career average of 13.8 points per game on 43/37/82 shooting splits.

With Liaoning, Mayo may suit up alongside former NBA players Lance Stephenson and Brandon Bass. The club announced that Mayo will undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine, after which they expect him to back up Stephenson.

Neither Stephenson nor Bass have returned to China following the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s unclear when either player will return, as the CBA has delayed their return to play until May.

Alabama’s Herbert Jones declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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University of Alabama junior forward Herbert Jones announced via Instagram that he’s declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft:

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All Glory to God 🙏🏽

A post shared by Herb Jones 🛸 (@yung.ch0) on

Jones says he’s declaring while maintaining his eligibility, meaning he could get feedback and choose to return to school.

In his third campaign with the Crimson Tide, Jones turned his best collegiate season. The six-foot-seven forward scored 7.9 points on 48.4% shooting. He also grabbed 6.4 rebounds per game. Jones was also one of Alabama’s best defensive players.

Alabama has also seen starting guard Kira Lewis and John Petty Jr. declare for the draft.

Lewis is expected to be a first-round pick, while Petty and Jones are considered to be late second-round talents.

Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji, DePaul’s Paul Reed declare for NBA draft

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Nobody knows when the NBA Draft is going to take place — like everything with the NBA calendar, it is up in the air — but for college players whose season has ended now is the time to declare and throw their hats in the ring.

Two possible draftees did that Saturday.

Arizona center Zeke Nnaji was one.

The 6’11” Nnaji averaged 16.1 points per game on 57 percent shooting, plus grabbed 8.6 rebounds a game his freshman season at Arizona. In a good sign, he shot 76% from the free throw line, meaning he should be able to space the floor and hit midrangers (and maybe someday threes). He brings a lot of energy to the court, but is considered raw still on both ends of the floor and not an elite defender.

Nnaji is a bubble first-round pick.

The other player coming out is DePaul forward Paul Reed.

A projected first-rounder is a generous description by Charania, Reed is seen more as a second-round pick (and without a Draft Combine or workouts with teams it will be difficult to move up). He’s a 6’9″ power forward who averaged 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds a game this season. Reed shot the three well as a sophomore (40 percent) but regressed this past season. He’s athletic but needs to get stronger, and he needs to be able to fit into a role at the NBA level to last.

That said, he will likely get a chance somewhere to prove he belongs.