Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) After back-to-back Knicks blowout losses, David Fizdale job watch is on. Eight losses in a row. The last two were by 44 points at Milwaukee then by 37 points Thursday night to Denver — games where the Knicks didn’t show much fight (except for Marcus Morris, who literally seems to be looking for a fight every game). Things are bad with the 4-18 Knicks. Historically bad.
That has ramped up the “David Fizdale Job Watch” around Madison Square Garden (and all over NBA Twitter). The Knicks have the worst offense in the NBA this season, a bottom-10 defense, and their energy level appears to be dropping with each game. Even Fizdale called the team’s effort “sickening” after Thursday’s loss.
The coach’s firing now feels inevitable, with the only question being when — and the rumor is soon. It was clear when team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry were forced to talk to the media a dozen games ago — after an ugly 21-point home loss to the Cavaliers — that Fizdale was going to be the scapegoat for a full organization that deserves blame. Mills said at the time he wanted to see “consistent effort” from the Knicks, that hasn’t happened of late.
These last two losses — where the Knicks were increasingly listless — seemed to turn up the flame and now everyone is waiting for that pot to boil over. (The reports on Twitter that the Mills, Perry, and owner James Dolan were not in their seats at the end of the game were not completely accurate, Mills was until the final minute. The three were talking after the game, but that is not unusual.)
Mid-season coaching changes rarely jumpstart teams — there is precious little practice time in the NBA, and it’s nearly impossible for a new coach to make systemic changes. The rotation can be tweaked, players can be put in better/different positions, but any spark tends to be short-lived.
There are really only a couple of reasons that a mid-season coaching change makes sense. One is that the coach management really wants is out there and the franchise needs to move before another team snaps him up (think Sacramento forcing out 11-13 Mike Malone so they could eventually get George Karl, who went 11-21 that season). When (it’s not really an “if” anymore) Fizdale is let go, one the coaches currently in the organization is expected to get the job — Mike Miller, Pat Sullivan, Jud Buechler, Keith Smart, Kaleb Canales — and they do not fit the “he’s our guy” criteria.
The other reason to fire mid-season is that the situation in the locker room and around the team is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. That is a case that can be made.
Still, we all know the real problem in New York goes higher up the ladder. This was never a playoff roster, but the organization seemed to sell itself — and sold ownership — that it was, which has led to disappointment. There is some young talent on the roster — rookie RJ Barrett shows flashes, Mitchell Robinson has potential — but sticking with one coach, one system, and being patient through a rebuild has never worked for Dolan and New York. It always seems to be the search for the next free agent, the next quick fix, and because of that instability free agents are leery of coming to Manhattan (a couple of them found that stability in Brooklyn last summer).
James Dolan has owned the team for two decades now, he took over near the end of the Jeff Van Gundy era. This season will mark the seventh straight the team has missed the playoffs, and they will have been out of the top eight in 13 of the last 16 seasons. Dolan has been the one constant through all the GMs and coaches in that era.
There are rumors Dolan wants to lure Masai Ujiri out of Toronto. We’ll see. What smart front office people will want in New York is total control — not just of the basketball decisions but of the personnel throughout the Knicks front office. Sources have told me others who spoke to the Knicks for the top executive job previously wanted to clean house throughout the basketball staff (to bring in their guys and force out the entrenched people) and that has met with resistance.
Just don’t expect Dolan to sell the team. That’s not happening. The best Knicks fans can hope for is that he brings in a smart head of basketball operations, gives that person total control, then gets out of the way. For years and years, allowing for the ups and downs of a rebuild. But if we haven’t seen that after two decades…
2) James Harden scores “just” 23, Russell Westbrook has triple-double, Rockets pick up a quality win over Raptors. Houston is not going to protest this one.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse had a game plan — trap James Harden, do it 40-feet from the basket sometimes, but do not let that man beat you. Force someone else to make shots, even if they are open threes. Part of that plan worked, Harden had just three shots in the first half and finished well below his season scoring average with just 23 points on the night.
Toronto’s problem was the other guys did step up. Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House Jr. shot 10-of-19 from three in the first half and had 41 points combined before halftime. For the game, Russell Westbrook had a 19-point triple-double, while McLemore led the team with 28 points on 18 shots.
Toronto’s other problem is that Houston played better defense and Pascal Siakam went scoreless in the fourth quarter (he did have a team-high 24 for the night). When their star struggled, the rest of the Raptors went cold, shooting 6-of-17 in the fourth with six turnovers. That’s not going to get it done against anyone.
3) Rookie Rui Hachimura is playing fairly well in Washington, scores 27 to lead Wizards past Sixers. In what has been a surprisingly down rookie class, Washington is starting to get something out of Rui Hachimura.
In his last four games, the Japanese national — and there is a media contingent from Japan following him around — is averaging 22 points a game. Against Philadelphia on Thursday he may have had his best game as a pro, scoring 27 points on 18 shots, with seven rebounds, and two steals. He led the Wizards to an upset win against the 76ers, 119-113 (Philly continues to struggle on the road)
The long-term concern with Hachimura is that he’s a mid-range shooter — he took six of his 18 shots from there on Thursday (making four), and for the season more than 30 percent of his shots have come between 10 feet out and the arc. Hachimura can get those shots at will and is hitting them at a good clip, but it’s not what teams are looking for on a consistent basis (unless DeMar DeRozan is your idealized player). Midrange shots are a good weapon for a scorer to have, but teams want that as more of a fallback. His 22 percent three-point shooting needs to improve to become a real scoring threat in the future.
However, in a rookie class where the biggest star has yet to step on the court, and other guys are struggling, Hachimura is starting to stand out as a good pick by Washington.