David Fizdale’s tenure as New York Knicks coach fits the pattern.
When Fizdale took the Knicks job, he said, “Culture and accountability. I’ll be putting those words on walls in a lot of places” and talked about building a foundation for the franchise. The Knicks were going to build through the draft, find and develop talent, get players who fit their culture, be patient and build the kind of roster that would attract superstar free agents someday.
Except Fizdale (and management) didn’t do any of that. The same way it didn’t work for Phil Jackson in building a culture and identity for the franchise, or Mike D’Antoni, or Isaiah Thomas or Mike Woodson or Lenny Wilkins, or anyone else the Knicks have had in the coach’s seat or front office for the past 20 years — not so coincidentally how long James Dolan’s has owned the team.
The Knicks’ identity has been not hiring the people capable of executing the plan and/or not sticking with the plan long enough to make it work. The Knicks’ identity has become trying to shortcut the process and take big swings, only to miss and fall short.
Fizdale fell into that pattern. Despite his talk of slowly building a culture and foundation, it wasn’t long after Fizdale signed there were reports Knicks would clear out cap space for LeBron James if he wanted to play for Fizdale (LeBron is a fan of Fizdale from their time together in Miami). This past summer, management hoped Fizdale’s popularity with players could help land Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant. Instead, that duo chose to go to another borough — one where the team had been patient, built a culture, and drafted and developed young players into the kind of roster superstars wanted to join.
The Knicks were the Knicks. Fizdale became the scapegoat, and on Friday he was fired as head coach of the New York Knicks.
The pattern was predictable, as was the fact as soon as he was let go, the chorus popped up blaming him for the Knicks woes. “Fizdale was the problem and now the Knicks can search for the right guy.” Except, there is no right guy. At least there will not be until James Dolan hires a top-flight, experienced executive to really build that culture and foundation, then gets out of the way and lets his hire do it (and by out of the way, I mean lets him clean house in basketball operations and change everything, much the way David Griffin did last summer in New Orleans).
Not that Fizdale was blameless in this or shouldn’t have been fired.
Fizdale was essentially the first contestant sent home on an episode of “Chopped” — he was asked to make a meal out of the mismatched basket of ingredients/players that absolutely did not fit together. A basket assembled by team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, a basket with far too many power forward a crop of rookies and second-year players that were going to have prominent roles. Nobody was going turn that group into a competitive playoff team, and the fact that was the expectation of management — and what was sold to Dolan — speaks to the bigger issues.
Fizdale, however, did nothing to turn that basket of players into a respectable team. There are very legitimate reasons for him to be chopped by management — Fizdale did not develop a team identity on either end of the floor, his rotations were head-scratching, and his team seemed listless and disinterested. The Knicks are 4-18, are losers of eight straight, have not been competitive, were blown out by 37+ their last two games, and the Knicks are a team on its way to a seventh consecutive season without a trip to the playoffs, making it 13 out of 16 seasons the Knicks have been home for the postseason.
The Knicks have had 12 coaches in the past 20 years — not exactly a sign of stability and organizational direction. There were good men in that mix. Mike D’Antoni has success in Phoenix before he was in New York, and after he left he has had it in Houston, but the Knicks brought him in and then didn’t build a roster to fit his run-and-gun style. He lasted three-and-a-half seasons, which is the longest tenure of any coach in the Dolan era. Mike Woodson had success in Atlanta (and got the Knicks to the playoffs a couple of times, including the second round once). Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkins are both in the Hall of Fame as coaches.
Yet the organization struggled through all of them. Dolan remains the one constant. We all know what the problem is, but we also know he’s not going to sell the team (maybe spin it off with the Rangers and the rest of Madison Square Garden into its own company, but that’s different from giving it up). There is a status that comes with owning the Knicks in New York City, and Dolan is not going to give up that spotlight.
Knicks fans can hope that a new executive is brought in and is given the real power to clean house — but past candidates for team president who asked for that power did not get the job. Plus, Perry and Mills (like Fizdale) have more than a year left on their contract, Dolan trusts Mills, so expecting a change may be unrealistic.
Until there is a change in how the Knicks are run, whoever is hired to be the head coach will ultimately fall into the pattern of all the coaches before him (or her). The pattern is set. Only Dolan can break it.