AP Photo

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

4 Comments

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.

Courtney Lee notices Knicks omit him from Instagram post

Elsa/Getty Images
2 Comments

Shortly after taking over the front office last year, Knicks president Steve Mills named the team’s key players without including Carmelo Anthony. Later last summer, Mills wrote about his vision for the team while again excluding Anthony.

Of course, New York traded Anthony to the Thunder just before the season.

If that set an example for how Mills’ Knicks will operate, Courtney Lee might not be long for New York. And Lee seemingly realizes it.

The Knicks touted their schedule release on Instagram:

That graphic includes seven of the eight Knicks who played most last season and remain under contract plus New York’s two draft picks:

But Lee – who led the Knicks in playing time last year by a wide margin – doesn’t appear. His response:;

Lee, 32, no longer fits on the rebuilding Knicks. He’s a Phil Jackson signing.

Though Lee is probably somewhat overpaid (guaranteed $12,253,780 this season and $12,759,670 the following year), he could still help plenty of teams. 3-and-D wings are in demand.

It always seemed likely the Knicks would would try to trade Lee.

Their Instagram post provides even more evidence he’s headed out.

Rookie Kevin Knox on Knicks: “We have a chance to make the playoffs”

Getty Images
3 Comments

So you’re saying there’s a chance…

Not many people have the Knicks as a playoff team (I had them 12th in the East in their power rankings, but could see them as high as 10th), primarily because of the uncertainty around the return of Kristaps Porzingis from a torn ACL. The earliest he is expected back is around Christmas, and him missing the entire season out of the question. Without him, even in the East, it’s hard to see the Knicks winning a lot.

Rookie Kevin Knox, coming off a strong Summer League in Las Vegas, doesn’t see it that way. He also thinks the Las Vegas over/under on wins of 29.5 sells the team short. Here is what he told Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“People are sleeping on us with the 29 wins. I think we definitely can win at least 35 and get in that playoff talk. That’s my personal opinion. Everyone has their own opinion. But the whole team, I’m pretty confident we’re really good this year, that we have a chance to make the playoffs.”

The Knicks have some solid players — Tim Hardaway Jr., Mario Hezonja, Enes Kanter — and some guys with potential such as Frank Ntilikina (who did not sell me at Summer League this year) and Knox. They have a new coach who gets it in David Fizdale. However, without Porzingis they just don’t have the star power to really compete night in and night out in the NBA. This isn’t Las Vegas anymore, the talent level Knox has seen is about to make a massive leap.

Still, Knox is saying all the right things — he just wants to win.

“I’m pretty confident I can be one of the top rookies,” Knox said at the photo event staged at the Knicks’ Tarrytown campus. “But one of my goals this year is just to win in New York. I’m not really worried about winning the rookie award. I just want to win as a team, take road games, play some of the top teams and beat them to make the playoffs. Ultimately I want to win. That’s my main focus as my rookie year.”

Knox is a legitimate dark horse candidate for Rookie of the Year — he should get plenty of touches and showed impressive athleticism in Las Vegas. As long as his focus is not that goal and is instead of just getting better (and winning) he will be another key piece for the Knicks when they do turn the corner.

Most likely Kawhi Leonard trade destinations: L.A., Philly, Boston, and…

Getty Images
32 Comments

Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio. So much so that he’s willing to leave about $31 million on the table (the difference between the supermax the Spurs could offer and what any other team could after a trade). It took a while but the Spurs know now, and San Antonio will explore the trade market. They are not necessarily going to be in a rush to do it, either. This is a pateint organization, the idea of Leonard starting next season as a Spur is certainly not out of the question.

Despite that, you can be sure 29 teams are lined up to try to trade for him — when healthy Leonard is a top-five NBA player, an MVP candidate who is a force on both ends of the floor, and already a Finals MVP.

However, with just one year left on his current contract, Leonard has leverage in this situation — if a team can’t re-sign him then he’s just a one-year rental, and teams aren’t going to want to pay the steep trade price to land him. Leonard’s camp will let teams know if they have a shot at re-signing him, and most will not. A couple of teams might be willing to roll the dice anyway (as Oklahoma City did with Paul George) betting they can win him over with a year to recruit him in house. But by and large, Leonard will have some say on where he lands.

Here are the teams at the top of the list to watch.

 
Lakers small icon The Los Angeles Lakers. This is where Leonard wants to go. While Leonard’s frustrations with the Spurs grew over the handling of his injury and his seeking a second opinion, his uncle/advisor had been in Kawhi’s ear about getting to a place like Los Angeles. There are none in the NBA bigger than the Lakers. Leonard and his camp were disappointed with the money offered in recent negotiations with the Jordan shoe brand (reportedly in the $4 million to $5 million range) and think a move to a larger market and bigger brand team changes the endorsement equation. (Not as much as Leonard thinks, he doesn’t do social media or go on Fallon/Kimmel, or all the other stuff that guys like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard have done to create a brand despite market size. Kawhi has to play the game to get that cash.)

This is the trade everyone will talk about. It can get done financially with the Lakers sending Luol Deng‘s bloated contract, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma (and maybe the No. 25 pick in Thursday’s draft). However, the Spurs don’t really want Ball and the circus that follows him, according to sources. It’s expected the Spurs would ask for Brandon Ingram and Kuzma as the young Lakers coming back, and the Spurs likely would have to throw in Bryn Forbes just to balance the books. Either way, it may require a third team to get the job done, the Spurs will not just want to take on bad contracts.

It’s a good deal for the Spurs. If the Lakers get desperate, would they try to throw in Ball too? That likely requires a third team (at least), but the Lakers should go all in — get Leonard in a trade and it’s far more likely the Lakers get LeBron James in free agency.

Another question to ponder: Will the Spurs willingly trade Leonard to Western Conference rival with the resources of the Lakers? Don’t bet on it, especially if the Celtics, Sixers, or others come in with strong offers. The Spurs want the best offer, they don’t care if Leonard chooses to take even less money to go to LA as a free agent in 2019 (the max from another team would be $139 over four years, another massive hit to the guaranteed money pocketbook). Popovich is not inclined to help the Lakers, they will have to beat the competition with the best offer.

The Spurs will listen and be interested in what the Lakers have to say. But there could be better offers from…

 
Celtics small icon The Boston Celtics. It had been reported the Celtics tried to make a trade offer for Leonard at the last trade deadline but were rebuffed (the Spurs have turned away all calls up to this point). For a rebuilding Spurs team, this could be the cleanest choice.

Boston could offer Jaylen Brown (although the Spurs may demand Jayson Tatum), this year’s No. 27 pick, next year’s Sacramento Kings pick (which is only No. 1 protected, and that team is still going to be young and bad), plus another future first rounder. The Celtics have a lot of picks they can send.

Or, Boston could offer Kyrie Irving and a first-round pick. This lineup works for Boston: Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Tatum, Brown, and Al Horford. The question with that offer for San Antonio is could it re-sign Irving, a free agent in 2019? Would the Spurs rather have Brown and all the picks? Also, Boston could, in theory, offer Gordon Hayward and a pick (although that one is far less likely to be put out there).

The Celtics don’t necessarily have to be convinced they could re-sign Leonard to roll the dice on a trade — this is a franchise, a coach, and a passionate city of hoops fans who would be willing to bet they could win him over. Danny Ainge doesn’t fear a good gamble, and this would be one — with Leonard and their other stars getting healthy the Celtics become a threat to Golden State (as much as any team is).

 
Sixers small icon The Philadelphia 76ers. Another team on the rise in the East, a team with max cap space so they would have some flexibility still, and this is a team that Leonard has been linked to in the past. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid taking steps forward (and staying healthy *knocks on wood*) Leonard pushes this team firmly into contender status.

The trade would likely be Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz, and the No. 10 pick in this draft (the Lakers’ pick). Or, it could be Dario Saric, Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and the No. 10 pick. How tempting that would be to the Spurs depends on what they think of Fultz, his health, and his shot, as well as who they can draft at No. 10. It’s a good deal, and the Sixers could throw more picks to tempt the Spurs. However, is this offer better than what the Lakers or Celtics can put on the board?

 
Clippers small icon The Los Angeles Clippers. If Leonard really wants to be in Los Angeles, this is the other option (and being the face this team did a lot for Chris Paul‘s brand and endorsements, State Farm has paid him a mint).

The offer would not be quite as enticing as what the Lakers can put on the table but it’s interesting: Tobias Harris, Sam Decker and this year’s 12th or 13th pick. Or both but without Decker. That would send the Spurs a decent package, however, it’s all nice role players and not a star (it’s unlikely they draft one that late in the lottery, possible but not likely). Still, the Clippers will try to get in the mix, and they would stand a chance to keep him because of the city (especially if they pay this summer to keep DeAndre Jordan).

 
Knicks small icon The New York Knicks. Another team on this list because it’s a large market that Leonard has been linked to. Reportedly people around him like this idea, but it’s hard to see it working out. It’s also not known for sure if the Knicks could win over Leonard to re-sign, promising him a healthy Kristaps Porzingis. Eventually.

A trade of Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, and this years No. 9 pick will get the Spurs to at least listen. (The Spurs are not taking on Joakim Noah or Enes Kanter‘s contracts, the Knicks are stuck with those.) Just hard to see that being enough, considering who they are up against.

 
Heat small icon Miami Heat. Another team whose name comes up — like Sacramento, which would love to get in the sweepstakes — where it seems unlikely they could re-sign Leonard so how much do they really want to offer? There are a few teams in this circumstance.

For the Heat, they could offer Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo
in a trade for Leonard and Patty Mills.

Maybe the Spurs have a little interest in the young players, but it’s likely not enough. Also, how much better does this make the Heat in the short term, and if they are just fighting to make the playoffs in the East is that going to entice Leonard to stay?

If and when the Spurs decide to trade Leonard — they are in no rush, this could drag out through the summer — they are going to get closer to market value for a superstar than most teams get. Much closer than the Kings did with DeMarcus Cousins, for example. There are a few teams that can make quality offers, and the Spurs will choose the best one — they don’t care where Leonard lands. Leonard’s leverage is where he will re-sign, but a team that trades for him can offer $49 million more and one more guaranteed year, that’s a lot of cabbage — not enough to keep Leonard in a place he doesn’t like or want to be, but if the team is winning and the experience is good… anything can happen.

This summer is going to be wild.

Kristaps Porzingis after conversation with David Fizdale: ‘Man im excited!’

Getty Images
12 Comments

David Fizdale learned a lot of lessons in his first go around as a head coach, spending 101 games with the Memphis Grizzlies. At the top of the list: Build a strong bond with your star player. Or else.

Fizdale is trying to do that, saying he would fly to Latvia this summer to spend time with Kristaps Porzingis. But first came a phone call, and that seemed to go very well.

It’s not just Porzingis. Fizdale was bonding with Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Damyean Dotson on Wednesday night in Boston. A little “this is where we want to be” motivation.

Good on Fizdale for all of this.

The Knicks got the best coach for them on the board in Fizdale, and so far the new front office — general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills — are making smart decisions. Knicks fans should be optimistic. Knicks ownership just needs to be patient (not James Dolan’s strong suit), because with no Porzingis for a large portion if not all of next season the team will struggle. Wins will be hard to come by. Fizdale needs a season to develop players and lay the foundation for what he wants to build, while the new front office needs time to clean up the salary cap mess that is New York right now.

With some patience, the Knicks could have something special in a few years. And Fizdale may have found the right home for his talents because he’s already got players buying in.