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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.

Report: Knicks rookie Kevin Knox signs deal with Puma

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New York Knicks rookie Kevin Knox was the darling of the 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League. And while Knox and the Knicks didn’t win the championship — that honor went to the Portland Trail Blazers — the performance of the former Kentucky Wildcat perhaps gave some hope to New York fans for a brighter future.

It also appears that some companies have taken note of Knox as well. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Knox is the latest target of Puma brand.

The long-dormant shoe company has made a return to basketball for the upcoming NBA season, notably signing Deandre Ayton, Terry Rozier, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., and Zhaire Smith. Knox was seen wearing a Puma shirt this week.

Via Twitter:

Puma has seen a bit of a sea change in 2018, with its parent company divesting itself of a large portion of its controlling interest as of this June. The move is supposed to give Puma more direct control, and moving forward with a basketball division seems in line with that strategy.

Under Armour and Adidas have been battling for market share against Nike over the past couple of years, and perhaps Puma sees a chance to grab some of that pie. Betting on some of these young players is a reasonable strategy for Puma, as rookies will no doubt be cheaper for the company than established veterans. At the same time, mid-level rookies will receive more money than they would from Puma than the more recognizable basketball apparel stalwarts.

Now we just need to wait and see how Puma develops lines for their basketball side of business.

Knicks coach David Fizdale challenges Kristaps Porzingis

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David Fizdale is a smart man. He knows that if he is going to succeed as Knicks coach, it starts with winning over Kristaps Porzingis — he has flown to Europe to meet with the man, taking steps no other Knicks coach had to this point. This is the NBA, the star player has more power than the coach, and so the coach has to win said player over.

Fizdale has done that by saying he would push Porzingis. Bruce Beck of WNBC in New York caught up with Fizdale and asked him that relationship (hat tip elitesportsny.com).

“He likes the challenge of me saying ‘I want him to be the MVP’ and ‘I want him to be the Defensive Player of the Year.’ That’s real competitors they want that and I’m going right at it with him. I want him to look at himself that way.”

Fizdale is saying all the right things so far — to Porzingis, to Knicks fans, to everyone.

That’s a good start. This is going to be a tough season for the Knicks because Fizdale brings real energy, but without Porzingis — who is expected to miss most if not all of the coming season coming off a torn ACL — the Knicks are going to lose a lot of games. I like Tim Hardaway Jr., rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson have potential, guys like Enes Kanter and Mario Hezonja are solid, but this is a franchise still building without Porzingis. Knicks fans (and ownership) are not the most patient people on the planet, but they are going to be asked to be. Again.

Fizdale is going to get through that and the Knicks will come out stronger on the other side, the new coach will lay down a good foundation this season. But it’s a process, especially until Porzingis gets all the way back and Fizdale can really push him.

Courtney Lee notices Knicks omit him from Instagram post

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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”

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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.