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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.

Grizzlies doing fairly well for team in self-imposed holding pattern

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

As I’ve written repeatedly: The Grizzlies’ insistence in trying to win immediately with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley is likely to yield unfulfilling results in the present and leave Memphis less prepared for the future. This Western Conference is so unforgiving, the Grizzlies are are longshots just to make the playoffs, let alone advance. But they should also be good enough to miss out on a high drat pick in what appears to be a top-heavy draft. An expensive roster and unwillingness to pay the luxury tax leave little flexibility.

But in that context, Memphis added plenty of short- and long-term talent this offseason.

The Grizzlies used every mechanism available – draft, free agency and trade. The haul: Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, Jevon Carter.

Memphis did well to pick Jackson No. 3 despite his initial reluctance and unclear fit with Gasol. Jackson came around on the Grizzlies, and he was too talented to pass up. Though he’ll probably play center in the long run, he might begin his career at power forward due to strength concerns.

Carter provided solid value high in the second round. Unfortunately, Memphis could sign him to just a two-year deal, limiting upside on the value he’ll provide.

Anderson, signed to a mid-level offer sheet the Spurs didn’t match, is darned productive. His lack of athleticism will limit him in some matchups, but he should provide value on this deal.

Even after a lost year with the Warriors, Casspi is not far removed from productiveness. A minimum contract is worth finding out whether he can return to form.

The second-rounder surrendered to get Temple is not insignificant, but the Grizzlies cleared a roster crunch by dealing Ben McLemore and Deyonta Davis – both of whom seemed to run their course in Memphis – to the Kings. Temple should help the Grizzlies on the wing.

It wasn’t all gains for Memphis. The Grizzlies lost Tyreke Evans (to the Pacers), but that was less about this offseason and more the predictable outcome of last year’s failed trade deadline. Evans was so good in Memphis last season. He’ll be missed if this team is still trying to compete.

The Grizzlies also missed an opportunity to conduct an open coaching search, keeping interim J.B. Bickerstaff. I’m not as down on retaining him as I am the process behind it.

Ultimately, I’m just not sure where all these additions get Memphis. At least Jackson and Anderson will be around for years. They might finally provide a roadmap to a post-Gasol-Conley future while still helping in the interim.

But it’ll still be a while for that vision to come to fruition, if the Grizzlies ever execute a next step.

Offseason grade: B-

Mike Conley: ‘Frustrating’ Grizzlies aren’t premier destination in free agency

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Nearly anytime we post a story with the general premise of “Team A is targeting in Star X,” it elicits a reaction like: “Of course, Team A is targeting Star X. Every team is targeting Star X.”

But not every team is committed to chasing stars. Sure, all teams want stars. But several teams believe they play in markets that can’t attract stars and therefore don’t waste their resources bothering.

Like the Grizzlies.

Mike Conley, via Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:

“Yeah, it definitely can be frustrating,” Conley said. “Being in Memphis, being part of a smaller market, you have a tough time in free agency, and you have to build through the draft. With all the things teams have been able to accomplish through free agency, and through all the player movement, you kind of miss out on that.”

The Grizzlies’ biggest outside free agent signing – Chandler Parsons to a max contract in 2016 – flopped amid his injury issues (which contributed to reduced competition for him). But the Trail Blazers also reportedly offered Parsons a max contract, and Memphis got him.

But otherwise, the Grizzlies haven’t been heavy hitters in free agency. That they’ve often lacked major cap space mostly speaks to Conley’s point. They haven’t tried to open cap space, because it tends to be more meaningful in other markets.

So, Memphis is at a disadvantage. But that doesn’t make it hopeless. Smart drafting (like picking Conley) and trading (like acquiring Marc Gasol) can help.

And destination markets can change. We’re not far removed from the Warriors being an undesirable team. Everyone used to want to play for the Knicks. The Lakers have gone up and down in their ability to attract stars. I’m certainly not predicting stars will flock to Memphis, but if the Grizzlies win enough, they’ll change their reputation.

Of course, that’s harder to do in the first place without the aid of major free agents.

Mike Conley says it will be ‘awkward year’ in Memphis

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When the Westgate Sports Book came out with its NBA under/over win projections for the coming season, one of my first thoughts was “34.5 seems low for Memphis.” Which was quickly followed by “if they can stay healthy, that is.”

The Grizzlies added a potential new face of the franchise this summer in Jaren Jackson, and they upgraded parts of their bench, and they still have Marc Gasol in the paint. Most importantly, however, they get Mike Conley back from injury, a borderline All-Star level point guard who changes the way this team plays on the court.

But even Conley sees this season as different from Grizzlies campaigns in the past, as he told Mark Giannotto of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

“It’s different for me because for the last eight years, I came into every season thinking we have a chance to win at a high level,” the point guard said last week in Las Vegas at USA Basketball’s mini-camp. “This season, expectations are still try to be that playoff team, that team that comes out and really makes it tough on everybody. But it is an awkward year with so many teams getting so much better [with] different acquisitions they made in the offseason.”

Conley wasn’t so much playing down the Grizzlies as admitting the reality ahead of them. The West is going to be a Battle Royal this season. Golden State and Houston will make the playoffs, they both have a depth of talent that gives them a lot of margin for error. After that, nobody is entirely safe. There are teams we tend to trust more than others — Utah because of their defense, Oklahoma City because of its two stars, the Lakers because of LeBron James — but after those first two in the West pretty much anything can happen. Seeds three through 12 will likely be separated by just a handful of games (less than 10 wins).

Memphis could grab one of those bottom playoff spots if Conley can stay healthy and things go their way. The challenge is we can say the same thing about the Clippers and Dallas and San Antonio and New Orleans and… you get the idea. Do you trust the Grizzlies in that setting?

The question in Memphis is if things do not go right the first part of the season, do they accept that it’s time to rebuild and start shopping players such as Conley, who would have trade value? That’s not the case right now, but know that teams are watching for just that.

Looking ahead: Top free 10 free agents in the wild summer of 2019

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There was one big theme NBA’s summer of 2018: The one-year contract.

Nearly half of the contracts signed by free agents took either a one-year contract or a two-year deal that gives them the ability to opt out after one year. Why? Because 2018 was a very tight financial market with only a few teams having cap space to spend and a lot of teams up against the luxury tax (thanks to the cap-spike spending binge of 2016). However, look ahead to 2019 at least half the teams in the NBA are expected to have $20 million or more to spend. Agents and players see the potential another 2016-like summer of paydays, with teams spending big, and everyone wants to cash in.

I mean everyone — there are 450 players in the NBA and nearly 200 will be free agents next summer. As one team executive told me at Summer League, it’s going to be a saturated market. Not just the elite players but a couple of teirs down will get paid as well, however, many others will be disappointed with what is left on the table when it’s their turn.

The summer of 2019 is going to be wild, and we’re looking at the best players on the market next summer.

One non-free agent thing to watch in July 2019: The Pelicans will be able to offer Anthony Davis a super-max five year contract extension in the $235 million ballpark (depending on the cap in a couple of years). Does he sign it and stay committed to New Orleans? If not the jockeying for trades will come fast and furiously.

Here are the top free agents of 2019 broken out into three categories, only the last — the guys with the most potential to change teams — have been put into the official top 10.

Free agents who are not not going anywhere:

Kevin Durant (player option): He may not choose to opt out after just singing a two-year contract with the Warriors, but KD has the right to. Either way, nobody around the league thinks he will be on the move.

Klay Thompson: He is the target of fan bases around the league, and on paper he is the one of the Warriors’ big four they could come closest to replicating the production of with other players. Thing is, Thompson doesn’t want to leave and the Warriors don’t want him to go. Thompson is a different cat, not driven by the “me-first” ego of some who would want their own team or a larger role (or more marketing focus on a less crowded team). Thompson’s priprity is winning and the Warriors are doing that. Thompson has talked about taking a discount for the Warriors and likely will, and they will re-sign him.

The Restricted free agent big names:

Kristaps Porzingis: The Knicks and KP will work out the terms of a max extension before the season starts. Even if something went wrong and he went to restricted free agency, New York would still match any offer. He is not going anywhere.

Karl-Anthony Towns: The Timberwolves and Towns are already talking max extension (that offer is on the table but Towns wants to talk to management first), that contract will get done. That may signal more about the future direction of the franchise and who will be on their way out, but no way the Timberwolves do not get this done.

Terry Rozier: He is one quality rotation player that could be gone from Boston due to saving financially in the future. If he is not traded this season (a real possibility) he may be someone who can be poached next summer.

Other restricted free agents include D'Angelo Russell and Kelly Oubre.

The 10 biggest name remaining free agents:

1) Kawhi Leonard (player option): He will opt out and the Lakers are considered the frontrunners. However, Toronto has a season to woo him, and next summer the Knicks, Sixers and other teams will come calling (as long as he stays healthy and proves he is still close to the MVP-level player of a couple of years ago). Leonard will have options.

2) Kyrie Irving (player option): Danny Ainge traded the much-desired Brooklyn pick for Irving and sees him as the kind of shot creator and scorer the Celtics need with all their versatile talents at other positions. Ainge will want to pay the man, and winning does matter. But if Irving and the guy next on this list want to team up, as they reportedly have discussed, there will be teams that can absorb both contracts.

3) Jimmy Butler (player option): He is frustrated in Minnesota and is looking to get out — he could get traded during the season, but even if he stays a lot of things will have to change for him to want to stay. With the Timberwolves maxing out Towns, Butler seems the man on the way out the door. He will have options from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between.

4) Kevin Love (player option): Update: Love has agreed to sign a four-year, $120 million extension with the Cavaliers (beyond the one remianing year on his contract. So, it took all of a few hours for this list to become dated, you can scratch him off the free agent list. Love scored 17.6 points and grabbed 9.3 rebounds a game last season, and he shot 41 percent from three. There aren’t many bigs as good or who fit the modern game like Love.

5) Al Horford (player option): The versatile big man may not opt out (he is scheduled to make $30 million), but if he does the Celtics will keep him — he is the glue that binds this roster. His ability to anything well provides the flexibility Brad Stevens needs, and Danny Ainge knows that. The two sides could talk contract extension as well.

6) Kemba Walker: The All-Star point guard has said he wants to stay a Hornet, and right now new GM Mitch Kupchak (on orders from owner Michael Jordan) say they want to keep him and compete, not rebuild. However, a lot can change in a year and a lot of teams with money looking for better play at the point guard spot will come calling — Walker will have options. Will he take any of them, or stay in Charlotte?

7) DeAndre Jordan: He is poised for a bounce-back season in Dallas (not that 12 points per game on 64.5 percent shooting plus 15.2 rebounds per game and a 20.2 PER is bad) — he missed Chis Paul feeding him the rock, and now he will have Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic throwing lobs. Jordan is one of the few old-school style centers who can still be a major contributor in the NBA, and after this season he will be looking for a payday and security. He will want multiple years. Dallas may give it to him (depending on how this season goes) but there are other teams with quality point guards who could use him.

8) Goran Dragic (player option): He will be 33 when the next free agency period roles around, and his player option is for $19.2 million, but he may seek the security of multiple years (in Miami or elsewhere). He is still a dangerous pick-and-roll man with the ball in his hands (it accounted for 55 percent of his possessions last season) and he scored 17.3 points per game, dished out 4.8 assists, and shot 37 percent from there. There will be demand for his services if he wants to test the market, or he could stay in Miami.

9) Marc Gasol (player option): He will b e 34 next July, his skills have been in decline for a couple of seasons now, players at his position are finding it hard to get paid, and he has a $25.6 million player option. He may well pick that up. If not, he still is a big man who can play in the modern NBA — he averaged 17.2 points per game last season, shot 34.1 percent from three, is strong on the boards and is a big body in the paint. He will have suitors, just not as many as he might expect. He has said before he does not plan to leave Memphis.

10) DeMarcus Cousins: This could be too low for him on this list. If he bounces back from his ruptured Achilese and is 90 percent of who he was before — and if he fits in as a good teammate in Golden State, maybe helps them win a ring — he will have a number of teams clamoring for his services (and he will make a lot more than the $5.3 million he is getting this season). That said, the history of big men bouncing back from this injury is not good, so there is a wait and see attitude about his free agency next summer.