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.

Report: Kevin Durant considering Knicks, being recruited by Carmelo Anthony

56 Comments

When Carmelo Anthony was a free agent last summer, Kevin Durant recruited him to the Knicks.

Durant reportedly pitched Melo on the virtues of New York coach Derek Fisher, who was previously Durant’s teammate with the Thunder.

Now, Melo – who re-signed with the Knicks – is reportedly returning the favor.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

I know for a fact that Carmelo Anthony has been and will continue to recruit Kevin Durant until the cows come home. I’m also hearing that Kevin Durant is giving the New York Knicks consideration.

For what it’s worth, Melo strongly denied Smith’s last major report about him, that the star forward was upset about the Knicks drafting Kristaps Porzingis. That doesn’t mean Smith was wrong, but it’s something.

To the matter at hand, I believe Durant is considering the Knicks. I also believe he’s considering the Thunder and Wizards and…

I doubt Durant has made up his mind about 2016 free agency. Why would he this soon?

But outside Oklahoma City and Washington – the two major favorites for Durant – New York would be my pick to land him. That’s still a small chance, though.

First, the Knicks must prove they have a legitimate chance of winning. I believe the New York market still appeals to players, maybe including Durant. But that’s not enough. Seventeen wins in Phil Jackson’s first full season – especially when he appeared to be targeting a playoff berth – is concerning.

The Knicks should be better this year, though. Melo will likely be healthier, and the roster has improved around him. Free agent center Robin Lopez is a significant upgrade.

Respectability on the court won’t be enough, though. New York also needs to clear cap room.

The Knicks have $67,964,567 committed to eight players. With roster charges, that puts New York $18,861,549 below the projected salary cap of $89 million.

Durant’s starting salary projects to be $25,136,700.

Player options for Arron Afflalo ($8 million) and/or Derrick Williams ($4,598,000) could clear more room. If Durant wants to come, the Knicks would surely do what it takes to dump Jose Calderon ($7,708,427), Kyle O’Quinn ($3,918,750) and/or Jerian Grant (   $1,643,040). The salary cap could also land higher than projected, though that would also raise Durant’s max salary.

Clearing cap space is an obstacle, not impossible.

New York’s market can open the door for free agents considering the Knicks. Durant’s fondness for Fisher only helps, and Melo’s recruiting could help lay the groundwork. But it ultimately falls on Jackson – the team he assembled this season boosting New York’s credibility and his ability to clear cap space and sell Durant on his vision for the Knicks.

Justise Winslow reportedly aced pre-draft interviews. So why did he fall?

11 Comments

Our own Scott Dargis described Justise Winslow’s draft range as the Knicks at No. 4 through the Heat at No. 10, but it’s difficult  to find others who thought there was even a chance Winslow would fall all the way to Miami.

Here’s how a few rated the Duke forward:

Most seemed to agree he was a clear tier above the players below him on those lists, too.

But Winslow slipped to the Heat at No. 10.

What did NBA teams see that so many of us didn’t?

Whatever it was, it apparently didn’t come out during pre-draft interviews.

Zach Lowe of Grantland:

Twenty-nine teams rolled their eyes in June when Justise Winslow fell to Miami at no. 10 in the draft. Winslow may never become a star, but he has a chance at it, and he blew away executives during the draft interview process.

Lowe is plugged in enough to know how teams perceived Winslow’s interviews. I believe, if there were a major red flag, it didn’t pop up there.

My working theory: The NBA consensus on Winslow was about as high as perceived – and if not quite, within the reasonable margin for error – but the teams picking before the Heat just happened not to like him as much.

Taking Winslow No. 4 would have been too high, and the Knicks made a better call with Kristaps Porzingis. I wasn’t as high on Hezonja as most, but few complained about the Magic taking him at No. 5. Admittedly, his upside is incredible. If a team has an appetite for risk, Hezonja made sense over the safer Winslow.

With respect to Winslow, it really got interesting at No. 6.

The Kings, who picked Willie Cauley-Stein at No. 6, deserve little benefit of the doubt for their drafting acumen. I rated Emmanuel Mudiay higher than Winslow, so I don’t knock Denver for picking the point guard at No. 7. The Pistons took Stanley Johnson over Winslow at No. 8, but that could just be a minority opinion. The Hornets are clearly in win-now mode, so polished senior Frank Kaminsky appealed to them at No. 9. Plus, Michael Jordan is hardly a reputable drafter.

So, a few teams didn’t like Winslow. It doesn’t mean the NBA as a whole thought less of him than it appeared.

If the Celtics were drafting before Miami, they would have taken him – and they offered a boatload of draft picks for that opportunity. I suspect many other teams would have drafted him sooner if positioned to do so.

Maybe something will emerge about why Winslow fell, but it darn sure wasn’t how he played at Duke, and it apparently wasn’t his pre-draft interviews. We’re running out of possibilities.

Carmelo Anthony goes to Cuba to talk soccer. And it’s worth watching.

1 Comment

The USA and Cuba are normalizing relations, the borders to the island nation are opening up, and we are getting our first quality looks inside that country since “the revolution.” It’s a chance for us to start to understand a culture and its people, rather than simply watch politicians demonize them because of the ruler’s political system.

Carmelo Anthony has teamed up with VICE SPORTS for a series of videos — called “The Clubhouse,” looking at the intersection of sports and culture — and in the first one ‘Melo heads to Cuba to talk about how soccer has caught on with the youth of that nation. For years, when you thought of sports in Cuba you thought baseball and boxing, but a younger generation has started playing soccer in the streets, and the popularity is growing.

It’s a well done, interesting piece worth watching. We should warn you, there is a little NSFW language in it.

Nigeria beats Angola to win AfroBasket, qualify for Rio Olympics

10 Comments

Try this on for size:

Al-Farouq Aminu is headed back to the Olympics.

Barring injury it will happen in Rio because Aminu’s Nigerian squad pulled away in the second quarter then held off a late charge from Angola to take the AfroBasket title game, 74-65. With that comes a ticket punched for the 2016 Olympics. This will be the second straight Olympics for Nigeria, which in 2012 had to get in through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament weeks before the games (Aminu was part of that squad, if you remember Carmelo Anthony dropped 37 on them).

Aminu, who plays for the Trail Blazers, had 11 points on a rough 2-of-10 shooting night (he did get to the line 11 times and had a nice and-1 dunk). Nigeria was led by Chamberlain Oguchi as the veteran of European leagues had 19 points, and former Barcelona player Olaseni “Shane” Lawal, who had a dozen.

This makes four teams that have qualified for the Rio Olympics basketball tournament: The USA (winners of the World Cup), Brazil (host), Australia (winners of FIBA Oceania) and now Nigeria. The EuroBasket tournament that starts next week will add two more teams to that list.