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A Brief Defense of David Fizdale

Yes, the Knicks are a dumpster fire, but firing the head coach—as reports suggest the team is considering doing—would be premature. New York has a long way to go to get back to contention, but their problems don’t begin or end with the guy at the front of the bench.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a lot the Knicks need to figure out. How to draft, for one. How to win, how to keep a fan base content, how to woo uninterested free agents. Their saving grace is the NBA’s decision to not relegate them, an American privilege that the Knicks and Knicks alone have convinced me is worth reconsidering (something something tough love). But above all, the Knicks aren’t good at firing people. New York either holds on too long, or lets go too soon. Phil Jackson. Mike D’Antoni. Isiah Thomas. I’ll let you decide which category each falls into. Since team president Steve Mills was first hired first in 2013 as general manager, the Knicks have cycled through five coaches. Now, with the league’s second-worst record at 2-9, David Fizdale is the latest on the hot seat.

Fizdale was hired in May 2018. Through this season and last, his overall record is 19-74. His Knicks are historically bad: After an 18-point loss to the Bulls Tuesday (preceded by a 21-point loss to the Cavs Sunday), New York tied a franchise record for the most losses through 11 games.

“We’re not happy with where we are,” Mills said after the Cleveland loss. The lack of consistency and effort, he and current general manager Scott Perry said, were “one of the reasons we wanted to come out and address you guys. […] We have patience, and we believe in Coach. And we believe in the group that we put together.” That “vote of confidence” from a front office to a coach has often been, in the past, a sign the coach in question will soon be kicked to the curb. Mills and Perry also voluntarily addressed the press. No executives—especially Knicks executives—ever want to engage with media.

I would give Mills and Perry the benefit of the doubt and believe that they’re not laying the internal groundwork for the eventual dismissal of Fizdale, except ESPN reported on Monday that Mills and Perry have “started to lay the internal groundwork for the eventual dismissal of coach David Fizdale.” Ian Begley of SNY then reported that everyone’s on notice, Mills and Perry included. It’s a tale as old as professional sports: Find a fall guy or you’ll be the fall guy.

But firing Fizdale would be premature. I understand the arguments against him. I’ve meditated on his bizarre lineups. I’ve done the math on how bad 19 wins through 93 games is. (It’s bad.) Yet I’m still lobbying for Fizdale, and here are five reasons why:

His Reputation for Developing Players

Fizdale was a coveted coaching candidate in 2018 because of his reputation for befriending and developing players. He’ll forever be known for guiding Chris Bosh through his career-changing evolution into a modern stretch big. That image appealed to the Grizzlies in 2016 and the Knicks in 2018. For New York to ever be successful—or even decent—their glob of young talent have to grow into well-rounded players. The list is long and full of inconsistent skill sets: RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, etc. (I refuse to include Mitchell Robinson—the father, the son, and the holy center—in this particular list.) It’s unreasonable to expect a group of newbies to bloom after one season with a coach (or less, as is the case for Smith and Barrett).

His Roster Is Brand New

The Knicks signed many veterans this season to pair with their underdeveloped young players. The entire roster—especially the overwhelmed power forward rotation—needs time to adjust. This is the defense for Fizdale’s … offbeat lineup experiments. It isn’t as simple as it sounds to incorporate journeymen like Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris. Even Barrett knows that, and he’s [Celtics fan base voice] only 19!

“We’ve got nine, 10 new guys? We’ve got 10 guys that have not played together at all and me, who hasn’t even been in the league yet,” Barrett said Tuesday night. “You’re gonna have some challenges, but you’ve got to keep pushing, keep pushing through everything. That’s all I can really say. You’ve just got to stay together. [Fizdale’s] up to the challenge. We believe in him. We’re staying together, and like we said, we’re all in with him and are just gonna keep fighting together.”

He Doesn’t Have Kristaps Porzingis

Fizdale accepted the Knicks job with the impression that he’d be coaching Porzingis, whom many hoped could expand his game under Fizdale the same way Bosh did. Porzingis was sent to Dallas in late January and was still recovering from an ACL tear that had happened a year before. New York’s most promising talent (I’m sorry Ntilikina stans, bless each and every one of your hearts) did not play a single game under Fizdale.

His Tragic History of Not Being Given Enough Time

I’ve had candles last longer than each of Fizdale’s stints as a head coach in the NBA. Memphis hired him over the spring in 2016 and let him go after 101 games. Their team wasn’t quite constructed as promised either, and he was ultimately ousted because he irked Marc Gasol, whom the Grizzlies traded to Toronto 15 months later.

Fizdale has been the Knicks head coach for one year plus a burp of this season. Which leads me to:

What’s … the Rush?

Who is the alternative? Find me the love child of Gregg Popovich and Red Auerbach, raised by Brad Stevens with Pat Riley as the cool uncle. I’ll concede. I promise. As of right now, Mark Jackson—the same Mark Jackson who couldn’t win a title with the Warriors—is the name floating around as Fizdale’s replacement. (Please note that Tracy Morgan is the source here, so this might not be a real thing. But it strengthens the argument on just how little is out there.) Consider holding off on blaming Fizdale. The road back to relevance will be long and painful no matter who is in charge. Might as well stick with the guy who, contrary to other figures in New York, knows how to give an honest and open press conference.