With the team's record dropping to 4-18 after an embarrassing 37-point home loss to the Denver Nuggets, it was utterly predictable when the New York Knicks fired head coach David Fizdale in a Friday afternoon news dump.
Just as predictable was the resounding chorus that cropped up in wake of the move, declaring that Fizdale was not the problem in New York.
Unquestionably, that is true.
Blaming Fizdale for the rot plaguing the franchise is nonsensical; he was the coach for just 104 games while the team has been a catastrophe for the better part of two decades. There are any number of people who deserve blame for the ongoing calamity before Fizdale's name should pop up on the list.
But Fizdale was hired to do a specific job, and it's difficult to argue that he has succeeded - or that it was reasonable to expect him to succeed if given more time. Even going beyond the team's poor record (21-83), what is there to point to that speaks to a success of his coaching style or tactics?
Last year's team was devoid of talent and won just 17 games. This year's team is moderately less talent-deficient, but is nevertheless off to a similarly disastrous start.
Upon his hiring, Fizdale was lauded as a coach whose relationships both around the league (which he still has) and within the team would benefit the franchise. His strong track record in player development would help the team's young players progress in their careers and in their ability to contribute to wins. Fizdale himself set the twin goals of turning the Knicks into a "fast, loud, disruptive" defense and installing an offense that "gets you in the open court."
Fizdale's relationships around the league ended up not mattering all that much when it came to free agency.
At this point, it's difficult to say with any confidence that anybody's relationships around the league will be enough of a draw to get free agents to come to New York. It hasn't worked for any of the various saviors the franchise has hired over the years and there's no reason to believe that it will work for the next one.
Fizdale was unable to repair the relationship that Knicks management had already broken with Kristaps Porzingis, and given the speed and ferocity with which they pushed him out of the job, it seems safe to assume the relationship between Fizdale and Steve Mills and Scott Perry was not on the strongest footing either. The former cannot be blamed on him given the circumstances he was thrust into, but he bears at least partial blame for the latter.
During his season-plus as coach, the Knicks employed the following players, all aged 25 or younger: Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Emmanuel Mudiay, Luke Kornet, Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh, Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, R.J. Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, and Julius Randle.
Is there a single one of those players who made a tangible improvement that can be tied to the coaching of Fizdale and/or his staff?
Not one of the players the Knicks signed to a one-year deal during the 2018 offseason was retained for the 2019-20 season. Dotson and Trier are barely factoring in the rotation this year. Ntilikina was hardly given a chance to succeed (or fail) last season and was only given one this year as a last resort when Smith and Payton - neither of whom has shown much in the way of progress themselves - got injured.
Knox has taken backward steps from his rookie to sophomore season and showed precious little signs of progress during his first year, anyway.
Robinson still has not gotten his fouling issues under control.
Randle's worst instincts have been catered to far too often and he has all too rarely been used in the kind of four-on-three-playmaker-surrounded-by-shooters role that is the clear best fit for him. (Granted, it's difficult to do that when given a roster almost entirely devoid of shooters.)
Barrett has only occasionally been put in position to succeed, and Fizdale cavalierly shrugged off notions that an irresponsible early-season minute load might result in greater risk of fatigue or injury for the team's star rookie, whose performance came crashing down to earth almost immediately after Fizdale mocked the idea that it could happen if he didn't let up on the throttle.
The court mics at MSG are not as loud as they used to be and media seating is not close enough to hear defensive chatter so I can't say with any confidence how loud New York's defense was over the past 104 games, but it certainly was not fast or disruptive or all that effective.
New York's defense moved at the seventh-slowest average speed in the league last season, per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, and moved only marginally faster this year.
Disruption? They were 29th in deflections and 20th in opponent's turnover rate last season and are they're only 27th and 15th, respectively, this season. It should be no surprise at all that their defense during the Fizdale era ranked 26th in the NBA.
Did their offense push the pace? Not by a long shot. The Knicks ranked 17th in pace last season and dropped off to 28th this year.
Did they get good shots? Not really. The best shots in the league are those in close and those behind the three-point line. Just south of 67 percent of the Knicks' shot attempts originated inside the restricted area or outside the three-point line last season, per NBA.com. That rate ranked 16th in the NBA. That rate barely budged this season, and because the league average rose, the Knicks now rank just 22nd in the league on that front. They scored at the single worst rate in the league while Fizdale was in the top spot.
So, the relationships ultimately didn't matter, and the young players did not show progress, and the defense was not fast or loud or disruptive, and the offense did not get out in the open court and did not generate good shots.
Other coaches in similarly dire situations - Brett Brown with the 76ers and Kenny Atkinson with the Nets, to name two - at least established clear, distinct styles of play while their teams were racking up losses left and right. The Knicks never came all that close to doing the same. It was often difficult to discern their goals on offense and it would only be guesswork to say if they had any on defense.
Fizdale was dealt a bad hand of cards with which to play in New York, but he did not exactly play his rags all that well. His firing does not solve any of the team's myriad problems, but it seems unlikely that his continued presence would have done that, either.