Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
On the first day of training camp, Knicks team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry told fans that they'd put together a team that New Yorkers would appreciate.
But they shied away from making any playoff predictions.
"We're not in the prediction business. I'm not here to predict records," Perry said that day. "But I expect us to be better, an improved basketball team."
Privately, though, expectations for the 2019-2020 Knicks were set during the team's first official meeting. Members of the front office addressed the players in the meeting and conveyed two distinct messages, according to SNY sources familiar with the discussions:
1. They said, in no uncertain terms, that they believed that the Knicks were a playoff team and anything less than that was a disappointment.
2. Players who were entering free agency in the summer of 2020 were told that they would be judged much more heavily on the team's win-loss record than their individual play.
By delivering the playoff edict, management may have been trying to motivate a roster with several new faces and a young, untested core.
But if the expectations set in the meeting were earnest, the Knicks have fallen well short of those preseason goals.
Entering Friday's game against Toronto, the Knicks are 12-33, 7.5 games outside of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The season, obviously, has been a disappointment on many levels thus far. It began with a 4-18 stretch that led to David Fizdale's firing.
After a 6-6 start under interim head coach Mike Miller, the Knicks have dropped nine of their last 11. They have the third-worst record in the NBA.
Because of the Knicks' modest success under Miller, some fans and analysts have concluded that New York's poor start was almost entirely Fizdale's fault. That theory, though, ignores a few significant factors: the Knicks played an easier schedule shortly after Fizdale was fired; starting point guard Elfrid Payton -- and more recently, Reggie Bullock -- returned from lengthy absences after Fizdale was let go.
The theory also ignores some external factors that contributed to the situation, factors that show the responsibility for New York's 4-18 start were shared among management and the coaching staff.
Based on interviews with agents, executives, players and coaches, we take a look at some of those factors below:
PLAYERS FEELING INTERNAL/EXTERNAL PRESSURE
As the losses mounted early in the season, the preseason playoff expectations weighed heavily on some of the Knicks.
"They were definitely playing tight," one person in touch with those players at the time said. "(Some of the players eligible for 2020 free agency) were already worried about next summer."
Those early-season losses also led to immediate speculation about Fizdale's job security. The speculation increased, of course, after Mills and Perry held their impromptu press conference in early November.
Fizdale was addressing his players in the locker room when Mills and Perry spoke to the media, unaware of the proceedings. The coach met with reporters after Mills and Perry's press conference and took responsibility for the team's shortcomings.
"None of us are happy with it but ultimately that falls on me as head coach," he said. "I have to figure out a way to build some consistency with this team."
Several coaches and execs around the league were surprised at the front office's post-game evaluation, a feeling echoed publicly by Clippers coach Doc Rivers earlier this month.
"That was bad," Rivers said of the Mills-Perry press conference. "I think we all know that."
In the days and weeks after the front office's press conference -- which was the last time management spoke to the media -- several players relayed to Fizdale that they were concerned about his potentially getting fired, according to people in touch with the players at the time.
That element -- plus the preseason playoff edict - took a toll on some in the locker room, people around those players say.
"It's hard enough to win in New York. The failure to meet those (preseason playoff) expectations and the noise around Fizdale certainly wasn't helping," a source in touch with multiple players early in the season said. "Some guys felt like every loss was going to cost Fizdale his job."
At the time, several Knicks said that they didn't want to see Fizdale blamed for the team's shortcomings.
"At the end of the day, Fiz is putting us in the best position to be successful," Marcus Morris said after a November loss. "…. He's been nothing but a great coach for us, he's been giving us what we need."
In the days before Fizdale's firing, Mills and Perry met with players to talk about the reasons for the team's struggles, according to an ESPN report. Some of those meetings, per sources, included conversations about Fizdale's performance. Mills and Perry meet regularly with their players over the course of the season.
But the subject matter in these meetings was troubling to one ex-NBA coach, who saw the discussion of Fizdale's coaching as a breach of trust between the front office and Fizdale.
"It's certainly not a sign that everyone's rowing in the same direction," that coach said.
THIS WASN'T THE PLAN
As you know, the Knicks were hunting for two stars in the summer of 2019. At the time of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, the club felt that it had a strong chance at landing Kevin Durant and another star in free agency.
Presumably, that's part of the reason Knicks owner James Dolan said in a spring interview on ESPN Radio, "New York is the mecca of basketball. We hear from people, from players, from representatives about who wants to come. From what we've heard, I think we're going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agency."
Of course, the Porzingis trade wasn't part of the Knicks' original plan in for 2018-19.
Initially, the expectation was that Fizdale would have a healthy Porzingis and one or two significant free agents on his roster in the 2019-2020 season, per league sources in touch with Knicks management at the time.
Obviously, none of that came to fruition.
Instead, the Knicks last summer signed several veterans to team-friendly deals to maintain future cap flexibility and, they hoped, put a wining product on the floor.
(As an aside: Some media reports/commentary suggested in the wake of the Porzinigs deal that the All-Star big man had an issue with Fizdale. But both Fizdale and Porzingis have said that they got along well. Fizdale, it's worth noting, was the lone member of the Knicks organization to visit Porzingis in his home country of Latvia.)
Even after striking out on stars in free agency, Knicks management felt that it had put together a team with enough talent to make the playoffs. So when the Knicks lost to Milwaukee and Denver by a combined 81 points and fell to 4-18 in early December, no one around the NBA was surprised that Mills and Perry decided to fire Fizdale. The team wasn't progressing fast enough and Fizdale wasn't winning enough.
But the way in which Fizdale was fired surprised some veteran NBA coaches.
PLAYERS/COACHES CAUGHT OFF GUARD
The day after the Knicks' blowout loss to Denver, the players met privately before practice to discuss lingering issues. Among them: selfish play, player-to-player accountability and a general sense of urgency to turn things around for their embattled head coach.
Some players, according to sources in touch with them at the time, emerged from the meeting optimistic that they had ironed things out and could save Fizdale's job.
Fizdale coached practice that day -- a high-energy session that featured the ball movement players discussed in the meeting, according to people in touch with the players. After practice, Fizdale talked to the media about potential lineup changes he wanted to make in the next game. He also shook hands with several members of the front office who attended the practice.
Shortly thereafter, Fizdale was fired.
Several veteran executives observing from the outside were surprised at the way things unfolded. "I don't think I've seen a coach address the media, coach practice and get let go," one exec said. "Terrible optics."
When reached by SNY for comment on the information in this story, Fizdale declined to discuss the specific details. But he did say that he hopes Miller gets "a chance to stay on as head coach after this year."
"I hope Mike, who I remain in touch with, and the players there can continue to build on what we started together," Fizdale added.
Fizdale added that he hired Miller as an assistant to his staff prior to the season because he felt it was important to promote from within, an organizational practice he'd learned during his time with the Miami Heat.
"I'm very proud of the job Mike and the staff are doing," he said.
In addition to speaking with Miller, Fizdale also remains in touch with several Knicks, sending them regular messages of encouragement. As he noted in a recent interview with ESPN, Fizdale said that he isn't bitter over his firing. He declined to discuss the circumstances, but Fizdale is well aware of the lifespan for NBA head coaches. So he couldn't have been caught off guard when he was fired after a 4-18 start.
That's not to suggest that Fizdale is at peace with everything that's transpired.
Two people close to the head coach said that he is bothered by the suggestion, from some media reports, that he was content with being fired because he'd be collecting the money remaining on his $22 million contract.
When asked about that theory after Miami's recent game in New York, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra strongly refuted the idea.
"That's total BS. That's not him at all," said Spoelstra, who worked with Fizdale for 10 years in Miami. "I've worked with Fiz for a long period of time and he's a great teacher and committed to his craft. Being content with anything is not in his DNA."
To underline that point, those around Fizdale point out that he was aware that his close friend, top assistant Keith Smart, would be fired with him if he were let go. "Why would he want that for his best friend?" one of the Fizdale associate said.
The two Fizdale confidants also say that he's irked by the idea that his 21-83 record with the Knicks is viewed as a reflection of his ability as a coach. They point out the fact that he came to the Big Apple with a 50-51 career record that included a trip to the playoffs in Memphis. "He sacrificed his record to tank" last season when the Knicks prioritized player development -- and lottery odds - in the 2018-19 season, the Fizdale associates noted.
To be clear: None of the above is an attempt to discredit Miller. The interim head coach has done well in difficult circumstances. The Knicks are organized on both ends of the floor and they've been mostly competitive in losses under Miller. So the interim coach certainly deserves credit for the way New York has played since he's taken over.
It's also fair to point out that some players cite the players-only meeting on the day of Fizdale's firing as a catalyst for their improved play.
"We had a team meeting before whatever happened. So we were going to step our game up anyway," Mitchell Robinson said shorty after Fizdale's dismissal.
Fizdale and the players also said repeatedly early in the season that they'd need time to gel because of all the new faces on the team. Echoing Fizdale, Wayne Ellington cited similarities between the Knicks' roster and the 2016-17 Miami Heat, which went 30-11 following an 11-30 start to the season.
"It takes a lot of character to make a flip like that," Ellington said after a loss in late November. "I think we've got that in this locker room. We've got the guys for it."
Would the Knicks have made that kind of turnaround if Fizdale were still coaching? Would they be 12-33 today if Fizdale were leading the group instead of Miller?
That's impossible to know.
And no one familiar with the NBA would raise an eyebrow if a team fires its head coach following a 4-18 start. So there's no reason to question the Knicks' decision to fire Fizdale from a bottom-line perspective.
But the circumstances surrounding Fizdale's firing were unorthodox. And factors beyond Fizdale's control - some of which are described above -- contributed to the Knicks' early season struggles.
So, at the very least, the responsibility for what went wrong in those first 22 games shouldn't be put solely on Fizdale. It should be shared among everyone with decision-making power in the organization.