Knicks 2018-19 Preview: The Season Of #FizKids

If we lived life in an XBox, we’d happily glide off the Battle Bus, have the charm and appeal of Ezio Auditore and simply hit “simulate” on the Knicks’ season just to get to July 2019.

[Truth be told, if we lived life in an XBox, the Knicks would be raising a banner. They did win the inaugural NBA2K championship last season. But back to reality…]

As the Knicks attempt to remain painstakingly disciplined to this rebuild — “What we are NOT going to do is take shortcuts,” Steve Mills said last month — the biggest mistake would be to overlook this season. In fact, what happens between Oct. 17 and Apr. 17 will play a critical role in whether or not the franchise can advance the cause come Jul. 1.

David Fizdale, Scott Perry and Steve Mills sit down with Mike Breen in a town hall format, as they preview the Knicks' 2018-19 campaign.

“If our culture isn’t right, then free agency don’t matter,” David Fizdale told a crowd of season ticket holders last month. “We ain’t getting nobody.”

He’s the 10th head coach since Jeff Van Gundy left in 2001, so that means we’ve heard 10 different promises about a commitment to winning and work ethic. But Fizdale’s approach is fresh because he’s dedicated to something most past Knicks coaches never felt secure enough to prioritize: development.

This is the season of the #FizKids, with one of the youngest opening night rosters in the NBA and one of the youngest in franchise history. You’ll see lineups loaded with inexperience and you’ll see coaching that encourages playing through mistakes. “Throw them in the fire and let’s see what happens,” he said earlier in the preseason. “I want to see how they respond.”

What Fizdale wants to establish this season is a culture of player development and an identity that, he hopes, reconnects to what he calls “Knicks DNA,” which is a style of play based on effort and toughness. He comes with two rings he won as a top assistant with the Heat and learning from Pat Riley, who when he came in 1991 made the same effort to re-establish that “Knicks DNA.”

Fizdale sought advice from Riley before he took the job and Riley encouraged him to follow that blueprint. Of course, it was a lot easier for Riley, who came in with a team that was already playoff-caliber with one of the top players in the game, Patrick Ewing, just coming into his prime.

Fizdale has to guide a team that will be without it’s All-Star, Kristaps Porzingis, through an extremely difficult early schedule — Celtics, Bucks, Heat, Warriors await in the first week of games — while teaching raw recruits such as 19-year-old Kevin Knox, 20-year-old Frank Ntilikina and an extremely raw Mitchell Robinson how to play the pro game.

The Knicks are not a dynamic team. They don’t shoot the ball well. They lack a key element in today’s NBA: three-point shooting. So in order for them to be competitive, Fizdale will need to monitor these four factors: Effective Field Goal Percentage, Defensive Rating, Fast Break Points and Points off Turnovers.

[Coverage of the Knicks Season Opener Begins Tonight at 6:30 on MSG & MSG GO.]

In the preseason, the Knicks had an eFG of 47.3%, which was among the bottom third of the league, they boasted a top 10 DRtg (99.5), were middle of the pack in FB Pts (13.2 per game) and were Top-10 in Points off TOs (23.0).

If they’re gonna be young, they better run.

Expect Fizdale to play a 10-man rotation and even change his starting lineup based on merit. He’s going to demand 94-feet of defensive pressure and running on everything. Don’t save yourself, empty the tank. You won’t see too many players average over 30 minutes a night. He’ll play vets such as Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee mainly to be stabilizers when the other four players on the court are so young. He’ll have Trey Burke as the starting point guard, but won’t hesitate to give Emmanuel Mudiay an opportunity to work his way into those minutes.

Knox will play. And play. And play. He’ll have good games, he’ll have bad games. Some nights he’ll need to take a seat and watch and other nights he’ll get to eat. “He’s gotta take his lumps,” Fizdale said. “Just let him grow through the hell of it and get beat up.”

Kevin Knox talks about coming off the bench and the advantages of playing with the second unit, as the Knicks get ready for Opening Night against the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden.

Knox started off well in the preseason but struggled with his shooting, which affected the rest of his game, in the last three games. Let’s remember Kevin Durant, as a 19-year-old rookie, shot 43% from the field and 28% from three. He averaged 20 a game on a team that went 20-62.

Fizdale will use Ntilikina everywhere. Some point, some wing and maybe even against a stretch four. The kid may be French, but he’ll be a Swiss Army Knife. Whether you like it or not, that’s what Ntilikina is right now. You want him to establish himself as a full-time, starting quality point guard? Put some jets in his sneakers. Otherwise, Frank will be groomed for his versatility. If you want a prototype, think a less explosive Andre Iguodala.

With 8 former lottery picks on the roster — 6 of whom are veterans still trying to establish themselves — Fizdale wants to encourage competition. He also doesn’t want to create an environment where a player who is not in the rotation doesn’t let go of the rope (see: Mudiay). You see that often around the league.

But that’s easy to do in the preseason when wins and losses don’t count. Once the ball tips on Wednesday night, the records are kept. Moods are tethered to wins and losses. The challenge for Fizdale is to keep despair at bay and forge a culture that can find optimism in tangible improvements that may not be represented in the win-loss column.

Fizdale can simply look to his close friend and former boss, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, for inspiration. In 2016-17, the Heat began the season 11-30.

They finished 41-41 and one spot out of the playoffs.

[Coverage of the Knicks Season Opener Begins Tonight at 6:30 on MSG & MSG GO.]

That’s a franchise that was trending up and a great deal of the credit went to Spoelstra and the culture of player development that produced a career-best season for Dion Waiters and the emergence of diamond-in-the-rough talents such as Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside.

The Knicks are loaded with potential diamond-in-the-rough candidates, such as Burke, Allonzo Trier and Noah Vonleh and reclamation projects in Mudiay and Mario Hezonja. Out of this group, can Fizdale and his coaching staff turn two into quality rotation players on a playoff team?

Essentially, the Knicks by season’s end need to establish Knox, Robinson, Trier and Ntilikina as legit NBA rotation players and perhaps add one or two more as keepers. This will make up the foundation of the Knicks’ next playoff team and, equally-important, evidence to prospective free agents next summer — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard etc. — that the cupboard is not bare like it was in 2010.

Then there’s the Unicorn. He may be Fizdale’s greatest project of all, because of how important his return will be not to the result of the season but the anticipation for the future. Porzingis showed early last season evidence of superstar potential and leading-man confidence.

Scott Perry speaks to the media ahead of the start of the new season and provides an update on Kristaps Porzingis' health and his contract status.

But he also showed how quickly his battery — and his optimism — can drain. Fizdale established a bond with KP by visiting Latvia this summer and getting to know him personally, which is something neither Phil Jackson nor Jeff Hornacek took the time to do. Fizdale learned from his breakup with the Grizzlies and power struggle with Marc Gasol how important it is to have a mutual loyalty with the star player.

Riley immediately worked to appeal to Ewing and gain his trust. Fizdale needs to continue doing the same with Porzingis. The two need each other more than they know.

There will be great anticipation for Porzingis’ return and Fizdale has to be able to not only manage the anticipation, but also KP’s minutes and determination to get back to his All-Star level. Porzingis did not get a max contract extension, so he’ll have to wait for his payday next summer. Coincidentally, how he looks when the season ends will also have a big impact on what may happen in July and not just with his contract.

If KP can return to his All-Star form and thrive under Fizdale’s enthusiastic, motivational coaching and four or five players emerge through development as keepers, the Knicks may have exactly what they need to make July 2019 worth waiting for

And that’s what makes this season, lowered expectations and all, so important to watch.

[Coverage of the Knicks Season Opener Begins Tonight at 6:30 on MSG & MSG GO.]