With little else left to use as motivation in a season that was about to conclude with very few victories, New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale used his young team’s final seven regular games this year as a pseudo playoff series.
“I issued them a challenge,” he said. “Can we win a series? We got down 3-1 and we pushed it to a Game 7.”
In actuality, the Knicks would’ve been swept, having lost the first four contests of the seven-game stretch Fizdale was targeting, to drop their ninth straight game while suffering their 17th defeat in 18 games.
Nevertheless, New York then managed to win consecutive games (over fellow lottery teams) for only the third time all season — gutting out a three-point home win over Washington followed by an 11-point victory in Chicago — to barely avoid ending the year with the Knicks’ worst record ever.
The season finale at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night was a different story, as the visiting Detroit Pistons (41-41) secured a .500 record and clinched the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with a 115-89 dismantling of the Knicks, who for the second time in five seasons, finished a franchise-worst 17-65.
Bridging the gap between what New York showed in its two most recent wins and for some infrequent flashes over the season, to where Detroit currently is and eventually beyond (to become a legitimate contender), are what the Knicks’ front office, Fizdale and his coaching staff, and the team’s players will have to diligently work on over the offseason.
Yet unlike the Knicks team that went the same 17-65 four years ago, New York is far better positioned now with resources to improve and ultimately achieve sustained success, with some better salary cap space and seemingly some good young potential on its roster (along with some draft picks) that the Knicks didn’t have the last time they hit rock bottom record-wise.
Fizdale viewed the season-ending loss to Detroit in what he laid out to his team as the culmination of a mock playoff series as being beneficial.
“It was a good lesson for [my players] to understand what it takes to get over the hump in a Game 7 against a team that was desperate,” he said.
After the final buzzer sounded for the season, it was time to reflect on the positives from which to learn while looking wide-eyed toward the future.
In particular, that included what Fizdale saw (and hopes to see moving forward) from a trio of rookies — center Mitchell Robinson, small forward Kevin Knox and shooting guard Allonzo Trier — as well as second-year point guard Dennis Smith Jr.
“I’m just excited for the summer,” Fizdale said. “There’s a lot of good stuff we can take from this season, especially with the young guys. The fact that Mitchell Robinson finished second in blocks in the league… most people didn’t know who he was and here he is playing 20 minutes a game and finishing second in blocks.”
Selected in the second round, 36th overall in last year’s draft, the ultra-athletic, 7-foot-1 Robinson now seems to have been overlooked by many NBA teams.
“I had no idea who this kid was, but once he got here, he kept growing so fast,” Fizdale said of Robinson, who averaged 7.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over his first NBA season. “It was just like, ‘We really fell into something here with this kid.’ We can all agree, if we had to restructure the draft right now, I don’t think he’d go 36th. I think he’d be in the top 10 pretty easily.”
On Knox, who was inconsistent but finished strong to average 12.8 points per game after being selected ninth overall last year, Fizdale noted, “As up and down as Kevin’s season was, for a 19-year-old to do some of the stuff that he did this year, I thought it was exceptional. He’s one of six teenagers to hit over 100 3s, he made the [Rising Stars] Game (during NBA All-Star weekend), he was the (Eastern Conference) Rookie of the Month (in December)… stuff like that [was] really big positives.”
Regarding 23-year-old Trier, who went from going undrafted, to averaging 10.9 points per game, while shooting 44.8 percent overall, 39.4 percent from 3-point range and 80.3 percent at the foul line in 22.8 minutes per contest — Fizdale said, “The fact that ‘Zo came here and earned a roster spot as a two-way (G-League) guy, that’s something to marvel at.”
Hoping to see more out of Smith Jr. — who averaged 14.7 points and 5.4 assists for the Knicks after being traded (in part) for ex-New York superstar Kristaps Porzingis on the final day of January — Fizdale said, “Dennis has superior athleticism. The big thing that I’m going to hammer home with him is that he’s got to be in the best shape of his life coming into next season. We’re going to put a ton of time in on his jump shot and really get him where he’s consistent and comfortable shooting the ball, and I’ll just hammer him about his defense and try to use his speed to disrupt offenses.”
Some initial groundwork has already been laid by Fizdale and his coaching staff before trying to help the Knicks’ young players improve on the floor.
“I spent a big part of the last few weeks meeting with each player individually about the year in general, getting their thoughts about where they think they need to get better, where they thought they did well,” Fizdale said. “I even asked them about the culture, how they felt about how we operate and what we could do better [as an organization]. We had some really good sit-downs with these guys and they understand what the summer’s going to entail.”
Hoping that will pay dividends later, Fizdale added, “I’m already itching to get into the gym and start that process of getting [the young players] to that next level.
“As a group, I think we’ve got a chunk of young guys that can move forward with us in the future, [who] will be able to fill in some spots around some veteran players, and [we can then] start moving in a direction of winning.
“We’re really excited about the future and the summer. We’ve got a big summer ahead of us. [We’ll have] a lot of hard work that we’ve got to put in, but I think these young guys are going to be ready.”
Though they’re young and their respective pro careers have only just begun, the fledgling group of Knicks who Fizdale singled out sound mature beyond their years in terms of identifying how they can improve and the work they are each willing to put in to do so.
“There’s no such thing as a center anymore,” Robinson said. “Everybody stepping out and shooting, and putting [the ball] on the floor. My next step is to work on that and dribble the ball a little bit better, get my jump shot a little bit better, and go from there.
“I started off kind of sluggish, but towards the middle, I picked it up and the game got comfortable to me. I came in second in the league for blocked shots, so that’s kind of amazing, coming in here as a rookie. At the end of the season, I got comfortable. I started getting more rebounds and more points, and I just got better.
“I have to get stronger and work on my post moves, and work on my jump shot. In today’s game, everybody out there is shooting 3s. So, I have to add that to my game.”
As a group, Robinson said, “We’ve got to communicate a little better,” justifying New York’s problem with that issue by adding, “This year, we were all new to each other.”
Knox also felt he grew during his rookie campaign. “I learned a lot this season about the NBA, off the court and on the court,” he said. “I learned a lot about being more professional. I’m going to take some time off and then I’m going to get right to it. I plan on having a huge summer and coming back next year playing a lot better.
“Offensively and defensively, there are things still a lot of things I’ve got to work on, but from game 1 to game 82, I just feel like a totally different player.”
Another Knicks draft pick, a classic NBA “3-and-D” player (3-point shooting and defensive specialist) Damyean Dotson, selected 44th overall two years ago, acknowledged that he could improve on something that is already a strength of his, in addition to expanding his offensive skills.
“[My] defense, off the ball, help-side defense, being more aware defensively, my ball handling and being strong with the ball” were areas which Dotson said he plans to improve upon. “I haven’t proven anything. That’s my goal, to watch film get better, and come back stronger.
“Most of the time, I was coming off pick-and-rolls to shoot, but I think the next layer is to get the ball to the bigs and let them score, and [for me to] get more assists.”
From a collective standpoint, Dotson added, “All the young guys have to figure out how important defense is in this league. If you want to win, you’ve got to be able to execute coverages, rebound, all the small things that help win games.”
While he’s eager to help his players grow, Fizdale, who just completed his first season coaching Knicks after spending roughly 1¼ seasons as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, says he’s also benefitted from his first year in New York in ways that he can use to grow himself.
“It was good for me because I had to learn how to be patient,” Fizdale said.
That trait helped as the losses mounted throughout the season.
“I got over that a long time ago,” said Fizdale. “When I signed up from the very beginning to be the head coach of the Knicks, coming into this first year, I put my ego to the side when it came to the record. “I understand it’s big picture thing that we have to stick to. If I had gotten to a point where I was chasing wins and worrying about my personal record, it would have knocked us off of what we were trying to do. We got the wins where we could get them. There were probably 10-12 games when we lost in the last two minutes of the game, but those are all great [learning] experiences for these young guys [that]… next year will help them be better.
“The team I had in Memphis were veterans [and the one in New York] is the exact opposite. So, for me, it was really a great experience of learning what guys can pick up fast, how they can learn it, what they don’t pick up… so it’s good for me to go back to the lab and reevaluate some things, and come back the next year, better.
“Probably the biggest thing is I can’t be so hard on myself… I really take it home with me. So, I have to really learn how to self-evaluate without [beating myself up].”
Of course, Fizdale and his team know the reality — that even if all of the growth with the Knicks’ young players goes better than New York could possibly hope for this offseason and into next year, some significant outside help will likely have to be added to make large enough strides in the club’s rebuilding process.
Knicks fans — who are not only hoping to see New York acquire top free agent targets like Golden State’s Kevin Durant or Boston’s Kyrie Irving, but who also chanted “We want Zion!” (hoping New York’s 14 percent chance will pay off for landing Duke University star Zion Williamson as the top draft pick this year) as the Pistons led by more than 30 points in the fourth quarter — know it too.
“This summer is going to be huge for every team,” Knox said. “There will be a lot of trades and big-time free agents [on the move]. It’s going to be a big summer for us and for other teams as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how we reconstruct [our roster] and if we can get better.”
Fizdale said he expects the Knicks’ roster to be “very different” next year. He predicted, “We’ll be a little more seasoned. Hopefully, all things hit that we’ll go after, and it puts is right in the mix of being a great team.”
After enduring a second 17-win season within the past five years, Knicks fans can only hope that will be the case.