No NBA team needs modernizing more than the New York Knicks. Even after ditching Phil Jackson's triangle offense and Carmelo Anthony's isolations this season, they played a prehistoric brand of basketball under recently fired coach Jeff Hornacek.
Knicks fans already know the numbers: They were third in the league in midrange shot frequency, per Cleaning the Glass, and just 20th and 29th in shots at the rim and from behind the 3-point line, respectively. This -- combined with their poor turnover rate -- is how they finished 24th in offensive rating despite being 12th in field-goal percentage and grabbing tons of offensive rebounds.
On the other end, things weren't much better -- they were 20th in limiting shots at the rim and 20th in limiting 30-point attempts, and only the Sacramento Kings were worse in terms of limiting corner 3s. If you're not part of the anti-analytics crowd, you probably see this as the equivalent of starting every game spotting the other team points.
For this reason, Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale should be seen as extremely encouraging. Not only did he serve as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat when coach Erik Spoelstra invented the term "pace and space" and popularized the term "positionless basketball," Fizdale already has experience transforming an old-school team. And, in terms of buy-in, that one had a much higher degree of difficulty.former
The Grizzlies hired Fizdale in 2016 and it was immediately evident that he wanted them to put the grit-and-grind era behind them. He convinced veteran Zach Randolph that accepting a sixth-man role would be best for both him and the team. He redesigned the offense around Mike Conley running pick-and-rolls rather than Marc Gasol and Randolph posting up. Gasol even started shooting 3s in order to give Conley space to attack the basket. The defense was different, too, with more switching and less packing the paint.
Given that Fizdale didn't last a full two seasons in Memphis, it is difficult to call his tenure a smashing success. It would be unfair, though, to call it a failure. The team changed its ways under his watch, and its effort against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of last year's playoffs should not be forgotten. Chandler Parsons, whose career has gone off the rails because of knee trouble, was supposed to be the connective tissue of the Grizzlies' attack. In his absence, they managed to take two games from the 61-win Spurs with Vince Carter and James Ennis starting on the wing.
When Fizdale's tenure ended, it became clear that he and Gasol's relationship had deteriorated. In retrospect, maybe the center's resistance to Fizdale was inevitable -- former Memphis coach Dave Joerger could never get the group to embrace a new identity, either, and wound up reverting to its old-school style. Perhaps Fizdale wouldn't have fizzled out so quickly if he had taken his first head-coaching job with a team trying to build a culture from scratch rather than trying to force a veteran team to evolve.
In New York, Fizdale will get the opportunity to establish a way of doing things that reflects what he believes in. The Knicks are coming off five losing seasons under four different coaches. Their franchise player, Kristaps Porzingis, turns 23 this summer and tore his ACL in February. If you believe management when it preaches patience, then it follows that Fizdale will be judged by how New York plays rather than how many games it wins. This is the only sensible way to rebuild, regardless of market size.
Of course, there are significant questions about how this partnership will work. What are Fizdale's plans for Porzingis? How will he develop young guys like Frank Ntilikina -- an advanced defender who never looked particularly comfortable with the ball in his hands in his rookie season -- and whoever the Knicks pick in this June's draft?
It is impossible to answer those questions yet, but here's what we do know: Fizdale understands the modern game, has been a part of lottery teams and championship teams and has done just about every job in his field, starting as an intern in the Heat's video room. He is not a huge name, but he does have a personality fit for New York. If the Knicks' front office actually sticks with him and aims for sustainable success, maybe he can give them a sense of stability and respectability. Now, that would be new.