NEW YORK -- David Fizdale doesn't know exactly when he's going to go visit New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis in Latvia, but he expects it to happen soon. "We're working on that right now," the new Knicks coach said at his introductory press conference at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. "The plane is warming up."
Porzingis, 22, is by far the most important person in the organization. Fizdale, who will be his fourth coach in four seasons, might now be second on that list. Fizdale's job is to modernize the team and put Porzingis in the best possible position to succeed. Part of that is literal -- what position should the 7-foot-3 "unicorn" play?
For most of his three-year career, Porzingis has played power forward in clunky, two-big lineups. He has repeatedly expressed his preference not to be a full-time center. In a league where stretch 4s are the norm rather than the exception and post-ups are rare, though, it is hard to imagine him staying away from the 5 spot for much longer. Asked directly if Porzingis should play power forward or center, Fizdale suggested that he will be flexible.
"All of it," Fizdale said. "Why limit it? Why put a ceiling on it? Right? I just see so many different ways to use him. Obviously if you play him at some 5, it's like that super lineup you always seeing from different teams, I don't even know how you match up with him from that perspective. But he can play 4. I mean, if you have another space, speed guy at the 4, he might even be able to play just positionless."
Fizdale said he did not want be locked into a way of using any of his new players before working with them. "Positionless basketball" is a term he borrowed from his former boss with the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra, and he wants versatility to be one of New York's strengths.
"I want to get up and down the court," Fizdale said. "I want to share the basketball. I want to attack the paint. But none of that will start without us being a great defensive team. You know, we're going to be a team that really plays a pressure, physical style of basketball. Get a lot of deflections, try to get a lot of steals, get into the open court, earn the right to go play a more free-flowing, attacking style of offense."
New York general manager Scott Perry said that Fizdale is constantly seeking new information. Perry pointed to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph setting career highs in 3-point attempts in Fizdale's first year as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies as an example of his creativity. He added that, when doing background research, current and former players described Fizdale as an innovative basketball mind and a tireless worker.
"He's constantly tinkering with plays," Perry said. "He's going around to coaches around the country, trying to stretch his knowledge base and not think of the game in maybe say the old static ways of everybody has a position. You hear him talk a lot about positionless basketball and not being afraid to try different combinations. I think, with where the game is going today, that's a very appealing quality that he brings."
It might be a while before Fizdale and Porzingis can do real, hands-on work together. Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February, and no one is sure when he will be able to return to the court. When he does come back, though, Fizdale will be judged on how he uses this unique chess piece.
On defense, Porzingis is best around the basket rather than on the perimeter. He has impossibly long arms and routinely makes multiple-effort plays, but is still growing into his body and can be exploited by both stronger players and faster ones. While Porzingis might never turn into an Anthony Davis-like force on that end of the floor, the Knicks need to make the most of his length, shot-blocking and ability to contest shots without fouling. He is already disruptive in the paint, but he can be dominant.
On offense, the possibilities are almost endless. Will Fizdale use him primarily as an isolation player? Will Porzingis develop as a roller as well as a pick-and-pop guy? Can the coaching staff help him get more open looks in the flow of the offense, refine his shot selection and get better at reading defenses? He is an extraordinary talent and a natural scorer, but he has a long way to go in terms of using the threat of his scoring to make plays for his teammates.
Fizdale must help its franchise player go from an All-Star to a true superstar, and that likely means stationing him at center most of the time but protecting him from guarding guys like Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins. Just as the front office has to find players who complement Porzingis, the coaching staff must build a coherent system around him. It's way, way too early to tell if Fizdale will turn out to be the right person for this challenge, but he recognizes that the mere presence of Porzingis gives him an opportunity to make his mark in New York.
"He's the future of the NBA," Fizdale said. "I mean, you look around at the teams that are still playing right now, they've all got guys that are super long, super athletic, super skilled, super tough-minded, incredible workers. And that is what he embodies. Obviously I don't know him personally yet, but I did my background, too, and he fits all of the qualities of a mega-star, a guy who can really propel a franchise forward to high places."