New York Knicks: The fallacy behind David Fizdale’s rotations

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

A spotlight has been cast on the front office of the New York Knicks organization after the disastrous start to the 2019-2020 season, with coach David Fizdale finding himself on the hot seat early for his lack of game management. But is this justified? 

Over the first 11 games of the 2019-20 NBA season, the New York Knicks have fielded six different starting lineups, and though some of the changes have come due to injuries to players like Mitchell Robinson and Elfrid Payton, much of it can be attributed to coach David Fizdale’s “keep what you kill” policy that was put in place last season. But has this policy benefited the Knicks, or have Fizdale’s rotations and player management skills been debilitating to an organization looking to build through youth?

Though the idea of keeping players accountable for poor performances can be seen as positive, it can just as easily foster an environment of fear where players are too afraid to make mistakes and lose minutes. From what we’ve seen amongst the youth of the New York Knicks, the latter seems to be the case.

Frank Ntilikina has been playing some of the best basketball of his career off the back of his most consistent minutes, including an impressive performance against the Dallas Mavericks in which he was one of the best players on the floor for the Knicks. Coach Fizdale has stated that one of the most important contributors to Frank’s recent performances has been his confidence, and that he has to continue to play with the confidence that comes with not being afraid to make mistakes.

Yet later that same day The New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy reported that Ntilikina’s starting role would be under review once Elfrid Payton returned, based on the performance of the team.

For a player in Ntilikina’s position, it begins to make sense that his follow-up performances since Dallas have been far less spectacular if he is being encouraged to play without fear, while at the same time being made responsible for the entire team’s success at the risk of his playing time.

The situation with Frank is one of a few examples of the illogical nature of Fizdale’s minutes policy. Players like Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson have also seen their playtime greatly reduced since last year, and the minutes that they have seen have been erratic.

Trier was among the starting 5 on opening night, but only saw 7 minutes of game time. He proceeded to play 20-plus minutes in each of the following two games, before being benched for the next three games on coach’s decision, in which the Knicks went 1-2. He saw a return to the rotation in a losing effort against the Sacramento Kings in which he played 20+ minutes, before only getting four minutes in the Knicks next loss against the Detroit Pistons.

Dotson has been lucky to see the floor at all this year, despite starting 40 games last season and showing himself to be an effective two-way role player, having multiple 20-plus scoring performances. Dotson had only played a total of 32 minutes this season before his 21-minute performance in the Knicks blowout loss to the Cleveland Caveliers, his sixth game played this season.

This lack of minutes for players who were bright spots of a dull season last year has seemingly come at the behest of players like Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Wayne Ellington. But going by the Fizdale’s own edict of “keep what you kill,” this shouldn’t be the case.

All 4 of those players rank in the Knicks top 10 in minutes per game this season, and all 4 of them are also having career-low shooting performances to start the season. Lineups featuring Randle, Portis and Morris on the floor together have also been derided for a lack of ball movement and have been net losses in terms of points scored vs. points scored against, and yet they make up 4 of the top 10 most played lineups for the Knicks this season.

So if only certain players minutes are being held hostage due to team performance, and if only certain players are seeing their minutes slashed due to poor performances while others are seemingly immune to “keeping what you kill,” then what is Fizdale’s minutes policy?

If going 5-for-15 or 6-for-17 shooting doesn’t see you lose minutes for players like Kevin Knox, then nothing will. How are the fans supposed to trust a coach to faithfully develop a team of young players when there’s no consistency? How are the players supposed to build any trust in that coach to guide their team?

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With his position within the Knicks organization seemingly at risk, Coach Fizdale may help ingratiate himself with the fans by benching players like Morris and Randle for poor performances and running with the youth movement. But at this point, even that might not be enough to keep the wolves from his door.