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VOL. 133 | NO. 95 | Friday, May 11, 2018

Fizdale: Lessons Learned in Memphis Will Help in New Job With Knicks

By Don Wade

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It seems like a long time ago now — or maybe it doesn’t — but back in the middle of David Fizdale’s rookie season as an NBA head coach he had the Grizzlies 11 games over .500 (36-25). Back then, it seemed logical and likely that he would put down roots here.

Former Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale faces a much more difficult task as head coach of the New York Knicks, but he could be successful if he avoids mistakes made with the Grizz. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

No less than Boston Celtics mastermind Brad Stevens praised him for his handling of end-game situations. Golden State coach Steve Kerr said: “David has done a great job, but I think he would be the first to tell you that he got a helluva gig his first time out, just like I did.”

Yes, he had walked into a winning atmosphere. The Grizzlies had been to the playoffs six straight years and they went for a seventh time under Fizdale. He both made himself into a local legend of the day and got his team on the national radar when he questioned the officiating in that first-round playoff series with San Antonio.

In that moment, Fizdale seemed to have successfully shaken off his obsession with pushing the Miami Heat culture in which he had been immersed as an assistant when LeBron James called South Beach home and the team won consecutive NBA titles. In that moment, Fizdale seemed to get that his scrappy underdog team needed its coach to be a loud reflection.

That understanding led to this in Fizdale’s post-game press conference after the Spurs beat the Grizzlies 96-82 and shot 17 more free throws and Kawhi Leonard, with 19 free throws, shot four more than the entire Memphis team: “They’re not going to rook us!”

And it led to that phrase that was perfect for a T-shirt and lives on in YouTube videos: “Take that for data!”

You know what happened from there. The Grizzlies fired Fizdale just 19 games into year two, the team mired in a long losing streak, and the coach’s fractured relationship with Marc Gasol beyond saving when he benched his All-Star center for an entire fourth quarter of a 10-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

Now Fizdale, 43, gets his next chance as coach of the New York Knicks. At the outset it is not, to use Kerr’s words, “a helluva gig.” The Knicks haven’t won more than 37 games in a season since 2012-13. Three head coaches and one interim coach have come and gone since then.

What Fizdale does have in New York is a foundational piece in 7-foot-3 Latvian Kristaps Porzingis, who will be 23 when next season starts but is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee. Obviously, Fizdale and the Knicks will need that knee to mend well and for Porzingis to pick up where he left off last season when he was an All-Star and averaged 22.7 points and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range over 48 games.

But, too, Fizdale must make sure he never finds himself where he was with Gasol. At Fizdale’s introductory press conference in New York a couple of days ago, he vowed that it is a lesson learned.

“I really take ownership of that where we didn’t necessarily click on things,” Fizdale said. “It’s my responsibility as a coach to get players to buy in, to get them to collaborate and come together. It’s just, for whatever reason, we bumped heads. I took that to heart.”

To that end, Fizdale says he has been meeting — and learning from — leaders in all types of industry, all walks of life. That sounds like a good process.

Yet it’s logical that Fizdale would pay a lot of attention to what he learned under Heat president Pat Riley and from the best coaches in the business. The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich determined early in his career that the best player and 12th player would be treated one and the same. For him, it has worked.

“He may even be harder on his best players,” Fizdale said of Popovich, when The Daily News asked Fizdale about Popovich as a model during the middle of that 2016-17 season. “I’ve heard that from everybody’s that’s played for him. That’s one thing I just really admire. So I try to do the same thing with these guys, without the pedigree of Popovich. But it’s what’s right and it’s what creates trust between you and your players. I’ve definitely taken that from him.”

Clearly, that didn’t go quite like Fizdale hoped in regards to Gasol. In recent days, social media has been full of stories suggesting that Fizdale, among other things, belittled Gasol’s championships on the international stage with the Spanish National Team. Whether that was true, whether as also circulated Gasol said in a team meeting a better leader was needed and Fizdale pined for LeBron, know this: Any future dust-up with a player will get magnified tenfold in NYC.

Fizdale isn’t coming into a recently established and strong culture — unless you call losing a culture — and that should help him as he tries to make his way and put his imprint on the team. But he also has come to a franchise that is still very proud, that counts two NBA titles and nine retired jerseys.

Names like Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Patrick Ewing and Dave DeBusschere will echo long after David Fizdale has come and gone.

“The history of the Knicks, I don’t take lightly,” Fizdale said on day one.

The history of the Grizzlies, such as it was, he did. He looked at aging players such as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen and determined it was time for change. And this season showed Fizdale wasn’t wrong to believe their best days were behind them.

But he underestimated the power of the culture they and Gasol and Mike Conley had built together. He overestimated his role as an assistant coach on championship teams that were carried by LeBron and a strong supporting cast.

“I probably went (into Memphis) too much guns blazing,” Fizdale said.

Facing that truth, perhaps Fizdale can make the best of the shot that’s in front of him.

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