While spending eight years around Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra as a Miami Heat assistant coach, David Fizdale undoubtedly learned all about preparation, motivating players and getting the most out of them. He also had to pick up some words to live by that go beyond coach-speak.
One of Fizdale’s favorites came from Spoelstra and could be a window into how he will approach his players and his job as Knicks coach. It’s “embrace discomfort.”
The Knicks know the discomfort of losing, underachieving and unnecessary drama, but that’s not what Spoelstra meant, or what Fizdale means.
It’s about challenging players and getting them out of their comfort zone, making them do what’s necessary to win and to put the team ahead of yourself. Fizdale even said he’s wired similar to hard-driving Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
The Knicks could be in for a rude and necessary awakening.
Fizdale, who is expected to be introduced as the Knicks’ new coach at a news conference early this week, is taking over a team that has lost at least 50 games for four straight seasons, has missed the playoffs five years in a row and has won one postseason series in 18 years.
Take that for data, as Fizdale once famously said.
Knicks officials must believe that Fizdale, 43, is the right man to help change the direction of the franchise or they wouldn’t have signed him to a four-year deal and asked him to lead their rebuild.
The Knicks fired Jeff Hornacek hours after their 29-win regular season ended. He went 60-104 in two seasons as Knicks coach.
Fizdale doesn’t have the resume of Mike Budenholzer, David Blatt or Mike Woodson, who were among the 11 men interviewed for the position. But the Los Angeles native checked a lot of the boxes that Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry were looking for in Hornacek’s replacement.
They wanted someone who would stress defense and player development and who can relate to today’s athletes and hold them accountable. And did we mention that Fizdale spent eight years with Miami?
He was a part of the LeBron James-led Heat teams that went to four straight NBA Finals and won two titles. Fizdale also experienced some success and turmoil on his own.
He guided the aged Grizzlies to the playoffs in his first season on the bench. Seven months later, he lost his job over a clash with Grizzlies star center Marc Gasol.
His career head-coaching record is 50-51. Not exactly Riley-esque. But Fizdale said player-coach spats happen all the time and that he will continue to be demanding and put winning before everything.
“I just think you’re not going to be liked by everybody. I don’t care about that,” Fizdale told FS1’s Chris Broussard during his “In the Zone” podcast less than two months after he was fired. “Ultimately, I’m about winning. We can work through anything if all we’re doing is working toward winning.
“I’m not coaching basketball, I’m not getting paid the money I’m getting paid to be liked. Nick Saban isn’t getting paid to be liked at Alabama. I don’t think he’s very liked by a lot of people. But he’s respected and he’s a winner. The guys who have gone through that gauntlet with him and won, they love him. But he pushes buttons and he challenges people and he goes to a level that’s going to be uncomfortable. That’s how I’m built.
“Spo’s greatest line, I thought, is ‘Embrace discomfort.’ I feel I try to create it as much as possible. I don’t want to overdo it and [tick] people off, but I’m also going to push you to the place that I know can get us to the title.”
Strong words, but Fizdale obviously believes it.
After all that time around Riley, Spoelstra, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Fizdale certainly knows the type of work, drive, commitment and players it takes to win a championship.
Fizdale went into the Memphis job believing changes had to be made. He knew right away that the Grizzlies’ roster was not the same as Miami’s.
And Memphis was a perennial playoff team. Imagine what Fizdale thinks of the Knicks’ roster.
But he turned perennial starter Zach Randolph into a backup. He tried to modernize the Grizzlies and play faster.
The team eventually moved on from Randolph and Tony Allen. But Fizdale alienated Gasol — benching him in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Nets in November — and the organization chose the star player over the young coach. Fizdale was fired the next day.
Fizdale has said he learned from that situation and would do things differently in his next coaching job. Now all eyes will be on how he gets along with Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis’ relationship with the organization has been scrutinized since he blew off his exit interview in April 2017. But Fizdale reportedly plans to travel to Latvia to spend some time with him.
That could go a long way with Porzingis. No Knicks head coach or executive did that after his first two NBA seasons.
Before the dispute with Gasol, Fizdale was considered someone who had great relationships with players. Two league sources said many current and former Grizzlies players enjoyed playing for Fizdale and liked him personally.
“He gets along great with players,” one NBA source said. “He’s a good developmental guy and is good at working with the players. He comes from Miami, where they put an emphasis on that. He’s still unproven as far as X’s and O’s. But he’s good with players.”
When Fizdale was fired, James, Wade and Portland guard Damian Lillard, who never played for Fizdale, were among the players who came out on Twitter expressing disgust and demanding answers.
“That meant a lot to me,” Fizdale said on ESPN’s The Jump. “When you get that kind of response, that means you have had some impact.”
After Fizdale was fired, Spoelstra called him “a star.” He recently joked that he hoped Fizdale would go to a Western Conference team because he didn’t want to face him in the Eastern Conference.
“He’s a brilliant basketball mind that has exceptional, gold standard-level communication skills,” Spoelstra said. “I just think he’s one of the most talented coaches I’ve been around.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr echoed those sentiments.
“David Fizdale is one of the best coaches in the league,” he said. “He’s a brilliant guy. He’s got an edge to him.”
Fizdale now will bring that edge to the Knicks, and to a fan base that is desperate and hungry to see this team contend again.
It might not happen as quickly as the new coach or the fans want unless the Knicks get extremely lucky in the NBA Draft Lottery (they’re slated to pick ninth), Porzingis’ torn ACL heals quicker than expected and Fizdale’s popularity with players leads to the signing of a stud free agent.
“He does a good job selling,” a source said.
There already has been speculation that James might consider the Knicks now that Fizdale is the coach. But that would require a lot of maneuvering to create cap space this summer. The Knicks should have cap room in the summer of 2019 to sign one and possibly two maximum players.
The Knicks have gone the quick-fix route so many times and it hasn’t worked out for them. But if James is a viable option — and it’s too early to really know if he is — the Knicks have to go all-in for him.
The Knicks are going all-in on Fizdale, who acknowledges that he made his share of mistakes in his first time as an NBA head coach and will grow from it.
“I’m still writing down notes as we speak of different things that I would do differently,” Fizdale said on the podcast. “The thing I really regret is I went in there trying to force-feed the leadership, force-feed this is who I want you to be, force-feed where I see gaps in the culture and that I think we should fill these gaps with this, and I didn’t let that develop organically.
“Some of it you got to push on them, but I think it’s much more of putting them in the position to absorb it.”