GREENBURGH, N.Y. — As the Knicks ran through the first session of their two-a-day workouts Wednesday morning, with the players banging and running to catch the coach’s eye, a line of front-office personnel sat courtside.
And if the proclamation from new coach David Fizdale that all starting spots need to be earned, not given, was welcomed by the players, it was clear that none of the front-office personnel are about to argue either.
That meant lottery picks such as Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox have to earn their spots and perhaps more to the point, incumbent — and highly paid — starters such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter, have to prove themselves worthy, too.
“Didn’t I answer that question already?” Fizdale said animatedly. “No one is promised a starting position. I got freedom to do what I want to do from my bosses over there. So it’s open. Don’t matter if you make a lot of money or you make a little money. If you earn the spot you play. That’s it.”
Whether that is just coachspeak, motivational tactics to spur competition among a group that doesn’t enter the season with much expected of them outside the organization, or an actual open competition, the players didn’t dispute the strategy.
“This is my the eighth year,” Kanter said. “I like that a lot. That is motivating me. That gives me so much motivation and then it gives motivation for everybody. Rookies, veterans, everybody. We are fighting for something. In the end we have to remember we’re a team.”
Hardaway was signed to a four-year, $71-million deal last summer by team president Steve Mills, started 54 of the 57 games he played and averaged 17.5 points per game — the leading total among returning players with Kristaps Porzingis sidelined for the time being and possibly the entire season.
But with a long relationship dating to his childhood with Fizdale, Hardaway isn’t surprised that the coach is demanding he prove himself again.
“It’s good. I mean, at the end of the day doesn’t show any favoritism to myself, treats everybody equal out here on the floor,” Hardaway said. “But yeah, growing up, knowing Fiz, going back to the days of my dad playing with the Heat, for Pat Riley, [Fizdale] was the video coordinator I think with Erik Spoelstra at the time. He knew [me] when I was out here running on the court as a little kid. Me going back after college, during college, and watching the Heat play in the playoffs and so on and so forth, to see him coming out and say a few words and leave, it was just mutual respect.”
When it was pointed out that Fizdale’s relationship with Tim Hardaway Sr. might mean harsher treatment, not favoritism, he laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve taken a lot of that yelling from my pops. I’m pretty sure it won’t be any worse than that.”
Maybe, maybe not. Fizdale was adamant not only that nothing will be given but that he could be shuffling lineups in and out through the preseason and maybe beyond, searching not only for the five best players, but also for the combinations that work best.
Hardaway and Courtney Lee mostly manned the shooting guard and small forward spots, respectively, last season, and while Fizdale has talked about playing position-less basketball with interchangeable pieces he also has wanted more length and size at small forward, meaning one of them could be pushed out of the lineup to make room for a player such as the 6-9 Knox.
“Obviously if guys are just kicking butt, we’re not going to hold them back from being a starter,” Fizdale said. “But I definitely want to see a five-man group that’s connected. And we may have to tinker with that some. So even if I start a lineup early in the season, I may tinker with that and switch it up. I won’t put anything in stone if I see that for some reason chemistry isn’t working out. And it’s just to help whatever player is out there struggling. Sometimes just a move here or there opens up a guy and it depends on who he’s playing with.”