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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Opinionated David Fizdale a refreshing change for Knicks

New coach is not afraid to disagree with management and, as a bonus, he is popular with many of the league’s star players.

Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale against the Nuggets

Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale against the Nuggets on Nov. 24, 2017, in Denver. Photo Credit: AP / David Zalubowski

David Fizdale isn’t afraid to speak the truth.

Last summer in Memphis, Fizdale wasn’t afraid to tell the city that he thought it was about time it removed the Confederate war statues. This past fall, he wasn’t afraid to butt heads and ultimately bench Grizzlies franchise player Marc Gasol, even though that decision cost him his job.

Fizdale, who according to a league source has agreed in principle to be the next Knicks coach, is not a yes man. That alone is cause for Knicks fans to celebrate, because it shows that the management team of Steve Mills and Scott Perry is serious about finding a way to move the franchise forward rather than just picking someone who isn’t going to make waves.

Fizdale is young and popular with many of the big-name players, including LeBron James. But those who know him say he also is a guy who has his own ideas, that he never would have been nudged into playing the triangle offense or using a player he didn’t want to play.

“I know I always get the truth out of Fiz, even if it’s not what I want to hear,” said Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, a close friend from Fizdale’s days as an assistant on the Heat staff.

The Knicks interviewed 11 candidates to fill the vacancy created when they fired Jeff Hornacek at the end of the season. There are several easier routes they could have taken. They could have hired Mark Jackson, who might have been the most popular choice locally, given that he played for the Knicks and St. John’s. They could have hired David Blatt, Mills’ former teammate at Princeton. They could have hired a young coach such as Jerry Stackhouse with no head- coaching experience.

All three initially would have been fairly close or indebted to management and maybe somewhat reluctant to rock the boat. And let’s face it: The Knicks are a boat that is going to need more than an occasional rocking to get on the right course.

The only candidate on the Knicks’ list more intriguing than Fizdale was former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. By most reports, Fizdale was the leading contender when Budenholzer became available, and there is some thought that the Knicks should have reset and gone right after him, given his record and years of experience.

It’s possible that Budenholzer was more interested in the opening in Milwaukee. It’s also possible that the Knicks hope this hiring will lead to something bigger, that Fizdale’s relationship with James, whom he coached in Miami, will give them the inside track when he becomes a free agent.

If that were the only reason to hire a coach, it would be pretty faulty reasoning, but it’s not a bad bonus, considering Fizdale brings a lot to the table. Leading that list is that despite what happened with Gasol, he is known as a player’s coach who understands today’s generation.

Gasol seems to be the one player whom Fizdale struggled to get along with, and there are some who think that means he might struggle to relate to Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis. I find that a little weird. Just because you didn’t get along with one European guy, it means you are going to have trouble with another?

There’s no one more difficult to coach than a superstar who is past the zenith of his career, and that might explain the problems Fizdale had in Memphis. Porzingis, who already has had three coaches in his three years in the league, is at the start of his career. He’s got to be dying to play for someone who knows what he’s doing and, unlike Hornacek, has the full support of management to run the system he wants to run.

Spoelstra doesn’t think the Knicks could make a better hire.

“You can throw him into any room and he will be able to work with that room,” Spoelstra told the Palm Beach Post. “Anywhere. From where he grew up in South Central [Los Angeles] to a board meeting to a basketball camp, he can bring any group of people together.”

Knicks fans sure would like to see that.

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