By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks are more than halfway through the preseason and head coach Derek Fisher has wisely used the first four games to experiment with different lineup and player combinations.
But he has been shorthanded at one of the most competitive spots on the roster: power forward.
Andrea Bargnani started the first game of the preseason at power forward, but missed the next three because of a bad hamstring. Jason Smith missed the first two games because of the birth of his child. Quincy Acy has taken advantage of the opportunity by starting the last three games and providing both defense and rebounding.
Despite Acy’s improved mid-range jump shot, the Knicks have had trouble scoring with him at power forward. There simply is not enough offense on the floor with Iman Shumpert at shooting guard and Samuel Dalembert at center to go along with Acy, Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon. Unless Fisher does a 180 in his final three preseason games, he appears comfortable with Amar’e Stoudemire being the primary offensive option with the second unit.
So where will Fisher go? Despite the fact Anthony has been extremely effective at power forward since becoming a member of the Knicks, Fisher and team president Phil Phil Jackson seem to be content to leave him at small forward. With Calderon at point guard, it makes it necessary for Shumpert to start at shooting guard so there is a reliable perimeter defender with the starting five. Dalembert is a lock at center with his rim protection.
That means the Knicks will have to get a little bit of offense out of the power forward position. Despite starting the last three games, if Acy is in the starting lineup, that means either Bargnani, Jason Smith or Stoudemire would be out of the rotation completely. Despite Fisher’s penchant for stressing defense, Acy will either wind up being a role player off the bench or out of the rotation completely.
It will come down to a decision between Smith and Bargnani. Over the course of his career, Smith’s teams have been better defensively with him on the floor in three of five seasons, with his rookie year being a draw. Bargnani’s teams, meanwhile, have been worse defensively with him on the floor every year he has been in the league (there were no numbers available for his rookie season).
As a Knick, Bargnani has shown himself to be a better defensive player at center, at least in one-on-one situations. He is far better guarding men in the post than on the perimeter. His ability to body up and play Dwight Howard last year is a good example of that. Last year, when Bargnani played power forward alongside Anthony and Tyson Chandler, the trio had a defensive rating of 114.3, one of the worst on the team. (Bargnani, Anthony and Kenyon Martin had an excellent rating of under 100, but in those situations Martin could card the quicker front-court player while Bargnani could play the slower one.) It makes Bargnani much better suited to be the backup center with the second unit.
Smith, though not a dominant defensive player, is more competent defensively and he stretches the floor with his mid-range jump shot just as well as Bargnani. Smith doesn’t shoot threes like Bargnani, but considering the big Italian hasn’t shot better than 31 percent in his last three seasons, that might not be a bad thing.
When the Knicks pick up their preseason schedule on Monday, Fisher should try Smith with the starting lineup. He could provide a good enough balance of offense and defense to match with the other players in the starting five, while providing some offensive-floor balance with his jump shot. Fisher only has three games left to test out lineups, and he owes it to the team to see if Smith can have more success with Carmelo Anthony than Bargnani.
After that, Fisher has a much more interesting decision to make: whether or not both Bargnani and Stoudemire are in the rotation. Can they play together as part of a defensively competent second unit? It’s one of the most important things Fisher has to figure out in the team’s final three games before the regular season.
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