By John Schmeelk
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The concept has always sounded good: Carmelo Anthony roaming the perimeter with the ball in his hand as Amar’e Stoudemire dominates the post and slashes his way to the basket. Both players can shoot and are superior athletes. It seems like an offensive combination that would be unstoppable.
It was Donnie Walsh’s vision when he brought in Anthony from Denver: two dynamic forwards that would dominate the frontcourt for years to come.
Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. Both players seemed to finally learn how to coexist offensively last year once Stoudemire was inserted into the starting lineup, but that was never the real issue. Neither player defends, and when two players that do not play good team defense are on the floor at the same time, that side of the floor unravels in a way that Derek Fisher witnessed firsthand on Monday night. It happened to Mike D’Antoni, it happened to Mike Woodson and now it has happened to Fisher.
Fisher needing to try the combination for himself is understandable. Playing the two together is about as tempting as it gets, and every coach has a right to see for himself if a player combination can work in his system. Fisher seemed to embark on this experiment with his eyes wide open. Pairing the duo with Quincy Acy, Fisher thought he could hide Stoudemire at center and let him guard a player like John Henson, who has limited offensive ability.
The trouble always remains the same: When it comes to team defense, Stoudemire cannot be hidden. He continues to play the same abhorrent team defense that he has his entire career. With Stoudemire playing nine first-quarter minutes, the Bucks scored 32 points. They weren’t all his fault, but the Knicks’ defensive problems when he has played the last four years have been consistent.
In the fourth quarter, Fisher went small with Anthony at the four, Stoudemire at the five and Tim Hardaway Jr. at guard. Adding another struggling defender to the lineup, the Knicks’ defense became a virtual layup line, with the Bucks scoring 16 of their 26 points in the paint.
When all is said and done, the problem has much more to do with Stoudemire than Anthony. The latter, when motivated, can be a competent defensive player, especially as a primary defender on the ball. Stoudemire, however, lacks the instincts to be a good help defender, the foot speed to cover power forwards and the strength to guard centers.
Whenever Stoudemire plays, he needs to be paired with good defensive players that don’t require him to help much on penetrators or guard a dominant post player. The only eventual solution is that Stoudemire has to play on the bench, where he would go against less talented opponents and his ineptitude on defense wouldn’t hurt the team as much.
In typical Stoudemire fashion — according to the New York Post — he said after the game,“You’ve got to lock down (defensively). My goal this year is to become a better defensive player and be known as a defensive player. So it’s a challenge I’ve got to accept and I’m willing to accept it.”
It’s something Knicks fans have heard time and time again. Remember when Stoudemire said a couple of years ago that he was never really taught how to play defense? At that point he had been a 10-year veteran in the league, and his statement was as laughable as anything a Knicks player has said during an interview this decade. A lovely red wine bath isn’t going to help things, either.
When finding a role for Stoudemire, Fisher is going to run into the same issues that Woodson did. It was a problem on Monday night. The Knicks have too many one-dimensional players that either score or play defense — not do both. Other than Acy and Samuel Dalembert, no one in the Knicks’ frontcourt is an above-average defender. (Though the jury is still out on Jason Smith.) Of the guards coming off the bench with Stoudemire, Hardaway Jr. is a mess defensively and J.R. Smith isn’t much better.
Just look at Stoudemire’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions when on the floor) when he was paired with certain players last year:
Andre Bargnani: 112.6
Tim Hardaway Jr.: 112
J.R. Smith: 110.5
Carmelo Anthony: 109.9
It’s very hard to win games that way, which is why Fisher is going to have to be very careful in how he uses Stoudemire, even though he says he feels like he is 19. The 19-year-old Stoudemire might be spry, but he doesn’t play any defense, either. Fisher saw the results on Monday night, and they should be all he needs to see to know that Stoudemire can’t start with Anthony in the frontcourt if this team wants to be competent defensively, one of Fisher’s stated goals. The experiment must end now, in the preseason, and not continue into the regular season. All Knicks fans are hoping that Fisher has seen enough.
– Stoudemire’s best chance for success would seem to be coming off the bench, paired with either Cole Aldrich or perhaps Jason Smith at center. It won’t be a perfect solution since the wing players on the floor will still struggle defensively, but the team doesn’t have better options.
– It doesn’t look like Jose Calderon’s injury is serious enough to imperil the regular season, which should allow Knicks fans a big sigh of relief.
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