By John Schmeelk
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One of Derek Fisher’s most unique challenges this season will be to take a roster full of one-dimensional players and put out balanced lineups that are good enough — on both offense and defense — to win basketball games. Only Carmelo Anthony can be considered at least adequate on both ends (excellent offensively, obviously), but his inconsistencies on defense are often hard to overlook.

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It’s a hard way to win basketball games.

For most of these players, it’s too late to hope for too much change. Samuel Dalembert is not going to magically develop a post-up game at 33. Quincy Acy isn’t going to become some kind of consistent scorer. Cole Aldrich is limited as an offensive player. It’s too much to ask for Cleanthony Early or Travis Wear, as rookies, to be complete players.

On the other side of things, Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni lack the physical attributes to guard the faster point guards in the league. J.R. Smith has the athleticism but he has never shown the willingness or the basketball IQ necessary to succeed on defense. He could potentially improve defensively, but that should be filed under “believe it when you see it.”

Veteran front-court members Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire are at the point where it’s hard to believe either will ever become good team or man-on-man defenders. Stoudemire once claimed that no one had ever taught him defense, and has vowed yet again to be a better defensive player. That ship sailed about the same time as the Titanic. Bargnani is often lost as a help defender, and is slow in transition. He is adequate as a one-on-one post defender, but awful at nearly everything else. Jason Smith is slightly better than both, but he has physical limitations on how good of a defender he can be.

That leaves three young players that have the potential to be the two-way players Derek Fisher desperately needs: Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Shane Larkin.

I honestly debated whether or not to include Shumpert in this conversation. He has been in the league for three years and has never scored more than the nine points per game he averaged as a rookie. He has never shot better than 40 percent from the field. But what keeps him on this list is the knee injury that he suffered during his second season in the league. A torn ACL is tough to recover from for any player, and Shumpert should now finally be back at full strength two years later.

Shumpert was also trapped in Mike Woodson’s offense, where he was forced to be a catch-and-shoot guy, something that was never his strength going back to college. The hope with the current regime is that Shumpert can become a more effective offensive player with increased chances to cut and slash to the basket. Remember, at Georgia Tech, Shumpert played point guard, and his strength was scoring at the rim. It’s a skill that he has not brought to the NBA. The Knicks hope that changes this season. If he can become even an average scorer, the Knicks can afford to start two defensive-oriented players around Anthony in the front court.

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If Shumpert can’t figure it out offensively, Tim Hardaway Jr. will need to become an average defender if he wants to go from being a bench player to a starter. His shooting will keep him on the floor, but only if he becomes a better defender than he was last year, when the team gave up almost three points more per game when he was in action. There’s some question as to whether he has the foot speed to keep up with quicker guards, but if he gets stronger at 6-foot-6, he should be able to guard the small forward. That would also be his best way to break into the starting lineup, as a starter at small forward, pushing Carmelo Anthony to power forward and leaving Shumpert at shooting guard. It would give the starting five a good balance between offense and defense.

Shane Larkin is the third guy that could make a difference for Fisher, even if not as big of one as Hardaway and Shumpert. He has the quickness to stay in front of opposing point guards, a premium in the league. With only 48 games as a rookie after a broken ankle, Larkin missed training camp and preseason with the Mavericks last year and was behind the entire season. He has the tools be a penetrator and decent shooter on offense, and a pest on the defensive end of the floor. While he won’t overtake Jose Calderon this year, he could be a big weapon off the bench who could change the pace of the Knicks’ offense.

Most of New York’s players have been in the league a long time. They are what they are: mostly one-dimensional guys with serious deficiencies.

Shumpert, Hardaway and Larkin can be more than that.

They just have to do it.

And if they do, the Knicks will be playing playoff games come April.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. 

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