By John Schmeelk
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At the start of the preseason schedule, Derek Fisher wisely called these exhibition games a great opportunity to experiment with lineups to figure out what works. With only one game left — one that Fisher has called a dress rehearsal before the season-opener against Chicago next Wednesday — his time is up.
The only starters that appear certain are Carmelo Anthony (likely at small forward) and Jose Calderon. The other positions all seem to be, potentially, up for grabs. We’ve seen a bunch of different iterations, but here are the options with their strengths and weaknesses.
The Defensive Group: Calderon, Iman Shumpert, Anthony, Quincy Acy/Jason Smith, Samuel Dalembert
Fisher seems to favor this lineup because of the number of defensive players on the floor at the same time. Jason Smith struggled against Nene’s quickness on Wednesday when he had to guard him at the four, which might make Acy the choice here due to his greater mobility. The question remains whether or not this lineup can produce enough offense on a nightly basis with only Anthony and Calderon as playmakers. If Shumpert can develop as a consistent offensive threat then this group could work, but I don’t see it as the long-term solution.
The Star Group: Calderon, Shumpert, Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Dalembert
The Knicks have been trying to figure out a way to play Anthony and Stoudemire together since Melo arrived here. It hasn’t worked. The reason it could work here is because of Shumpert — a defensive-minded two-guard — and Dalembert, a legitimate rim protector. Offensively this group could be extremely effective, but the chances that Anthony and Stoudemire get exploited guarding other teams’ forwards are high. Anthony is better at defending power forwards, while Stoudemire is better at defending less mobile and offensive-minded centers. If Fisher can finally solve the Anthony/Stoudemire conundrum, he might deserve Coach of the Year honors.
Going Small: Calderon, Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr./J.R. Smith, Anthony, Dalembert
In my opinion, this would be the Knicks’ best and most balanced starting five. There are two excellent defenders in Dalembert and Shumpert, and Melo does well guarding power forwards that don’t make him chase them all over the floor. Hardaway Jr. and J.R. Smith have the athleticism to defend even if they haven’t shown consistency doing it in the past. There’s enough scoring between Anthony, Calderon and either Hardaway Jr. or Smith to spread the floor and create opportunities all over the court. So far, Fisher has been reluctant to go small with Antony at power forward, but perhaps he’ll try it in the Knicks’ final preseason game.
The Wild Card: Calderon, Hardaway Jr., Anthony, Acy/J.R. Smith, Stoudemire
We saw this starting lineup (with Acy) once in the preseason and it was a mess defensively. With Stoudemire at center and no shot blockers around him, the Bucks lived in the paint and scored at will. Without Shumpert to guard the opponent’s best guard, too many players were in the lane, which either resulted in layups or open threes. I would be shocked if Fisher landed on a starting lineup with Stoudemire at center, considering how much he has stressed defense during training camp. The best option with this group would be to replace Hardaway Jr. with Shumpert — which would provide some more defense — while Calderon, Stoudemire and Anthony would take care of the scoring.
I honestly don’t know where Fisher will land with his starting five, and even more importantly, who he will close games with. Mike Woodson made the mistake last year of constantly shifting his lineups, which prevented the team from finding any sort of rhythm or continuity. Fisher won’t make that same mistake, and I would wager that whatever lineup he plays on Friday night will be the one he plays Wednesday against the Bulls.
The biggest question is whether he will decide to commit to going small full-time. It would cut one of the Knicks’ many big men out of the rotation, but considering Andrea Bargnani’s hamstring issues that might no longer be a real concern. But it would be out of sync with what seems like Phil Jackson’s preference for having a traditional bigger group up front. Friday night will be quite telling in regard to which direction Fisher decides to take the Knicks in this season.
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