By John Schmeelk
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From the start of the year, Derek Fisher was dealt a bad hand. He has a roster full of one-dimensional players that help him on one end of the floor but kill him on the other. He has a bunch of power forwards that can score a bit, but play no defense. He has been without his veteran starting point guard. He is a rookie head coach that is learning on the job. But there’s one lesson he needs to learn: You can’t play 11-12 guys every night (often different ones) and expect to win.
I get what Fisher was trying to do on Wednesday night. With Nikola Vucevic, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris (all 6-foot-9 or taller) starting for Orlando, putting Tim Hardaway Jr. at small forward would have been, at least on the surface, a mismatch. So he went with Quincy Acy instead of Hardaway Jr. But Frye has no post-up game, and putting Hardaway on him wouldn’t have created a serious mismatch. If the Magic decided to shut down their offense to try to isolate Frye in the post, the Knicks should have welcomed it. Conversely, the Magic would have had a big man chasing Hardaway Jr. around screens and the three-point line. That’s a mismatch the Knicks could have taken advantage of. They chose not to.
All this matching up has to end. Instead, the Knicks needs to pick their best starting five (likely Shane Larkin, Iman Shumpert, Hardaway Jr, Carmelo Anthony and Samuel Dalembert) and make other teams match up to them. Fisher is hurting the team by playing usually inferior players just to match up with other teams. It’s clear the Knicks still have no continuity, and that’s because their lineups keep changing. It’s the same problem Mike Woodson had at the start of last season, and Fisher is repeating his mistake.
Certain players on this roster just shouldn’t play because, frankly, they aren’t good enough. Acy should never see the floor, ever. He has the second-worst net rating on the team and the Knicks actually play significantly better defense when he is on the bench. He brings nothing to the team. Travis Wear is a nice young player that the team can develop, but right now he is not an NBA-caliber player who can contribute positively. Cleanthony Early is a rookie who doesn’t do more with his minutes than either Hardaway Jr or J.R. Smith in any category except rebounding. None of those three players should play unless there is a special circumstance. (Early can play himself into the rotation as the season goes along.)
These are the guys that should be playing regularly:
Jason Smith or Cole Aldrich
Jose Calderon (when he returns from injury he can replace either Prigioni or Larkin)
I’m not touching what the Knicks should do with Andrea Bargnani when he returns.
The only tough decision Fisher has to make is whether to give Aldrich or Jason Smith the backup center minutes off the bench. The team has performed terribly when either one has been on the floor this year, but Aldrich is the better defender at this point, so I would give the nod to him considering the team’s issues on that end. But this is a decision Fisher could make on a game-to-game basis based on opponent.
Likewise, Fisher would have to decide which point guard Calderon replaces in the rotation. Despite Larkin’s superior quickness, the team has been better defensively with Prigioni on the floor, and the older veteran is also a better shooter. Larkin would provide a change of pace off the bench, however, and serve as a contrast to Calderon.
The Knicks are more than 10 percent into their season, and the head coach needs to start making some tough decisions. The days of throwing different lineups against the wall in the hopes of finding some magical combination need to end, as does trying to match up against opponents.
The Knicks need to play their best players and force opponents to match up against them. It’s the only way this team is going to forge an identity and figure things out. The clock is ticking on the season, and it is slipping away.
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