Derek Fisher wrote himself a note before training camp began to prepare him for what would be the first real challenge of his fledgling career as a head coach.
“We have 15 legit NBA players on our roster,” he told himself. “Which is a good thing and a bad thing, because everybody can play because they’re good, but there’s only 48 minutes. So everybody can’t play.”
That means there will be one or two veterans who will be unhappy about their roles, though it is up to Fisher to keep those players engaged. We know how during the course of an NBA season injuries and slumps always lead to opportunity.
Fisher used the first four games of the 7-game preseason schedule to spread out minutes to just about everyone on the roster. Even undrafted free agent Travis Wear got several long looks with veterans. But after Wednesday’s off day, Fisher and the Knicks will spend the next four days finding a starting lineup and a rotation that he will go with for most of the final three preseason games next week.
So what are the Knicks going to look like when the season opens on Oct. 29? Here’s what I’m thinking Fisher may do:
THE STARTING FIVE
Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon were the only givens when camp began. I believe the other three spots were up for grabs and now that we’re four games in, it seems almost certain that Sam Dalembert (2.5 blocks and 5.75 rebounds in just 20.1 minutes of preseason) has locked up the starting center position. Minutes have been a concern for the injury-prone Dalembert over recent years, so it will be interesting to see what Fisher does in the form of a backup center. Will it be Andrea Bargnani? Amar’e Stoudemire?
Bargnani started the preseason at power forward next to Dalembert, but a hamstring issue has kept him sidelined, which allowed the Knicks to get a long look at energizer Quincy Acy, whom Wally Szczerbiak likes to call “The Cookie Monster,” because he is great at getting to all the “cookies” on the court (rebounds, loose balls, etc). But Jason Smith (14 points, 5-for-10 shooting) looked perfect in that same position next to Dalembert with the starters in the win over the 76ers in Syracuse. I’m thinking if Smith continues to show he can knock down a mid-range jumper, pass well and play good defense, he makes the most sense.
The other area where there is competition is the second guard spot next to Calderon. Initially, Tim Hardaway Jr., fresh off an All-Rookie season and a strong performance in the Summer League, looked like the early front-runner. Hardaway Jr. can score from the perimeter and after an off-season of weight training he also is proving he can take the ball to the basket as well. He could be a complementary piece in the system for Melo.
There is also J.R. Smith, who we know can score from anywhere. But Smith still seems more comfortable with a Sixth Man role and seems to be working on his Triangle comprehension.
That leaves Iman Shumpert, who, if he can continue the way he’s played so far in the preseason, would be the most logical candidate. Shumpert is shooting the ball well (45.5%) from the field, though is just 1 for 7 from downtown. What stands out is that he’s averaging 4 assists in just 18.7 minutes per game so far in the preseason in this system. And defensively he’s committed just two fouls in 54.8 total minutes of action.
Defense is the keyword, of course, for Shumpert. With Calderon in the backcourt, you need Shumpert’s ability to defend big guards such as Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and John Wall, who happen to be three of the first four opponents the Knicks face to begin the season.
So there you have the answer to the question I get the most on Twitter: “Predict the opening night starting lineup”. Here’s my prediction: Calderon, Shumpert, Anthony, Jason Smith and Dalembert.
Here is where it gets tricky for Fisher, because you are dealing not just with managing talent, but also egos. What Fisher needs to maintain is that all decisions are made by what is best for the team, not what’s best for his relationship with certain players. And what we know so far about Fisher is that’s how you would expect him to operate.
With that said, J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani are veterans that might get caught up in the numbers, at least early on.
But the biggest question mark off the bench, to me, is the backup point guard role. Shane Larkin has been given the bulk of the minutes there (20.9 per game) and has mostly struggled, though you can see a concerted effort by Fisher and the entire coaching staff to tutor Larkin. They see potential in him because of his game-changing speed, but, coincidentally, it seems the game is going too fast for him right now and it’s resulted in some poor production while he’s been on the court.
Fisher seemed to hint that he will back off forcing Larkin into game action after giving him a lot of exposure early in preseason.
“I think he’s understanding the offense more and more when he’s out on the floor,” Fisher said of Larkin. “These are important minutes for him.”
Remember, Larkin missed most of last season in Dallas with an ankle injury, so this, as Fisher said, is almost like his true rookie season. And like many rookies, there is a need to sit and watch and work on your game until you are ready.
“It was important to see what he could do and how he may be able to help our team,” Fisher said, which seemed to suggest these early minutes were more about assessment than anything else.
And that suggests the reliable pro Pablo Prigioni will likely have the role behind Calderon. Prigioni hasn’t played much so far (13.5 minutes per game in two games), but you already know what you’re going to get out of the 37-year-old veteran: smart play, tenacity on defense and the occasional three-pointer.
Stoudemire’s minutes have also been limited (just 16 per game) and he’s also struggling with his scoring touch (34.6% from the field), but it’s the other areas of the offense (passing, moving) that he has yet to find a rhythm with to be effective. The other question is, where do you use Stoudemire in the rotation? As the first big man off the bench?
If that’s the case, does that mean Bargnani’s role will be severely reduced? Fisher and Jackson both spoke publicly about the potential Bargnani has in this system, but right now he has to get himself healthy.
Speaking of health, with Dalembert and Jason Smith both having a history of injury issues, not to mention Bargnani and, of course, Stoudemire, you could see a big man rotation that involves all four players splitting the time evenly to keep them fresh. That could disrupt rhythm for a scorer like Stoudemire, but, again, that’s something Fisher has to manage as a coach.
And don’t forget, we haven’t mentioned Acy, whose effort-level is a valuable asset, or Cole Aldrich, who made great strides late last season.
Who among those players helps the team most? To me, managing the frontcourt minutes will be the biggest challenge for Fisher.
On the wing, J.R. Smith is admittedly still learning the system and only in spurts has looked comfortable. He is shooting 38.9% from the field so far in preseason and has hit just 3 of 14 from three-point range. But we all know from his past history that he has the versatility to play either wing position, as does Hardaway Jr. Both are streaky scorers and both can finish at the rim. You can play them together, but the issue with that is both are finishers and not as focused on being facilitators.
Here is where we should point out that Cleanthony Early, the rookie, has had a quietly effective preseason. He’s shooting 47.1% from the field, he’s one of the few Knicks players who has been on target from three-point range (4 for 11) and he’s averaging 5.7 points in 13.9 minutes per game.
He is, of course, a rookie, which means there is still a lot to learn. But for a second round pick, the Knicks have a wing player with great potential who by mid-season should be pushing for minutes.
The Knicks could send him to Westchester, perhaps with Larkin, to play major minutes and continue to learn the Triangle Offense, which the D-Knicks will be running. Having the D-League team right in the same facility is perfect for developing young players and still keeping them in your NBA environment.
THE TRIANGLE AND THREE
Fisher and the Knicks have three more games to get down to a rotation and starting lineup for opening night. It begins Monday at the Garden against the Bucks, followed by Wednesday at the Garden against the Wizards and the preseason ends next Friday, Oct. 24, against the Raptors in Montreal, Quebec.
We will have coverage of every game, as usual, on MSG Network followed by a 30-minute #NYKExtra postgame show.