From day one, new head coach Derek Fisher has stressed that development would not take a back seat to winning. It is one of those things coaches are supposed to say -- except in Philadelphia, of course -- that in practice can often lead to far too many minutes for washed-up geezers under guise of "veteran presence."
That is not what happened on Thursday night. Fisher earned his first win as coach with some inspired, downright ballsy lineup adjustments, many of which involved benching vets for younger, less-established options. Starting center Samuel Dalembert rode the pine for all but the first five minutes. Rookie Travis Wear -- heretofore known as the Lebron Stopper, or LeKryptonite -- saw significant time. Shane Larkin played nearly 30 minutes and successfully shared the play-making load with J.R. Smith, resulting in goodies like this and this.
Fisher's merit-based lineups were a change of pace for New York to say the least...and hopefully the start of a trend. But that trend could carry with it a fascinating, completely unexpected subplot: What the hell went on with Tim Hardaway Jr?
Hardaway's development appeared to be a critical component of this transitional season. He is, after all, one of the few players virtually guaranteed to be on next year's club. That did not play out on the court in Cleveland, however, as Fisher handed his second-year shooting guard a paltry 4:45 of playing time, all in the first half.
How unprecedented is such a small allotment of minutes in Hardaway's career? He played in 81 games as a rookie, and only once failed to crack the five-minute mark: Nov. 11, against the Pacers. He received at least 10 minutes of playing time in each of the last 60 games of the 2013-14 season, averaging 25.5 minutes per contest. Yet Hardaway might not have played at all against Cleveland if J.R. hadn't left the game for a brief period with back spasms.
It wasn't as if the kid struggled terribly during the preseason either -- Hardaway finished second to Carmelo Anthony in points per game and third (behind Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni) in effective field goal percentage.
So what gives? I think Chris Herring was on the right track in his post-game comments:
What I liked most abt was Fisher seeming to show he doesn't care a ton about player reputations when determining someone's minutes.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) October 31, 2014
Became very clear, very early, that Dalembert wouldnt be a good fit for this game. Fisher played him for just five minutes of action.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) October 31, 2014
Fisher did the same thing w Hardaway, who struggles in small-ball scenarios because of poor rebounding. Sets a really important precedent...— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) October 31, 2014
...that winning comes before worrying about how someone will react to only getting X amount of minutes in a game. Thats refreshing to know.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) October 31, 2014
Hardaway is an unfathomably terrible rebounder for a guard listed at 6'5". Shane Larkin, all 5'11" of him, pulled down two boards in each of his first two games as a Knick; Timmy failed to grab at least two rebounds in 49 of 81 games last season. That's 60.5 percent of his games with one rebound or less! You almost have to try to miss out on that many boards!
It's things like these -- the rebounding, the passing, the defense -- that clearly give Fisher pause. J.R. was God-awful in the preseason, yet the coach gave him a considerable amount of rope -- not because he is a veteran, but because he has shown the ability to play a complete basketball game when his head's on straight. Likewise, Iman Shumpert will continue to play no matter how many shots he misses because of stuff like this:
On the six plays #Knicks G Iman Shumpert defended LeBron James' plays, he kept James to 0-2 shooting & 4 turnovers, per @ESPNStatsInfo.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) October 31, 2014
Larkin has shown a talent for getting steals. Wear has proven adept knowing where he fits within the Triangle. These players bring something other than scoring.
If we're being honest here, Fisher getting tough with Hardaway would absolutely be the best thing for the kid's development. Timmy was hurt by Woodson's coaching last season just as much as Shumpert was, albeit for opposite reasons. Just as Woodson was too hard on Shump, he was far too easy on Tim. I will never for the life of me understand how a coach who endlessly preached defense and accountability could give a rookie gunner carte blanche to shoot as much as his heart desired. It wasn't like it was helping the team win -- the Knicks were 9.5 points worse per 100 possessions with Hardaway on the court last year.
Fisher is taking a far different approach: strict, but supportive. He singled out Hardaway at the very beginning of his post-game press conference as the player who stood out to him the most:
"Tim Hardaway Jr. He played four minutes, and the level of assistance and commitment to his teammates and how involved he was in the game, despite the fact that he wasn’t in, says a lot about him and who we are attempting to become. It was a great team win tonight."
The Knicks certainly have a need for Hardaway this season. They took far too many mid-range jumpers over the first two games, and could really use Timmy's ability to rain threes and finish at the rim. And the kid has shown a willingness to change his game, passing for more often in the preseason. But he isn't just going to be handed the same minutes he was last year; he has to show his coach that he is the right player for the moment.
Derek Fisher is coaching to win, and he's coaching to teach. By holding Hardaway more accountable for his play, he just might be able to accomplish both in 2014-15.