The New York Knicks have been tanking like champions over the past two nights. Not only have they lost both games, but they made things interesting thanks to the contributions of youngsters like Langston Galloway, Tim Hardaway, Shane Larkin and Lance Thomas (yeah, he's 26, but I'm still counting him cuz it's my article and I do what I want).
As wacky as Derek Fisher has been with his rotations this season, I actually believe he has done some fine work with the Knicks' young guards. He has been tough but fair toward Hardaway, Larkin and Galloway, allotting playing time based on performance and effort, while still encouraging them through their various struggles. Hardaway's season looks like a bust because he can't hit a shot, but he's generally improved in every other area of his game. Even if all three of these players fail to develop into useful rotation players down the road, it won't be from lack of effort from the coaching staff.
But Fisher has some serious work to do when it comes to New York's young forwards. Saturday night's loss to Golden State was the latest and most irritating example. The Knicks recalled Cleanthony Early from Westchester, despite the fact that the D-League Knicks also had a game.
And why was Early brought back to the big club? To play a grand total of three minutes. Had he stayed with Westchester, he probably would have gotten somewhere around the 32 minutes he played the previous night, when he dropped 26 points, seven rebounds, two assists, three steals and a block in a win over the Delaware 87ers.
Hey, that was fun!
Early has potential as a two-way player. He is explosive at the rim, has legit three-point range, and is active off the ball. Defensively, he has quick feet and rarely lacks for effort. What he needs is to add some muscle and get more playing experience. Early must play...somewhere, anywhere.
And this has gone beyond Early. Rookie Travis Wear recently found his way out of obscurity thanks to this tweet from Sixers.com's Max Rappaport:
Rookie leaders in opp. FG% at the rim: 1) J. Sampson, 40.0% 2) J. Grant, 40.2% 3) T. Wear, 40.3% 4) K.J. McDaniels, 43.9% 5) N. Noel, 46.0%— Max Rappaport (@MaxRappaport) February 6, 2015
Good for the Sixers! They have many players on that list. And they play all of them, despite the fact that only one (Nerlens Noel) was a first-round pick. JaKarr Sampson wasn't even drafted.
And so we come to Wear. For all the "LeBron stopper" jokes, the kid has shown a talent for defending while hitting 37.5% of his threes. He lost his playing time to Thomas, and that is perfectly acceptable given the circumstances. But why is he not playing for Westchester? The W-Knicks have started Early at the shooting guard position, which means they could play Early, Wear and Thanasis Antetokounmpo at the same time -- employing a manic, switch-happy defense that will make Mike Woodson cry tears of joy.
Wing defense has never been more critical in the NBA. The Knicks have already sunk a huge amount of money into Carmelo Anthony -- a wing in name only at this point. Moving forward, this team will need to find a few forwards who can defend multiple positions. There's no guarantee that they'll be able to land Draymond Green or Kawhi Leonard in free agency, so they may have to play the cards they've been given.
Fortunately, what the Knicks currently lack in quality, they make up in quantity. Early, Wear and Thomas haven't set the world on fire, but the Knicks have been significantly better defensively with when they are in the game:
|Min||Opp. O-Rtg (on)||Opp. O-Rtg (off)||Net|
Winning organizations find quality defenders in the strangest places. Draymond Green was a second-round pick. Danny Green bounced around the D-League. Wesley Matthews was undrafted. The trick is to uncover intriguing prospects, get them into the organization, and then coach them into legitimate rotation players.
The Knicks started their own D-League franchise for just this purpose. They have four forwards -- two second-rounders, two undrafted -- capable of turning into contributors for next year's team. They have two teams -- two rosters. None of these guys should be sitting.