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Column: Cut Derek Fisher Some Slack

Dec 23, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher reacts in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

It feels like just yesterday I was writing about the New York Knicks embarking on a four-game winning/losing streak, but here we are again. There’s not any more reason to be optimistic about the team after Tuesday night’s win over the Detroit Pistons than there was last week, but each losing streak adds more fire to Derek Fisher’s hot seat, and it’s not totally fair that this all comes down on the second-year head coach.

With news coming out this morning that frequently inactive/DNP-CD wing Cleanthony Early was shot outside of a strip club, it’s been a rough 24 hours for Knicks news. Yes, a win temporarily stopped the bleeding, but the New York Post released an article on Tuesday morning with insights from Today’s Fastbreak’s own Charley Rosen, in which the Phil Jackson confidant revealed there’s growing doubt surrounding the team’s head coach. Speaking to the Post, Rosen let it be known that some players aren’t in agreement with the way the offense is being run, saying he doesn’t feel the roster is fully committed to the Triangle.

Again, when a team is coming off four straight losses, it’s easy to focus on the bad. However, the team did a lot well in their win over the Pistons, so let’s get back on track and focus on the positive.

First things first, at this point last season, the Knicks were 5-28. Can we take a second to acknowledge that being 15-18 one year later is actually an incredible feat? Only the Pistons have achieved a more impressive turnaround in terms of win differential from a year ago today, so as much as fans want to harp on the bad, it’s just not fair to be disappointed that the second-worst team in the NBA last season is struggling to win games.

The other part of that is while there’s so much more talent on this team than there was on last season’s team, they’ve been together for about two months. This doesn’t only mean that Fisher should be afforded some time to figure out his rotations, but that the players in the lineup should be allowed the time to learn to play with each other and jell.

A lot of conversations have taken place about rookie Kristaps Porzingis fitting best as the team’s center, but it’s not a no-brainer decision as Robin Lopez, the team’s biggest free-agent signing last summer, is an incredibly effective center. Lopez was arguably the team’s biggest difference-maker last night, finishing the game with 11 points, seven rebounds and six blocks, but most importantly helping to limit Andre Drummond to just 13 points (on 5-of-15 shooting) and nine rebounds. It was just the fourth time this season the Pistons big was stopped from reaching double-double status. Lopez has been benched in favor of Porzingis for many a fourth quarter this season, but it’s worth pointing out that the team is 5-3 in games that their starting center logs 30-plus minutes:

On top of Lopez playing one of his best games of the season, the good/efficient version of Carmelo Anthony showed up last night, and Porzingis was back to doing Porzingis things.

But really, it was impressive to see Fisher make adjustments to his rotation, namely getting Derrick Williams more involved. There’s enough proof that Williams isn’t exactly a positive impact player; that much was known before he was signed last offseason. With that said, he leads the team in fast-break points (per NBA.com) and is tied for second in free throw attempts per game despite only playing around 14 minutes per game. What Williams brings on the offensive end is often negated on the defensive end (and by poor three-point shooting), but one of the Knicks’ biggest flaws has been stagnant offense with a lack of movement, and he clearly gives the team a boost there.

Playing Williams with rookie point guard Jerian Grant against Detroit gave the Knicks one of their most aggressive lineups, as on the season, one of the two are in four of the Knicks’ top five two-man lineups in terms of free throws attempted. Together they’re the third-best two-man tandem on the team in terms of getting to the charity stripe, and they’re a big reason (aside from Anthony, who’s obviously the biggest reason) the Knicks are 11th in the NBA in free throws attempted.

Fisher’s inconsistencies in terms of playing guys like Williams, Grant and Kyle O’Quinn have been frustrating to fans, but not enough human element has been allowed for Fisher to learn on the job. He did great with rotations last night, and again, we’re just 33 games into a season where eight of the 14 players to log playing time are completely new.

In his piece with the Post, Rosen made a great point about the Knicks coach’s lack of experience: “How much did he learn from coaching a team that won 17 games? What he did do last year was kept them playing hard, a monumental accomplishment.’’

If you’ve read any of my other Knicks columns, they’ve all kind of asked for patience towards this rebuilding process. It’s a process, not just for Jackson and the players, but for the coaches as well. Fisher may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ve tweeted frequently about the decisions he’s made that have been frustrating, but part of rebuilding is taking the good with the bad.

The combination of Porzingis being more NBA ready than anyone expected and Anthony being in win-now mode has sped up the fan base’s expectations to a point that each lull makes you question what needs to happen to immediately make things better. There isn’t a quick fix here. We knew that before the season, and aside from the team relatively overachieving to this point of the season, nothing has changed to make anyone think they’re a good coach away from being really good.

Don’t bury your grievances over the team not running more pick-and-roll (which seems like an obvious enhancer for Porzingis). You don’t even have to support Fisher’s rotation decisions, but maybe lighten up on how much blame the second-year coach deserves. The organization is committed to Jackson’s vision, and with the progress they’ve already shown from the offseason through these last two months, there shouldn’t be doom and gloom after every losing streak. Fisher may not be the long-term solution for the Knicks, but it’s still too early to say he’s incompetent and incapable of figuring things out.

Until the next Knicks losing streak, this was your reminder that perspective is everything during a rebuild.

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