Wednesday, 13 November 2013

In the Garden of Uncertainty

Fading away: Just like the hightop, gone is the Knicks brass' confidence in Iman Shumpert.
How much can one honestly say about the reeling, bizarre New York Knicks organisation? The traveling sideshow that is the Knicks took yet another wild spin into trademark insanity Wednesday, with the news that J.R. Smith will start in place of Pablo Prigioni in Atlanta, the swirling rumours of Mike Woodson and the front office's dissatisfaction with Iman Shumpert, and subsequent trade whispers. Firstly, Smith. The cartoon-esque saga that has been his last six months - whether it was his playoff meltdown and elbow to Jason Terryhis odd contract negotiations that changed in length and dollars (significantly), his not-so-subtly masked offseason knee surgery, his five game suspension for a violation of the league's anti-drugs policy, the unbalanced addition of his sibling (Chris Smith) to the roster, or his awful return game which saw him net 5pts on 1-9 shooting in a 31pt home loss - rolled on uninterrupted again today, as he steps in to start just his second game in 117 showings for the Knicks. Smith, ever the controversial figure, seemingly has the support of Mike Woodson, and will confirm what had apparently been brewing in the summer months by starting tonight's road game against the Hawks. Shumpert retains his position, for now, as it is the efficient Pablo Prigioni - who, by contrast, does not have the enduring adoration of Woodson - set to step aside. Of course, never mind the fact that across eight games in April of last season the Felton-Prigioni-Shumpert-Anthony four man unit managed a net rating of 18.8 and a true shooting percentage of 63.8%. Moreover, since being inserted as a regular starter on March 18, Prigioni assisted the Knicks on a 16-1 stretch over the month of March and April, including 13 straight victories. The decision to tinker the lineup prior to Wednesday's matchup represents the fourth experimented starting unit in only eight total games. In other words (even with Tyson Chandler's untimely injury), the word 'stability' has not been synonymous with the 2013-14 Knickerbockers thus far.

Timing and justification notwithstanding, J.R. Smith will seek to recapture the level of play that earned him the honour of being the NBA's premier bench performer, as the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year. In his 'contract year', Smith registered 18.1 points per contest whilst connecting twice from downtown per game, frequently amassing starter-quantity minutes (33.5mpg). His 5.5 long range hoists per game, however, were second only to league-leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who attempted six per outing. After a smoking opening to his team's first round series, Smith crumbled in the wake of his league-imposed suspension, only managing 33.1% field goal shooting and 16.1 points per 36mins. Clearly, the majority of Smith's NBA successes have surfaced in a role where he is asked to deliver sharp, immediate offensive spark and can be withdrawn with little consequence, rather than as a proverbial second banana. The reliability of J.R. Smith as a #2 offensive option remains in serious doubt, and if that is underlining the thinking of his placement in the starting five, then the Knicks' officials may be startled by the outcomes. Apparently, the re-emergence of Smith from injury and suspension, the drafting of the walking trebuchet Tim Hardaway Jr. in the first round, and the inking of wily guard Beno Udrih to complement the roster's guard depth have deemed perimeter defender and chief young asset Iman Shumpert expendable. 

Frank Isola of the NY Daily News reports that New York have put the feelers out and tested the waters in relation to Iman Shumpert's trade currency, engaging in preliminary discussions with Denver. The news is not altogether surprising, yet it stands as indicative of the organisation's hasty, remarkably shortsighted strategising. As a result of age, contractual status/salary cap hit, injury, and team roles, Shumpert is undoubtedly the sole asset of any substantial worth in the trade market that the Knicks can lay claim to. Isola notes that the front office, absorbing the blows of Chandler's extended absence, is attempting to conjure a solution to its barren front court situation. Shumpert, attached to a rookie-scale deal, comes at the very modest price of $1.7M for this season and $2.7M next, only serving to heighten his value in trade conversations. If the reports are even vaguely true, and New York is gauging the possibilities of a Shumpert-big man exchange - Isola mentions Denver's Kenneth Faried as a candidate - one ominous truth appears to be eluding the team's officials. In (hypothetically) disposing of Iman Shumpert, the Knicks will have a grand total of zero quality, NBA-capable wing defenders under the age of 34, leaving an already-dire defensive circumstance to be hammered by a weakened, shallow rotation. The unquestionably positive defensive influence of the third-year man was made clear for all to witness and appreciate in the 2013 Playoffs, with his on/off-court differentials a reminder of this. In twelve postseason matchups, the Knicks' net rating with Shumpert on the floor was 7.6, while when he headed to the bench, it was a mere -3.3. Realisitcally, New York will have great difficulty discovering that level of defensive efficiency in any bigs available in Shumpert-centred discussions, nor will they be able to plug in above-average, short-term replacements from the free agent pool in the aftermath of any possible trade. 

Amidst all of this chaos and disorganisation, one thing becomes clearer as each game passes - the Knicks are tightly lodged with a small-ball, floor-spacing, undersized roster, sewn to a coach who is, fundamentally, an advocate of slow-it-down, front court focused, post up play. Woodson, in the face of all forms of cheery outcomes for his 'Prigionian' (new word) lineups, will do anything to escape the unwanted condition of a guard-heavy roster, almost to the point of sheer stubbornness. Having said that, with Chandler sidelined, the Knicks' coach is inherently handicapped and will be left to continue to start Andrea Bargnani - owner of an underwhelming -16.6 on/off-court differential - at centre

The storylines of Smith, Shumpert, and Woodson himself, are not likely to dissipate any time soon. Frank Isola of the Daily News seems determined with his take that Shumpert will be discarded via trade, sooner or later, and if Chandler's stint in a suit and knee brace is extended in the slightest, expect the Knicks to reshuffle their collection of bigs. 

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