(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of a four part examination of what has gone wrong since the Knicks’ 18-5 start—a stretch in which they were beating teams by an average of over seven points a game—and whether or not the Knicks can return [in varying degrees] to their early-season form. You can find part one here.)
Despite the universal love that the fan base has for our 2nd year combo guard, I come to bury Iman, not to praise him. How much Iman Shumpert can and hopefully will improve as he continues to recover from last year’s horrific knee injury and hopefully, to grow as a player, remains an open question (and one for another day). Alas, as of this writing, he is far and away the biggest reason for the Knicks’ struggles.
If you look closely at the other four lineups posted in part one of this series, you may have been surprised by the fact that replacing Smith with Shumpert in our best lineup resulted in a net rating drop of nearly 30 points. Let’s take a closer look at what happens when Shumpert is substituted for anyone else in the grouping of Felton, Kidd, Smith, Anthony and Chandler (again looking at games from January 17th-March 3rd). In this chart, for the sake of clarity, defensive rating is represented inversely so as to make it comparable to ORtg. In other words, a higher DRtg change in this chart indicates that the defense improved.
Shumpert is wrecking every lineup when he’s combined with our best players. Even if we limit our examination to recent games—let’s say March 3rd and beyond—Shumpert is still averaging a +/- per 48 of -15.4 and a net rating of -14.3. The next worst rotation player who has been healthy these last three weeks? That would be Jason Kidd, coming in with a net rating of 1.1 and a +/- of -1.8 per 48. The interesting thing is, Shumpert’s shooting was way up during that span: He shot 43.8% from the field and 45.5% from distance. Still, he remained the vinegar to this team’s oil.
If we go back to my automotive analogy, cars only work with the right parts. If the Knicks are a car—a team that runs well not because of the quality of its parts necessarily but more because of how those parts work together—then perhaps Shumpert is just the wrong part. He’s the truck nuts on a minivan or the loJack strapped to a 1988 Geo Metro. In other words, maybe Shumpert is being used incorrectly or improperly, or maybe there just isn’t a place for him in the style of the Knicks need to play in order to succeed.
So what exactly is happening when Shumpert enters the fray? Take a look at the substitution pattern that is kindest to Shumpert, the one where he replaces Kidd and joins our de facto starters on the floor. Remember, these units include Felton, Smith, Anthony and Chandler. The only difference is that in one, Kidd is the fifth man, while in the other, it’s Shumpert.
*Opponents’ points in the paint per 48 minutes
**Team Average (as well as other stats) are drawn only from that same span of games: 1/17-3/3.
The two data points that jump out, at least on the offensive end, are FTA rate and the 3FGM %AST; both indicate how critical wings that, once they receive a pass, are able to immediately find the flaw in a defense and/or connect with a teammate who can exploit it are to New York’s offensive agenda. Kidd isn’t drawing more fouls than Shumpert nor is he making more open threes. In fact, his shooting during this period was atrocious—23% from the three point line and 32% overall. What he is allowing the Knicks to do is use the space that defenses give when they double Anthony or collapse on a pick and roll, resulting in rhythm threes and advantageous drives from Anthony and Smith.
In short, Shumpert seems to be making bad decisions with the basketball and this year’s Knick model, built to play a more cerebral, half court style, needs guards that make great ones.
Right now, Shumpert just doesn’t have that ability (not many players do), but most talented guards who don’t have great vision (like J.R. Smith) make up for it with the ability to create plays for themselves. Here, Shumpert struggles just as badly. Once he steps inside the three point line, his offense collapses. From midrange, he shoots 33%; he’s at 15% in the paint, and a shockingly bad 36.7% in the restricted area. Those numbers have improved recently, but rather than thanks to improving health, I have another theory as to why—a theory that will be easier to understand after I make the following uncomfortable comparison.
There are some striking similarities between Shump and a post-Melo trade Landry Fields before the latter developed a bit of an off the dribble game/excess tinkering totally discombobulated his jump shot. At a USG rate of 16.6%, Shumpert outpaces Fields’ rookie rate of 13.5% but he is mostly wasting those extra possessions and would be far more effective at this juncture of his career if he restricted his looks to the open spot ups that once were Fields’ bread and butter. Take a look:
(The Fields numbers are before/after instead of on/off because the absence of Felton after the trade would likely confound Fields’ numbers with Anthony on the bench.)
|FGM %UAST||%PTS off TOs||TS%||@Rim FG%||AST%||net rating|
|Shumpert w/o Anthony||27.3%||25.8%||51.6%||46.2%||12%||-3.2|
|Shumpert w/ Anthony||35.9%||15.0%||44.4%||35.1%||20.6%||-9.9|
|10/11 Fields pre-Anthony||28.8%||21.2%||61.5%||70.1%||8.5%||3.1|
|10/11 Fields post-Anthony||30.8%||17.7%||56.4%||63.6%||9%||-1.4|
Fields was often criticized after the trade for his inability to do anything other than shoot open threes. The cuts off ball movement and timely rebounding dropped dramatically as the offense pivoted to accommodate Melo’s skill set. While Shumpert appears to have a better handle, better passing skills than that iteration of Landry and (when healthy) is the superior athlete, the difference between the two is more one of will than skill. Shumpert is more willing to attempt to make plays/force the issue when necessary as illustrated by the jump he experiences in AST% with Anthony. But, when he puts his head down and bulls rim-ward on such ill-advised playmaking forays, Shumpert struggles a lot. By comparison, when given the opportunity, Fieds would usually kick the ball back to another player. Unfortunately, these clock-killing decisions likely had nearly as bad an impact on the Knicks’ offense as Shumpert’s low percentage drives.
The improvements for each at the rim without Anthony are easy to explain: these are more often than not assisted shots, shots where each catches the ball with very little to do to get a quality shot, or they are points off the break, as illustrated by the points off turnover increases.
When a player can neither see the floor well nor create off the dribble against set defenses, that player tends to struggle in an Anthony-led offense, one based on intelligence, patience, and execution more than the single-attack oriented, perimeter and pick and roll oriented offenses that the Knicks tilt towards while Anthony rests. These latter offenses more often create opportunities off the first pass, allowing players like Fields and Shumpert to simply catch passes and then shoot.
If you aren’t convinced (or are just looking for a reason to get more depressed) consider this fact: The Knicks’ current starting lineup shoots only 25% from three. Substitute in Smith, (again, just looking at games after Shumpert returned) and the Knicks’ three point percentage jumps to 42% despite the fact that, in that some period, none of the players in that lineup are shooting better than 36%. It’s relatively simple. Smith’s presence creates open shots and Shumpert’s doesn’t.
Without Señor Carmelo Isolacíon Anthony on the floor, the Knicks offense becomes less systematic (less like a machine, such as a car), and more free flowing, and that sort of offense is one Shumpert can much more ably contribute to.
Shumpert is not a point guard. We became all-too aware of this fun fact early last season. This year, the ridiculous -90.1 plunge to the team’s net rating when he replaces Felton only reinforces that notion. That said, he can be a valuable player if he’s used correctly. The question is, is it worth it to the Knicks to cater to the needs of one player (Shumpert) or would they be sacrificing more than they gained? We’ll save that question for a future installment, however.
Then, of course, there’s the defense—the thing we all love about Shumpert. Well, it’s not showing up in the stats. As our graph indicates, there’s only one lineup in which Shumpert helps the defense and that lineup (the four guard lineup with Shumpert replacing Anthony) and this unit has only played six minutes together all season. It seems that while Shumpert may still be a good man defender, his team defense still isn’t up to snuff, especially when he’s toiling among fellow Knickerbockers that lack athleticism/speed and, as such, is deeply reliant on smart rotations to maintain defensive integrity. Look at the Bockers’ opponents’ three point percentage when Shump’s on the floor versus when Kidd is present. Yes, the Shumpert lineup is better than the overall Knick average, but that number is dramatically inflated by Stoudemire’s presence (or lack thereof). That 12% drop when Shumpert plays makes it tough to argue that he is rotating and closing out with any degree of success.
This clearly isn’t Shumpert’s year. If the Knicks have any hope of making it their year (which one could easily argue they shouldn’t), they need to dramatically reevaluate how they’re using their sole young player.
Up next: Amar’e Stoudemire…