Although the NBA preseason games are officially meaningless, they contain indicators that may reveal what the regular season will be like. With the Knicks’ first game coming soon (October 8th), the good folks here at KnickerBlogger have put together a guide for the keys to watch for.
Lately I’ve been watching Meerkat Manor with the family. It’s a documentish show about rodent-like mongooses (mongeese?) that live out in the wild. For the most part, you’re presented with the point of view from one clan (“The Whiskers”), but you also get to see some neighboring groups as well. For each “family” there are two leaders, a dominant female & male. These animals have a authoritarian class structure, where everyone is subordinate to the whims of their two rulers.
Often you feel bad for the younger members of the group, as the dominant herpestidae can be ruthless. For instance bourgeois females that become pregnant may be excommunicated from the group or have their babies killed so that the dominant female can continue her line. Sometimes situations arise where members of the group can become temporary commanders, form splinter families, or become the dominant ruler in another clan. When commoners become leaders things get quite interesting. These animals, who you felt pity for as trampled upon citizens, don’t usually succeed when put in charge. And failing to lead a group can mean disaster for its members.
Hence it takes a certain je ne sais quoi to succeed at the next level. A regular meerkat might be useful digging out the burrow or watching out for predators when it has two dominants doing all the hard work. But Joe or Jane meerkat may be out of their league when they have to assume those responsibilities and keep law & order among the entire group. For beings that live 7-ish years in the wild, the turnover from one generation to the next happens quickly.
This whole biology lesson is not just to make KnickerBlogger more like Posting & Toasting, but rather this hastened circle of life is similar to careers in the NBA. And watching this show had me thinking about the career arc of two young Knicks: Iman Shumpert & Tim Hardaway Jr.
Shumpert, the elder by two years, has a game that harkens back to the glorious 1990s Knicks. An active defender, Iman has averaged 1.8 steals per 36 minutes. Due to his style of play, for many Knick fans, Shumpert is the bees knees.
However Shumpert also brings another aspect of those 1990 teams: poor shooting. His true shooting percentage started off at 48.4% and improved to 51.6% his second season. But last year he fell back to 48.0%, below his initial mark. Given Shumpert’s defensive attributes, some deficiency in his shooting is allowable, but to be a productive NBA player being under 50% isn’t going to cut it. All of Shumpert’s offensive numbers plummeted last year, including his 3p% (40.2% to 33.3%), ft% (76.6% to 74.6%), fta/36 (1.7 to 1.3), pts/36 (11.0 to 9.1). At the end of his second season, it appeared that the Gotham Fade was on the rise to becoming a solid NBA starter. But last year’s regression put a serious question mark on the matter.
On the other hand, Tim Hardaway Jr. seems like he’s got an NBA-ready offensive game in year 1. During his initial offering, his TS% of 55.4% already put him above average. He had a healthy average of 15.8 pts/36 and his turnover percentage is a miniscule 5.9%, which should indicate there’s room for growth as he matures. Junior’s problem is everything else. His Allan Houston-esque peripherals are a bit alarming, and the two players are quite similar at the same age.
And while both players seem just dandy as secondary tiers to this current Knick team, the team needs to know if either can take the next step forward. While Shumpert is technically the starter, J.R. Smith is actually the dominant off-guard for the Knicks. Worm the II was second on the team in total minutes and minutes per game. Ideally, and eventually, the Knicks would like to rely less on Smith and more on Shumpert and/or Hardaway.
That said, for the next few weeks eyeballing the two guards is imperative for the Knicks’ future plans. Shumpert obviously didn’t care much for his role in Woodson’s offense which had him “standing in the corner.” And while it might be presumptive to take Shumpert’s shooting percentage in a handful of games to mean much, it’s more important to notice what kind of shots he’s getting off. Is he getting open looks? From where? Is Fisher’s offense getting Shumpert in good situations to score?
As for Hardaway, I would look at his peripherals and his scoring volume. Coach Fisher spent the first day of practice going over only the defense. Can he improve Hardaway’s lackluster rebounding and steal numbers? Last year he averaged only 14.7 pts/36 in the preseason despite leading the team in minutes per game. Can he show that’s he’s ready to expand his game?
Shumpert and Hardaway represent the Knicks’ best chance to fill out the starting lineup without paying dollar for dollar on free agent veterans. It’s easy to look at the pair and imagine the next generation of Sprewell & Houston. However, as meerkats have taught me, it’s easy looking good as a subordinate. It’s that top level which brings out all the flaws in a mammal.