On Phil Jackson, Luck, and Humility

The March evening last year when Phil Jackson took over as team president, Amar’e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, and J.R. Smith made up 60 percent of the Knicks’ starting lineup.

The team’s three players younger than 28 who regularly suited up for games — Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Cole Aldrich — combined for 1-14 from the field in a surprising win over the Pacers.

And at that moment, the Knicks had zero picks in the upcoming NBA Draft — their first rounder a casualty of the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster, their second rounder one of two sent to the Rockets to trade for Marcus Camby.

Somewhere during the past 21 months — as the Knicks traded away Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith took 22 threes in one game and everyone tried to learn the Triangle and “how’s it goink?” set fire to Twitter and Carmelo Anthony agreed to take less money until he didn’t and the team won their last two games after tanking all season and Bargnani did Bargnani things and Amar’e took red wine baths and Frank Kaminsky and Trey Lyles awaited their names to be called as the 4th pick in last year’s draft — a funny thing happened: Phil Jackson and the Knicks developed a plan.

Like many plans, it was born out of necessity and almost stumbled upon, drunkenly and by accident. It is a plan that has involved occasionally questionable free agency signings and trades and a coach whose rotation remains a mess and a number of strokes of pure luck.

But it also may be the likeliest plan to succeed in my lifetime of watching this franchise, based on an almost unthinkable premise for a team owned by James Dolan: have some humility, and treat the Knicks like a normal basketball team.

Humble basketball teams try to improve at the margins in lost seasons by making small moves with contenders: trading 37-year-old Pablo Prigioni for two second-round picks, talking the Hawks into Tim Hardaway as a rotation player in exchange for a four-year rookie contract for Jerian Grant, a mid-first round pick.

They take low-risk chances on young talent and undrafted rookies, who every now and then turn out to be players like 24-year-old Langston Galloway, a Second-Team all-rookie player last year who’s now averaging 12/5/3/2 per 36 and developing real chemistry with Grant in the backcourt.

They focus on player development, recognizing there was a strong two-way player lurking in Oklahoma City castaway Lance Thomas, a 27-year-old making less than $2 million this year and who might currently be the team’s third-best player.

They recognize that money doesn’t need to be spent in one summer, or on one player like Greg Monroe, a special talent but whose rim-protection struggles likely would have made for some significant spacing and defensive issues.

They care about less flashy rotation players and find value in less trafficked areas of the market — 3 years, $12 million for 25-year-old Kyle O’Quinn (19.8 PER), $8 million for the most efficient post-up guard in basketball (Arron Afflalo, still just 30 years old), $55 million for the mildly disappointing Robin Lopez, who still retains significant trade value.

Yes, normal basketball teams also make mistakes — not focusing on developing Cleanthony Early in a rebuilding season, giving Derrick Williams a second-year player option, inexplicably continuing to play Sasha Vujacic, not pursuing a deadline trade for Melo more seriously in his contract year last year.

Look, in the last 21 months, the Knicks have gotten lucky. They committed to tanking only after injuries to Melo and an unpopular move to trade Chandler, which I thought was a prudent sell-low(ish) move at the time but admittedly brought in a somewhat meager return. They waived both Galloway and Thomas before re-signing them and giving them chances to contribute. And, of course, they only drafted Kristaps Porzingis this year because their preferred choices of D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor were off the board (a reminder of the serendipity that was the Knicks getting bounced to the 4th pick despite having the second-worst record in the NBA.)

But you can only get lucky if you put yourself in a position to get lucky. That means taking advantage of the luxury of being a losing team and focusing on the long-term. It means trying out young players that don’t work (Ricky Ledo, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Travis Wear) to find ones that do (Galloway, Thomas). And, of course, it means taking a calculated risk on the skinny 20-year-old Latvian kid with the big upside because you recognize that you aren’t one piece away (“this guy can come in and contribute NOW!”) from being a championship contender.

As Tommy Beer noted on Twitter earlier this month, this time last year, the Knicks’ best young player was either Shane Larkin or Tim Hardaway. Now, they have five promising players under 25: Porzingis, O’Quinn, Grant, Galloway, and Early, the latter three of whom are making less than $2 million each this year.

Questions remain, most notably what to do with three-and-a-half more years and about $91 million of Melo, and whether the team has long-term rotation players or starters in Galloway and Grant.

But somehow, improbably, this is the most promising long-term position the team has been in since trading Patrick Ewing. And Phil Jackson — who won 11 titles with Jordan and Kobe and Shaq and Pippen — got them there the way normal teams do: with the splashes of luck that can come from exercising some humility.

BREAKING: Knicks Trade Shump, J.R. for Second-Rounder

Edited to add the official team statement.

The Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith era in New York is over, according to NBA kingslayer Adrian Wojnarowski.

This is the breakdown of the three-team trade, as far as we know at 9 p.m. EST:

The Cleveland Cavaliers have reached an agreement in principle to acquire New York Knicksguards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a multi-team trade that also sends guard Dion Waitersto the Oklahoma City Thunder, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Oklahoma City will give the Cavaliers a protected future first-round draft pick and send guard Lance Thomas to the Knicks, league sources said. As part of the trade, the Cavaliers will send rookie center Alex Kirk, forward Lou Amundson and a 2019 second-round pick to the Knicks, sources said.

At first glance — and assuming this is the exact deal — the trade looks to be a pretty pure salary dump for the Knicks. For more than a year, the team had been openly looking to trade Smith, who owns a $6.4 million player option for next year when the team will have considerable cap space. In addition to the cap space and likely trade exception, the Knicks get a second-round pick for their trouble.

Last summer, the Knicks and Thunder reportedly were close to Shumpert for a first-rounder.

Shumpert, the Knicks’ best two-way player, is the real loss here. The 24-year-old has been maddeningly inconsistent but at times electrifying during his injury-plagued three-and-a-half years in New York. Drafted by the Knicks with the 17th pick in the 2011 Draft, he became a fan favorite with his energetic defense, athleticism, and flat-top haircut. Fans will always remember his put-back dunk in the second round of the playoffs against the Pacers, a remarkable play for a young player having what looked to be a breakout postseason.

The Knicks were approaching a decision on Shumpert, who is almost certainly set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the year. If Smith had picked up his option and the Knicks had matched an offer sheet for Shumpert, the team could have been looking at a payroll of potentially $15 million or more than they will have at the end of the year.

There are lots of ways to evaluate this trade, and fans will likely have mixed reactions. It is extremely tough to see a 24-year-old homegrown talent in Shumpert go. But while the return is light, it seems that this is what big market, 5-31 teams do: They trade away players either counterproductive (J.R.) or non-essential (Shumpert) for long-term plans, and try to maximize cap space and picks. It is a very worthy debate as to whether Smith’s option and a second-rounder is worthy enough of a return.

EDIT: Here is the official team statement:

NEW YORK, January 5, 2015 – New York Knickerbockers President Phil Jackson announced today that the team has acquired forward Lou Amundson, center Alex Kirk and a 2019 second-round draft choice from Cleveland and forward Lance Thomas from Oklahoma City as part of a three-team trade. Guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith were sent from New York to Cleveland and guard Dion Waiters from Cleveland to Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City also sent Cleveland a future first-round draft choice. In addition, center Samuel Dalembert has been waived.

“As our journey moves through this season, we will search for the type of players that fit the style we hope to exhibit for our fans. Our desire is to improve our ability to compete,” Jackson said. “In addition, these transactions improve our flexibility to the current roster and the salary cap for future seasons.”

Thomas, 6-8, 225-pounds, averaged 5.1 points and 3.4 rebounds over 20.5 minutes in 22 games (13 starts) for Oklahoma City this season. The Brooklyn, NY-native signed as a free agent with Oklahoma City on Sep. 29, 2014.

Dalembert, 6-11, 255-pounds, averaged 4.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.28 blocks over 17 minutes in 32 games (21 starts) for New York this season. He was originally acquired from Dallas in a multi-player deal on Jun. 25, 2014.

Shumpert, 6-5, 220-pounds, averaged 9.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists over 26.0 minutes in 24 games (all starts) for New York this season. The Oak Park, IL-native, averaged 7.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists over 26.2 minutes in 202 games (162 starts) over four seasons with the Knicks after being selected in the first round (17th overall) of the 2011 NBA Draft.

Smith, 6-6, 225-pounds, averaged 10.9 points, 3.4 assists and 2.4 rebounds over 25.8 minutes in 24 games (six starts) for New York this season. The Freehold, NJ-native averaged 15.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists over 31.4 minutes in 213 games (44 starts) over four seasons with the Knicks. He originally signed with New York on Feb. 17, 2012 and most recently re-signed on Jul. 11, 2013.

First Quarterly Review: 6-on-5

Welcome to the KnickerBlogger First Quarterly review! We are basically done with the first quarter of this futility-of-existence-confirming monstrosity season, and the Phil Jackson era is off to a bit of a rough start. The Knicks stand at 4-16, and are struggling mightily on both ends.

Simultaneously horrified and unable to look away at this car crash that is the Knicks’ beginning of the season, we Knickerbloggers got together for a 6-on-5 to discuss the Triangle, Coach Derek Fisher’s lineups, and any positive developments (stop laughing!) from the past 20 games Knicks fans can cling to.

1. So, this team … yikes. To start, give the KB faithful at home one or two silver linings/positive developments from the first quarter of this season — and actually having a 2015 first-rounder doesn’t count.

Mike Kurylo: The world is a cold dark place. Earth is, if nothing else, a murderous laboratory. Nearly everything has to kill something else to survive. There is no hope for any living creature. Accept this, and you can begin to enjoy life.

Robert Silverman: But the ‘Bockers DO have a first round pick. And look at all the glorious tall people that one might gobble up like so many truffle-coated cherries! You can’t make me not dream my dreamy dreams, Jonathan. What else… let’s see… um…

Calderon’s a smart, sweet shooting floor general. His contract may look icky, but it’s eminently tradeable moving forward. And Thanasis looks awesome!

Brian Cronin: Travis Wear does not look like he is nearly ready for primetime yet, but he has at least picked up the Triangle well, which bodes well for him in the future if he can develop his game some more. Plus, Pablo Prigioni has been his normal excellent self. And Jose Calderon sure has a sweet-looking shot. That’s about it, and the Wear thing is admittedly a reach.

Bryan Gibberman: I see we started with a trick question. Since positives and negatives attract you don’t actually mean positive correct? I’m going to go the the D-League. Thanasis Antetokounmpo has put together some really cool highlight packages of blocks that have been more entertaining than any Knicks game I’ve watched this season. Hopefully he can help at the NBA level next season.

Kevin Udwary: The most positive, and surprising, development to me has to be STAT being pretty damn good. At 32 years old, on busted knees and a bad back, he is putting up his career best rebounding numbers with his TS% back up to around 60%. Of course with Amar’e it’s always a case of when he is going to break down, but if his minutes stay in the low to mid 20s per game, then maybe, just maybe, he will survive the season. Everyone loves a comeback story, right?

Jonathan Topaz: The wheels are starting to come off his hot start quickly, but as I’ve written, Iman Shumpert has been gratifying to watch. He is still shooting 37 percent from three and the Triangle offense has helped boost his assist rate. José Calderón has been a pleasure in his few games — just a great shooter with wonderful court sense, as we already knew. A healthy Amar’e Stoudemire is always nice to see, and he has looked particularly spry on the offensive end, posting 18/11 per-36 numbers thus far. 25 MPG is on the high end for him, but not outrageous, particularly given his discomfort with minutes limits. And while Fisher has inexplicably played Melo more than 40 minutes in two of his games back from injury, he did a nice job restricting Anthony’s playing time at the beginning of the season. His 35 MPG is way down from his league-leading totals last year.

2. Coach Fisher is clearly experimenting a ton with lineups and rotations. What is this team’s best five at this point in the season? Do you expect it to change as the season progresses?

Kurylo: Best 5? I don’t think such a thing exists. They don’t have 5 good players total. Let’s see Carmelo, Calderon, ummm… Aldrich?, Shumpert? Amar’e? Prigioni? See the problem? Although looking at it, I’d probably just run with those 6 for now, and hope Timmay or J.R. comes around. Also a sprinkling of Dalembert, because fouls.

Silverman: Experimenting? That’s what we’re calling it? It’s wrong-headed, borderline schizophrenic dithering, is what it is. I stand by this bit of non-investigative journalism as to the process by which Fish Head selects the starting five/rotation.

Fisher generates a lineup and subsequent substitution patterns by writing out every Knick’s name on an index card and plops them down on the plush shag carpeting, cranks the heat in his office up to 100 degrees, puts on three heavy nylon tracksuits, does calisthenics till he’s sweating like a…like a…like an Ira, immediately shucks off all his clothes and drops to to the floor, rolling around like he’s having a petit mal seizure. Whichever five cards stick to his perspiration-drenched, gleaming, naked body, that’s who starts.

Anyhoo, before the season started, I endorsed rolling with a Calderon-Shump-J.R.-Melo-Cole quintet. I still stand that statement. Sadly, both Jackson and Fisher seem to be committed to playing Melo at small forward, for reasons unknown to man or beast. It hasn’t made a lick of sense for two-plus years and it doesn’t make any now, but so it goes.

I have a feeling there will be a trade or two that will further jostle the rotation, but we should all be buying loin-girding material in bulk, because Bargs is going to be installed at power forward as soon as he’s healthy. (Yes, that may take some time.)

Cronin: I think the Knicks’ best five-man lineup right now is Calderon/Prigs/Shump/Melo/Dalembert. And that is not a good five-man lineup.

Gibberman: The Knicks no longer have lineups I trust. Their lack of a defensive-minded, rebounding center makes playing small hard. Their lack of a two-way power forward makes it difficult to play Carmelo Anthony at the three. I still think if given the opportunity Calderon, Shump, JR, Melo and Aldrich would be the Knicks best five, but I don’t think they’ve played one minute together this season.

Udwary: I had to glance at the lineup stats for this one and, wow, Fisher has tried a whole lot of lineups! It looks like we do best when we play small, so I like Melo at the 4. We would probably want Calderon and Prigs in the backcourt, for an international flair. I’d probably then put Shump at the 3 for defensive purposes. At center, I’m flexible with Stat to go all out offensive onslaught, or Dalambert for defense, or Cole Aldrich for sheer awesomeness. It doesn’t look like we’ve tried any of those lineups. Get on it, Fisher!

Topaz: Tyson Chandler’s otherworldly abilities made playing small far more palatable from a defensive perspective, and while I still think that Melo should play at the 4 (it’s his far more natural position at the offensive and defensive end, at this point in his career), it’s a dicier proposition with Dalembert, STAT or Aldrich at the back. I also like the Calderon-J.R.-Shumpert-Melo-Aldrich lineup. The Triangle system negates a lot of the benefits of a two-point guard lineup, making Prigioni less valuable in that role.

3. Most people before the season were anticipating the defensive futility, but some around these parts were predicting the team would have a fairly strong offense. The Knicks rank in the bottom-third in offensive efficiency. Break it down by percentages: How much of the team’s offensive struggles are because of the Triangle, how much are because of a dearth of talent, and how much because of injuries (namely Calderon and Melo)?

Kurylo: 0%, 99%, 1%. Look the triangle can work, and I think pretty much any system in the NBA can with the proper amount of talent and players that fit the system. The Knicks just don’t have very good players. Two main role players, Acy & Larkin, have not seen much NBA time on their previous teams for a reason. They stink. Shumpert is inconsistent on offense. J.R Smith is inconsistent in life. There’s nothing to really work with.

Silverman: 5/94/1. Right now, the roster doesn’t contain many good fits for the triangle, so it’s pretty much impossible to judge how effective it may or may not be long-term. It’d be like trying to cram D’Antoniball onto a team without a competent point guard and boffo shooters.  For some reason, the name “Toney Douglas” is popping into my noggin. Having Calderon around for the first 13 games might have resulted in an additional win or two, but not enough to dramatically alter this team’s predestined landing spot.

Cronin: I think the first sort of ties in with the second. For instance, yes, poor talent is a major problem with the team, but part of it is that this team is especially poorly designed to work with the Triangle. In addition, I do think Calderon could have clearly helped earlier in the season, so I think it’s fair to give him some credit. So I go 10/80/10. The biggest difference between this year and last year might very well be the loss of Tyson Chandler on offense. His absence is helping to show the impact he had.

Gibberman: I’m going to go with a mix of all three. Here’s what someone way smarter than me thinks about Fisher’s offense:

WELP. I’ve never gone that extreme, but I’m on record saying I can’t stand the Knicks scheme. The lane is constantly clogged, they run offense through bigs that have no business touching the ball and they far too often have three guys spaced so they can be defended by one opposing player. Fisher and Jackson seem to wear it as a badge of pride that they don’t run as much pick and roll as the rest of the league, but I hate to break it to them: PnR is an extremely effective vehicle for an offense.

New York’s offensive scheme has made the Knicks best offensive player less efficient. They’ve turned Melo back into Denver Melo and I prefer three-point chucking NY Melo.

There’s no doubt the Knicks need more talent, but Fisher needs to adjust his offense to comply with a more modern NBA game.

Udwary: It’s so hard to tell. I’d say 40% triangle, 50% talent and 10% injuries. As a team we shoot 3’s pretty well (8th in the league in 3pt%), but don’t shoot them often (21st in 3PA). We take a lot of long 2’s, so our FTA are low (29th) and our 2pt% is also poor (24th). Is that the triangle or the people playing it? Not sure how to separate the two out.

Topaz: 25/60/15. It’s funny — I actually think this team, when fully healthy, could make for an interesting small-ball offense in a different system. Is Felton-Prigioni-Shumpert-Anthony-Chandler (Earl 6th man) all that different from Calderon-Prigioni-Shumpert-Anthony-Aldrich (Earl 6th man)? The latter lineup is at least a poor-man’s version of the lineup that succeeded in the league’s 3rd-most efficient offense two years ago, right? Now, there are major differences in bench quality and the like, but I do think that the Triangle and the decision not to go small is hurting the Knicks offensively. That doesn’t mean the Triangle can’t work in modern-day basketball, but it will require dramatically different personnel. Also, forgive the Calderon fan-boy tendencies, but I think he’s a major key to this team’s offensive success. His excellent three-point shooting and decision-making can really help a team that struggles with turnovers and suffers from awful spacing.

4. Name one player who is receiving too much playing time and one player who should  be receiving more burn. (Immediately regrets his question and readies himself for essay-length rants about Cole Aldrich.)

Kurylo: I’ll spare you from my Aldri-lich-ous ravings. How about replace Larkin with Prigioni? Larkin is 4th on the team in minutes and is sporting a 9-ish PER and a sub-50 ts%. Pablo is happiness in point guard form. This is a no-brainer.

Silverman: I loathe Jason Smith. He’s a terrible defender, makes Bargs look good on the glass, and that fadeaway low post atrocity of his should come with a parental guidance label. In sum, I do not like Jason Smith and would like it very much if he never took the court again. (As a Knick, to be clear. If he were a Bull or Spur I’d be ecstatic. Then again, if he got shipped to San Antonio, Pop would use his dark magicks to turn him into Matt freaking Bonner somehow.)

Since you’ve put the kibosh on Cole-stanning–#FREECOLE–I’m going to say Timmy Jr. He’s been pretty awful so far, but if this is a rebuilding year, it’s definitely worth giving him playing time and seeing what they have. By the same rationale, I’d say the same for Larkin over Prigs (sorry, Mike!) and y’all know how much I loves me some Pablo.

Cronin: Jason Smith plays way too much. Cole does play too little, but part of that is his own fault for his poor conditioning. He still should play more, though.

Gibberman: Dalembert, Quincy Acy and Jason Smith all play way too much. Acy I could deal with as an eight to 10 minute guy off the bench, but outside of that no thank you. Amar’e Stoudemire is the Knicks best big man. I actually just typed that sentence. Can this season end? I hate this season…it’s horrifying. Just play Cole Aldrich. The Knicks have the worst defensive rebounding rate as a team in the NBA. Cole rebounds so I’d try that.

Udwary: I would not be disappointed if Jason Smith never played another minute for the Knicks. Shumpert and Calderon have been better defensive rebounders than Jason Smith, so far this season. It’s just pitiful. Cole should get more time, but he really does look to be out of shape out there. It’d be nice to get Early some minutes, to see what we actually have there.

Topaz: Quincy Acy playing more than 20 minutes a game seems like a violation of some sort of international treaty. I understand this team is desperate for rebounding, but it’s brutal on both ends (his offense in particular looks like a performance art display.) As the unofficial Carmelo Anthony Minutes Police Chief, I’d also like to see his playing time come down a tick, as unrealistic as that sounds. This is now about protecting a five-year investment, and it seems wasteful to burn him out in a dead-end year. The frontcourt is just so barren, though, that it’s hard to call for anyone to eat up some of those minute totals, except for a little more from Aldrich. I agree with the general play the youngins sentiment, as well — might as well see what you have in Hardaway and Early, once he comes back.

5. Twenty-odd games in, how much buyer’s remorse (if any) should fans have about Phil’s grand vision of building around the Triangle, a nearly maxed-out Melo and cap space in the next year or two?

Kurylo: To have remorse, one has had to buy into the concept to being with. That being said I think a winning team can be built around ‘Melo. Getting those next players are key to any kind of Renaissance in New York. The Knicks have to hit home runs in the draft and with free agency/trades to get the right main players next to Anthony. Good luck with that.

Silverman: None. It’s way too early in the process to begin getting out our portable soapboxes and screeching that it was doomed to begin with. We all knew they’d struggle out of the gate, but yes, this is probably beyond even the most pessimistic ‘Bocker-backer’s grim, sour-faced grumpery.

Cronin: The idea of signing Melo to a mega-max extension with the intent of rebuilding in  the first year of his contract (i.e. likely the best year of his five year deal) was always a bad idea. However, if they get lucky with the draft and free agency this offseason, they’ll have a small window in Years 3-4 of Melo’s deal. Will they get lucky in the draft and free agency this offseason? I wouldn’t expect much from them, no. This being the Knicks, they’ll improve this year just enough to get, say, the #6 pick in the draft and they will miss out on the one difference-making free agent out there, Marc Gasol. Gasol’s tremendous season reminds me of how the Yankees figured that they’d be able to easily re-sign Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley, as their markets were not large when they were traded to New York. Then both turned it around big time and now they both might have priced themselves off of the Yankees. Gasol was already going to be a tough get for the Knicks, but he’s playing like an MVP right now, which makes it a lot harder to see how he will decide to come to New York when they have little on the court to interest him.

Gibberman: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. Derek Fisher sounds like he’s been possessed by Mike Woodson’s spirit in his pregame press conferences. Fisher and Jackson seem to think playing Anthony at the three is a good idea (psssstttttt it’s not).

My biggest worry is they’re trying to win right now and they’re 4-16. I joke about tanking, but this team is very clearly not tanking — they’re just very very very very bad. A team that was tanking would have been playing Cleanthony Early, Shane Larkin and Tim Hardaway Jr. plus 25 minutes a night to get young guys experience. The Knicks are playing veterans and Melo massive amount of minutes in an attempt to win.

The poor performance this season also hurts them in free agency this summer. I’d put the odds of signing Marc Gasol at about negative 250%. The process of building this team is going to take longer than expected because the roster is so bear.

Udwary: No remorse yet. Let’s wait until the summer cap space is filled before we form any strong opinions about the direction of the franchise.

Topaz: Trying to stay level-headed like the uber-rational Robert and Kevin … but it’s hard. For the most part, I agree that little substantive has changed. This was always going to be a rebuilding year. The vast majority of this team will be disassembled in short order. They will have a first-round pick and cap room and a top-12 player in the NBA. There has minimal rumbling of knee-jerk trades. Phil generally seems steady at the wheel.

But there are some warning signs, some larger than others. Hardaway has made little-to-no strides in the non-shooting aspects of his game, and his prospects for becoming a meaningful rotation player on a playoff team look worse than they did two months ago. The non-Gasol free agent crop is uninspiring, and as others have noted, all signs point to him staying with the scary-good Grizzlies. It seems premature to write off the Triangle completely, but the league-leading mid-range jumpers and Melo’s sharp decline in three-point attempts are disconcerting. It’s not panic mode, not by a longshot. The (semblance of a) plan remains in place. But it’s hard not to see some cracks 20 games into the experiment.

On Iman Shumpert and the Unknown

Often, when thinking about columns to write for KB, my mind invariably drifts to some grand, What We Talk About When We Talk About Iman Shumpert glass-case-of-emotion think piece.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. Amid a heaping dumpster of old players, big contracts, and forfeited draft picks, Shumpert for the last three years has been a brilliant but fleeting hologram — a young, homegrown, wildly athletic two-way player whose injury problems and maddening inconsistency make you wonder if your talent-starved eyes have been deceiving you the whole time.

Russia, Winston Churchill famously said, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. This isn’t too far off for how Knicks fans likely feel about Shumpert. He is a very good, if overrated, perimeter defender, who gambles too much but shines brighter in comparison to the rest of the roster, comprised largely of swivel chairs. (As Chris Herring notes, he made the Knicks significantly better on defense last year, but what replacement-level defender wouldn’t help a team of Feltons, Anthonys, Bargnanis and Stoudemires at that end?) He is athletic but struggles to get to the rim consistently. He is an excellent rebounder for his size but rarely gets to the foul line. He is simultaneously silky but a poor ball-handler, effortlessly cool one moment and awkward the next. On some nights, his playmaking makes you think he has put it all together; on others, you wonder how someone so agile can have such little offensive creativity and struggle so much to penetrate.

He seems like an ideal “3 and D” guy, except three-plus years in, we aren’t sure if he can, you know, shoot threes. 31, 40, 33 — those are his three-point percentages in three regular seasons. Paired with his excellent shooting start to 2014, your guess is as good as mine as to Shumpert’s real shooting ability.

There are the caveats — how the Knicks mistakenly used him as an emergency point guard for much of the first half of his rookie year; his ACL tear; the mistreatment he endured at the hands of Mike Woodson, who threw him under the bus time and again, and ownership, who seemed to shop him around to all 29 teams and maybe even a few D-League franchises (for little more than a late first-round pick and a washing machine, at times.)

And then there are the stretches when you talk yourself into thinking that he can be an integral piece on a playoff team even more than a mere cog in a Popovichian corner-3 laser show — his postseason performance two years ago, his stellar play in Texas last year, and, of course, his tremendous start this season.

We are, as Jonathan Schulman rightly noted after Wednesday’s loss to the Bucks, seeing a Shumpert start that is “teetering on the edge of being more than just a hot streak.” Unlike most of the team’s roster, he has seemed well-suited to the Triangle almost immediately. He is averaging 16/5/5 per 36, with his assist totals jumping up to nearly twice what they were last year. He’s getting to the line more. His effective field goal and true shooting percentages are above 56 percent and, while they are sure to drop following some serious regression from his 53 percent three-point shooting so far, remain extremely impressive. For the first time in a long time, he looks comfortable.

In a positively Knicksian wrinkle, it is worthwhile to note that the organization clearly doesn’t have a grasp on Shumpert’s value as a player, more than three years in. They have started him, benched him, nearly traded him ten times over. The whole trade deadline melodrama last year had more than a twinge of organizational self-importance to it — the constant chatter was, after all, about a three-year veteran with a PER rating under 10.

Regardless of what the front office thinks, decision time is approaching. The Knicks declined to negotiate a contract extension for Shumpert and could still trade him this year. Otherwise, the team will presumably give him an offer by June 30, which he will surely reject, making him a restricted free agent.

And, at the risk of yet again placing an elevated level of importance on our flat-topped hero, the ensuing decision will say a lot about Phil Jackson and his approach to team-building. The Knicks may very well have max-level cap space this summer, but KB’s Official Number One Wish Marc Gasol is seen as highly unlikely to leave Memphis, and even then the Knicks would have competitors. With Plan A likely dead in the water, the team will have to decide whether it will pursue potential high-talent but questionably fitting players like LaMarcus Aldridge or Rajon Rondo for a max deal. And, in what will be an overlapping decision, ownership will have to decide just what amount in precious cap room they’re willing to match for an enigmatic, streaky fan favorite whom they seemed committed to jettisoning six months ago.

Typically, when I plan the Iman Shumpert Fan Experience Manifesto in my head, I come to some sort of overarching conclusion in the end. But right now, I’m not sure I have one. There aren’t many compelling reasons to watch the Knicks right now, unless you’re a fan of leaky defensive units and mid-range jumpers. The brilliant Carmelo Anthony, as ever, is one. Watching a young, new coach in all his imperfections and flashes of promise is another. There’s the enduring question of the Triangle, and ultimately a sure-to-be crowd-pleasing José Calderón (and, of course, Air Bargnani.) But more than all those things, at least for me, is a suddenly rejuvenated Iman Shumpert, showing the two-way promise we all thought or hoped he might be capable of.

Enjoy it. Because whether the Knicks deal him in the coming weeks or months or this hot start has been just another dazzling hologram we so desperately want to believe in, he may not be here too much longer.

6-on-5 Roundtable: Melo and Beyond

Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Knicks and Carmelo Anthony agreed to a contract this weekend, a 5-year deal for $124 million, a player option on the final year and a no-trade clause.. The deal–which will color every move the organization and new president Phil Jackson make over the next half-decade–was such big news that we had to break out the roundtable; an illegal roundtable in basketball terms, in fact. We’re going 6-on-5 to discuss whether the Knicks overpaid, what the move says about Jackson’s reign, and what to expect from the team this year and beyond.

1. Is 5 years, $122.5 million (or so) an overpay for Carmelo Anthony? If so, was it worth it to sign him anyway?

Dan Litvin: Objectively, I don’t think it was an overpay, because salaries for the best players are artificially capped. In the context of the CBA however, his contract does create challenges. It’s going to escalate in cost at the same time he’s likely to be declining in skill, and that inflation will limit the team’s ability to add pieces around him. On the other hand, I think fans should be pleased (if initial reports are correct) that he decided to take less to help management facilitate additional moves, particularly next summer. He didn’t have to do that but he clearly understands some of the burdens the CBA (unfairly) places on the league’s best players.

Jonathan Topaz: In a vacuum, this will likely prove to be an overpay. An average annual salary of more than $24 million a year is a lot for a one-way player on the wrong side of 30, regardless of his brilliance on offense. Melo is somewhere between a top-10 and top-15 player in the NBA — if you like PER, he’s more a top-7 player; if you prefer win shares, he’s more like a top-15 guy. He’s a great and flawed player, a perennial All-Star but not a once-in-a-generation talent, a player you hate to give up but whose contract is bound to get ugly when he is a 34-year-old making $27 million a year. The last two years of this deal will almost certainly be painful. And Melo isn’t quite special enough to make up for it value-wise in the first three. I still think it’s worth it (more on that in a bit).

David Vertsberger: Perhaps, but it was worth it. The Knicks aren’t in a dead-in-the-water position, they have a first round pick this year and a handful of young pieces with upside. Their books are almost completely wiped clean next summer, and Anthony’s still got at least two to four years left in his prime. There’s no reason to begin a complete rebuild when one of the league’s elite is at your doorstep ready to sign.

Robert Silverman: Since the Lakers did have an offer for 4 years/97 million, I have to say no. Of course, I wish he would’ve re-upped for something in the neighborhood of 5/100–that’s still a Gramercy Park duplex-level neighborhood–but the market determined what Melo’s value is/was, and in the end, I’m glad that he’s back. If you’d like to read more as to why I’m so tickled, I wrote a bunch of words over at VICE Sports.

Gus Crawford: Overpay? Yes. Worth it? Compared to the alternatives, it looks like it was the right path to take. Melo’s options narrowed down to Chicago and New York, and with the Bulls toeing a fine financial line and unlikely to fork out any assets of significance in a sign-and-trade scenario, retaining him for that price steadies the Knicks’ position ahead of the 2015 free agency window.

Kevin McElroy: Prices are market-determined and there were multiple teams in this market prepared to max Melo out.  I don’t believe that the Knicks paid much/any more than they had to pay to keep him.  

2. Let’s say you were the Knicks GM, and you couldn’t get a sign-and-trade deal worked out or convince Melo to sign for less than this contract. Would you have signed him for the (almost) max or let him walk for nothing?

Litvin: I vacillated greatly on this subject over the last several months. Coming off a dreadful 37-win campaign, I thought the Knicks could be terrible without Melo, and the best course may have been to bottom out rather than tread water. I stuck with that view into free agency but with every day that passed I felt more uncertain. Every time I read that Melo was giving serious consideration to another team a sense of dread enveloped me. I don’t know if that is because being spurned by a superstar who couldn’t handle incompetent management would have been embarrassing and quintessentially Knicksian, or because I genuinely wanted him to stay. But I think if push came to shove I would have given him every cent. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he’s still here.

Topaz: I would have signed him, but it’s complicated. A very tricky part of this deal is Melo’s depreciating value. He is a 30-year-old entering into his 12th NBA season who led the league in minutes per game last year (the rest of top 5 were all players 25 or under — thanks, Coach Woodson!) In other words, the Knicks have to get better fast to maximize their chances before Anthony’s performance declines. It’s a tall order, but the Knicks will have cap room next summer and a more thoughtful front office running the show. This contract isn’t an ideal situation, and ownership likely missed a major opportunity to trade Anthony during last year’s comedy of errors of a season. But letting an elite player walk for free — particularly when the market this summer indicated the team will likely be able to trade him at some point if they so choose— would have been unnecessary.

Vertsberger: I’d sign him. Again, I like the position the Knicks are in. It’s one primed to have at the very least a Playoffs team in 2015-16, maybe something better. While teams continue to struggle putting together a package suitable for Minnesota to give up Kevin Love and lose out on this summer’s top free agents, the Knicks have their guy, one whose talent is very difficult to replace.

Silverman: I don’t think letting him walk and getting zip back would’ve been good, so no.

Crawford: Key word there is “almost.” It sounds as if Melo has agreed to a slightly below max-level deal — which is nice — but the most important detail will be his salary for 2015-16. If the Knicks were able to convince him to stagnate or slightly reduce his Year 2 figure, then re-upping him was the right maneuver. Slapping a five-year, $129M full-max albatross atop an already messy cap sheet is a whole other matter, though.

McElroy: I would have signed him.  As I wrote over at The Cauldron, Melo’s skill set makes him a better fit for the primary perimeter role in the triangle offense than anyone else the Knicks would have been likely to sign with the cap space they would’ve saved over the next five years by letting Melo walk.  More than that, the value that the rest of the market seemed to place on Melo bodes well for what he represents as a trade commodity if the Knicks decide they want out of the deal at any point.  If, 2 years from now, the Knicks are still mired in mediocrity, you’ve gotta think the Knicks and Melo would both be amenable to a trade and you would hope that they’d be able to get at least a couple of minor assets for him.

3. With all due respect to Derek Fisher, how to deal with Melo was far and away Phil Jackson’s biggest decision in his first summer in charge. How’d he do? And does his handling of this shed any light on what type of executive the Zen Master might be?

Litvin: I can only speculate, but it seems Phil played the game shrewdly. Melo opened the door to taking less, and Phil jammed his foot into it by pressuring Melo to actually follow through. He also seemed to have taken leverage away from both Melo and Chicago by making it known that he would not engage in sign-and-trade discussions should Melo have chosen the Bulls. I think Phil has done a good job as President and his handling of the Melo negotiations bodes well for the future.

Topaz: It was an odd scene last week: Phil Jackson — winner of 11 NBA championships, master of Zen, tamer of nature, wearer of backpacks — telling reporters Melo hadn’t returned any of his recent text messages. It was a reminder that in today’s NBA, even the most royal of senior citizens takes a backseat to the league’s superstars, who wield an almost unprecedented amount of leverage. We’ll see how much money Melo ends up leaving on the table, but given his many attractive suitors and seemingly predetermined decision to opt out, I’m not sure if this ordeal tells us much about Jackson. If anything, it tells us a bit more about Anthony — namely that Jackson, who has coached wing players named Jordan and Bryant to multiple NBA titles, thinks Melo is worthy of the max.

Vertsberger: We obviously don’t know in the inner workings of Phil Jackson’s negotiations with Anthony, but I like how he handled the situation with the public. Confident, assuring, not afraid to say “if we lose him, we lose him.” It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t get Anthony to take a smaller deal, but I’m not so sure any GM could. Some may have not even been able to re-sign Anthony. If this tells us anything about Jackson though, is that he must either think highly of Melo as a star, or wants to avoid a total overhaul at all costs.

Silverman: I think the Chandler-Calderon trade actually says a lot more about his GM’ing skillz. He got good value for a player that I kind of think is about to enter a serious decline; considering how much of Tyson’s game is built on speed and athleticism, he could drop off pretty quickly. We already saw what happened when he was a half step slow this season, and he’s never going to be the DPOY that prowled the lane like a wild-eyed, ravenous tiger shark again. Considering his injury history, I think dumping him now was absolutely the right thing to do. Netting two picks in a loaded draft, a nifty prospect in Larkin and dumping Felton? That’s a pretty darn good first step.

And then he brought back Aldrich. No one’s talking about that (understandable, given the hurly-burly of the last 48 hours) but I think he’s going to be really valuable this year. I loved watching him operate in the Triangle in the first SL tilt, and it’s always worth it to roll the dice on a lottery pick “bust.”

But to the question at hand. It wasn’t an ideal situation. If he really tried to squeeze Melo to take a serious cut, I think he would’ve walked—taken his talents all the way to Sunset Boulevard, if you will. He got him to take less and while that’s not the absolute idea result, in this instance, I think perfection is the enemy of progress.

Crawford: Jackson has always made the public forum his domain, peppering the press corps with salty one-liners and teetering between backhanded compliments and his trademark Zen wisdom. From Day 1, his candor on the media front has instilled an authoritative presence for the organization, and signalled a shift away from the days of the Knicks grovelling at the feet of agents across the league. Sure, his private stance may have (and likely did) differ, but I couldn’t find much fault in the first flirtations in the Melo-Phil romance. If that’s any indicator of his executorial MO, sign me up.

McElroy: Jackson did his job here but I don’t think it was a particularly difficult decision.  Clearly, his sales pitch was good enough but that’s not the toughest thing to do when you can outbid the competition by a couple dozen million dollars.  Once Melo was willing to come back, his retention was a formality; I doubt any other current NBA GM would have behaved differently.  In my opinion, the Chandler trade was far more illuminating of Jackon’s creativity and team-building philosophy.

4. With this signing and the Tyson Chandler deal, next year’s roster is basically set, though the Knicks still have a mini-MLE available. It’s obviously very early, but how does next year’s team look?

Litvin: Very Melo-centric. He still needs help. Phil’s best triangle teams always had a top-notch second fiddle. Who is the Knicks’ second best player? Try not to think too hard about that because the answer may scare you. That said, I still think the Knicks can field an efficient offense. Their defense will be a serious concern though. There is going to be a heavy toll on Iman Shumpert, Dalembert will have to limit his tendency to gamble for blocks and Cole Aldrich is going to have to be physical. Most importantly, Melo is going to have to set an example.

Topaz: Not great, but it could be fun. There will certainly be some ugly moments — young rotation players, a potentially rocky adjustment to the Triangle, and a first-year head coach. This team will really struggle on defense without Chandler (and with an injury-prone Samuel Dalembert taking his place). But they could surprise people on offense. Calderon is a high-efficiency, low-turnover point guard and a wonderful shooter, and the smaller team and lack of frontcourt depth will likely push Melo back to everyone’s favorite spot for him at the power forward position. Those changes alone, plus a coaching change that might mean fewer minutes for Andrea Bargnani and better lineups in general, will likely bump this team up from last season. They seem like an on-the-bubble playoff contender in the East.

Vertsberger: Terrible, but at least it’ll be fun terrible unlike last year’s “I want to put something sharp in my eye” terrible. We’ll get to see Carmelo in an actual NBA offense, with Calderon – an actual NBA point guard – commanding the floor and bombing home threes. I imagine the young guys will get loads of playing time, if only to become more intriguing trade assets. That’s going to be fun to watch too. Now I just have to pray that Andrea Bargnani doesn’t play, unless he’s in to get in Kevin Garnett’s grill.

Silverman: It’s interesting. I’ve been chatting with some fine hoops minds on the Twitter about whether or not this is a playoff team as presently constructed. Right now, I’m going to say no. The East has gotten kind of deep all of a sudden. Indiana (assuming Stephenson returns), Cleveland, and Chicago are all pretty evenly matched at the top. And then there’s the somewhat equally ranked Toronto-Washington-Atlanta-Charlotte-Miami quintet. The Knicks certainly could bust into that grouping, but right now, this looks like a lottery team, even if they’ll be improved over last season, while winning about the same number of games.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Getting a stab at a top-3 draft choice, working to learn Fish’s system and seeing which players on the roster actually do make sense together is hardly a wasted year.

Crawford: It’s an improvement on the inferno of this past season, but there are still gaping holes. The roster is scarily thin up front, and not much has taken place to shore up the defensive side of the ball. I don’t think 2014-15 is going to mean much, in context. One positive of the makeover is the role of José Calderón, which I covered here.

McElroy: If they don’t sign anyone for the Mini-MLE, I think they’ll be 5 or 6 wins better than they were last year. I’m building in a likely coaching upgrade (although that’s entirely based on Woodson’s incompetence; Fisher remains an unknown quantity) and a much better fit of personnel to system.  I’m offsetting those improvements with the downgrade from Chandler to the center-by-committee that they have in place right now as well as the potential for worse injury luck than they had last year (or, frankly, BETTER luck with Bargs’ health; the fewer games he plays, the better).  Put me down for 42 wins, although there’s certainly some upside there.

5. The front office and coaching staff has gone through a major, major change this summer. What do you think their long-term plan is beyond this year? How will (or should) the organization approach the next several years?

Litvin: This time next year is obviously a fulcrum in Phil’s plan. The Knicks will likely have maximum salary cap space to get Melo some help. Marc Gasol is obviously everyone’s main target, but I’m worried the well may dry up before the summer comes around. That said, you can do more with cap space than just spending it on free agents. For example the Lakers just landed an expiring contract in Jeremy Lin and a first round pick because they were able to help the Rockets clear room. Another event that shouldn’t be overlooked is the expected jump in the salary cap associated with the NBA’s new forthcoming TV deal. If the cap jumps because of a rich new broadcast deal, look for the Knicks to have additional cap space beyond just 2015.

Topaz: As I said above, Melo is only getting older. In this five-year window, the team’s best shot might be in 2015, when Anthony will just be a year older and the Knicks will have maximum-level cap space (and perhaps a lottery pick from 2015.) Melo’s declining age is the real downside of this deal. The Knicks have an excellent star; some fun young pieces in Tim Hardaway Jr., Cleanthony Early, and Iman Shumpert; impending cap space; and a young, new coach. But Anthony’s contract could be a real liability at age 33, and as fun as it is to have some young talent and lowered expectations in 2014, this team needs to start winning and winning quickly in 2015. Things might not look so chipper in 2017 or 2018. As this five-year journey begins with Melo and Fisher, it is Jackson’s tall order to build a roster that miximizes his star’s years on the back end of his prime before things turn sour.

Vertsberger: From what I can tell, the plan is to score Carmelo Anthony some surrounding pieces in 2015 free agency to create a contender. Apart from this, I’m not so sure. I assume the plan B is trading Melo if the Knicks swing and miss that summer, and it may not even be Jackson’s choice. Carmelo has his max contract, now it’s just about getting his championship. If he thinks the Knicks can’t get it done, he may look for an out. At which point it’ll probably be time for the Knicks to go through a true rebuild from the ground up. Whatever the case, I’m pretty darn excited.

Silverman: Build a winning culture. Yes, it’s such a hoary sports cliche it practically is analog, but the thing about cliches is, if you stare at them long and hard enough, you’ll realize that there’s some seriously sharp teeth of truth. You can miss it, what with those canines being hidden behind a yellow smiley face button of a saying, but a winning culture is a real thing–getting a disparate group of individuals to work and sacrifice towards a common goal, often at the expense of the component parts’ individual happiness takes time.

The Spurs have it. The Heat have it. The Pacers had it before it all came tumbling apart in a venomous see of finger pointing and possible girlfriend bedding.

So yep. That’s the plan. Should be fun to watch.

Crawford: TRIANGLE. Uh, sorry. It’s encouraging to see some degree of harmony between the front office and those on the sidelines, at very least. Even if you’re skeptical as to whether Phil can ride out the entirety of his five-year deal, you’ve got to be optimistic about the foundations that he is laying. Aside from personnel changes, the introduction of a single affiliation D-League team is the priority. The Westchester Knicks can evolve into the fertilizing system not just for future Knicks players, but for the style of play that the franchise wishes to adopt long-term. 

McElroy:: I would expect that if the Knicks’ plan was to try to improve this year’s team at the expense of the future, their notoriously leaky front office would have let some rumors slip by now surrounding the the divesting of Bargs’ and STAT’s contracts. My expectation, and hope, is that they will allow those contracts to expire after this season, make a push for Kevin Love or Marc Gasol next summer (if either is a realistic option; if not, getting a quality big will remain priority #1) and try to acquire and develop a young point guard, likely through the draft.

Finding comps for Tim Hardaway Jr.

Not unlike the passenger in Airplane who happens upon a pamphlet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends,” the silver linings of this cesspool of a 2013-2014 Knicks season make for some light reading.

Among them: Carmelo Anthony’s 62-point game, Amar’e Stoudemire’s relatively healthy and very productive offensive season, and the emergence of Tim Hardaway Jr.

Hardaway, a late first round pick, has quickly become a dynamic scorer. His remarkable athleticism and body control have allowed him to attack off the dribble and convert two-thirds of his shots at the rim. He is already an excellent shooter — 38 percent from three-point range this year. And despite developing a reputation for his Earl-like, never-met-a-shot-he-doesn’t-like tendency, THJR is a good example of the modern-day efficient NBA player — 75 percent of his shots either come from 3 or at the rim.

As the front office is just beginning to find out, rookies often improve, and good news-deprived Knicks fans have been daydreaming all season about how the cost-controlled, 22-year old will develop. So, using some statistical parameters, I decided to see if we could find a range of similar players to Hardaway to see how he might develop.

To try to find a list of comparable players — for sabermetrically-inclined baseball fans, this post is inspired by similar exercises at FanGraphs — I used the excellent Basketball-Reference.com Player Season Finder tool. I set the statistical criteria thusly:

Year range: 1979-1980 season-present (3-point era)

Position: Guards, Guards-Forwards and Forwards-Guards

Only rookie seasons included

True-shooting percentage: 53% or better

Usage rate: 17% or higher

Assist percentage: 20% or lower

Minutes played: 1000 or more

To explain the stat criteria quickly, I was looking to find players in rookie seasons that I had put up similar stats to Hardaway this year. They had to be good and efficient scorers (high TS%). They had to have a similarly active level of involvement in the offense (USG%). They had to have low assist numbers like Hardaway (AST%, which was also a convenient way to get rid of most point guards, who aren’t good matches for him). And they had to have played a statistically significant number of minutes.

Here is the chart. 49 players in their rookie seasons matched the criteria.

Among them, Hardaway ranks 27th in Win Shares/48, meaning he is pretty solidly in the middle of the pack of this group. He ranks 36th in terms of PER, but that’s a statistic that likely underrates Hardaway because of his low rebounding rate.

The first thing that jumps out is that, while this group is mixed … it’s pretty darn good. If nothing else, it shows that Hardaway has had a nice year and could develop into a solid rotation player or more. Even the mid-tier guys in this group include players like Eddie Jones, DeMar DeRozen, Leandro Barbosa, Latrell Sprewell, and others. Sure, there are some marginal and poor players that serve as a reminder that THJR is not guaranteed a long, productive career. But in general, some real talent emerged from this group.

The second thing that jumps out is how one-dimensional THJR is right now — he is a scorer and not much else. Hardaway ranks bottom-five in the group in Defensive Win Share rate, a finding that fits the eye test of a player that badly struggles with basic rotations. He is fourth-to-last in assist rate (5.7). He is tied for last in rebounding rate (3.9%). Before cutting him some slack and saying he is a rookie guard, remember that this entire sample is made up of rookie guards. For him to reach the potential of many of these players, he will need to develop these secondary skills.

I’d recommend taking a look and seeing which comps you think make the most sense, but I thought I would include a few that stood out to me. Pushing past the outliers like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller, and Mitch Richmond (BUT HOW FUN IS THAT LIST?!), let’s have a look at some players who seem particularly close to THJR.

1.    Cautionary Tales

There isn’t necessarily a great match in this group, which is a good sign. But it is a reminder that improvement rates aren’t necessarily linear — certain players peak early and at different times (the guy with Landry Fields’s Knicks jersey nods his head sadly) and a good rookie season doesn’t necessarily imply an upwards-trending career.

Examples: Marquis Daniels (20.1 PER in his rookie year!), Salim Stoudamire, Rashad McCants (not a great example since he derived most his value on defense, but still), Jerry Eaves, Eric Piatwowski (not nearly the athlete THJR is), Anthony Morrow.

2.    A Fellow Young Gunner

I’m seeing a lot of Klay Thompson here. Thompson has the slight edge in PER, Hardaway the upper hand in WS/48. Neither guy defends or rebounds much. Both are excellent shooters, both from the line and from three, and shoot a fairly high volume from three (Thompson less than Hardaway, but I wouldn’t count out how just two years have had a remarkable impact on NBA offenses prioritizing the 3-point shot during that time). Thompson has a much higher assist rate, but Hardaway is more athletic and gets value by attacking the rim. I personally think Thompson is overrated — a defensive liability and a very good shooter off the catch who accordingly derives a lot of value playing off the greatest shooter in the world, Steph Curry. But he is still a good player (and himself still developing), and I think provides a good parallel for a possible path for Hardaway.

3.    Intriguing parallels

—   Cuttino Mobley. A very good statistical parallel. Very good shooter, solid rotation player, similar per-36 numbers.

—   Leandro Barbosa. Similar penchant for attacking the rim, better passer, not as powerful.

—   Anthony Peeler. Streaky shooter, inconsistent from year-to-year.

—   Eric Gordon. A more talented player than THJR at the outset of his career, but has really struggled with injuries (and maybe not the best attitude). Excellent offensive player, scorer at will, poor defender.

4.    Optimistic, But Reasonable

And here, I think, is for whom reasonable Knicks fans should be rooting: Michael Finley.

When Knicks fans bemoan Hardaway for being a one-dimensional scorer, what they really want is for him to be more like Finley. While not an elite defender, Finley was very solid on the perimeter and not a defensive liability (for those seeing an Eddie Jones/THJR parallel, I thought about it, but Jones was an exceptional defender with incredibly long arms. I don’t think THJR could close such a large gap on defense). Finley became a very good shooter and served as the 2nd-4th offensive options, depending on his team, due to his shooting and attacking abilities. He was a great passer with excellent court vision.

Finley was never a superstar, but he was a 2-time All-Star, an NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, and a crucially important starter on some very good Dallas Mavericks and Spurs teams. He played 15 seasons in the league.

When Knicks fans see Hardaway, they are really hoping he can be like Finley — a two-way player who derives most of his value on offense, a guy who can be a starter and scorer on playoff teams and maybe snag an All-Star appearance or two if we’re being greedy, a very skilled offensive player, and a competitor who will work to improve on court vision and defense.

Trade Deadline Recap: On the Road to Nowhere

So after all that, we’re back where we started.

For the past week, the Knicks reportedly flirted with trading Iman Shumpert in approximately 72 different deals. He was going to the Clippers for Reggie Bullock, Darren Collison and Knicks’ right to leave Raymond Felton on the Clips’ doorstep. He was going to the Thunder for a sure-to-be-very-late first-round draft pick. He was going to the Clippers again just for Collison, and then maybe for Matt Barnes or maybe for Willie Green too. There was, allegedly, and in this universe, a bidding war for the services of Beno Udrih.

Ink was spilled and tweets were tweeted and … nothing happened. Beno Udrih is a Knick. So are Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton. But that’s not the headline.

Knicks Continue to Wander Aimlessly, could work, but that’s a bit wordy. Let’s go with Bad Team Lacks Plan.

It is always a bit of a fallacy to criticize a front office for inaction, because we don’t know what trade offers there were.* But, a reasonable person might ask herself — as the Knicks sit 11th in a horrendous Eastern conference with a 21-33 record, with no 2014 or 2016 first round pick and no cap flexibility for next season — just exactly why the trade efforts focused on three marginal players, and just exactly how self-deluded this franchise is that it didn’t try to blow it up.

No, we aren’t privy to the inner workings of the organization, but it is safe to say that there would be strong demand for Tyson Chandler (how about the Thunder?) and, of course, Carmelo Anthony.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the Knicks did not seriously attempt to trade Anthony, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to swallow. Now that the deadline is over, and given that Melo has made every indication he will use his Early Termination Option, the Knicks now officially have two options with their star player:

A)     Let him walk for nothing at the end of the season, or;

B)      Win his services as a free agent. Given the team’s awful constitution (and Melo’s comments about potentially taking less money notwithstanding), this will likely be a 5-year, $129 million commitment to a one-way player in his early-mid 30s.

To argue that the Knicks should not have traded Melo because they would not have received full value, you have to believe one of three things:

1.       The Knicks can still compete this year;

2.       Anthony will re-sign with the Knicks and it is a smart basketball decision to make him perhaps the highest-paid player in the NBA;

3.       Anthony will choose to re-sign for less money.

The Knicks clearly believe at least one of those three things. Otherwise, they would have traded him and gotten at minimum a shred of value. And while believing in any of the three above options doesn’t necessarily make you an irrational actor, it does require a leap of faith. Suffice to say, if you believe in any of options 1-3, you aren’t making a good bet.

For my money, the safer bet is that this team, as currently constructed, is awful. That re-signing a wonderful offensive player for five of his decline years for more than $25 million/year will likely be a disastrous decision. That nabbing a young asset or two and a couple first-rounders for Anthony and Chandler was a realistic option that could have given this team some footing to rebuild in earnest. That while this season is not at all Melo’s fault — on the contrary, his inspired offensive play and effort in an unreasonable number of minutes have been extraordinary — his team is too weak and cap-strapped to simply pay him, make a few tweaks, and produce a winner. That the experiment has failed.

Now, the deadline did have some positives. The Knicks still have a 2018 first-round pick. They never got particularly close to mortgaging even more of the future on this lost season for the likes of Kyle Lowry and Jeff Teague (genuine upgrades, of course, but not enough to move the needle in a meaningful way). There was no talk of moving Tim Hardaway Jr., a dynamic and shockingly efficient scorer (58 TS%, 39% from 3, 81% from the line) on a rookie contract. The team tried to trade Shumpert only to shed salary and get a young player (Bullock) with upside in return, and may or may not have balked with the Clips made them a worse offer.

But while this front office appears to have developed some perspective on the margins, it remains, on the big issues, entirely deluded. Believing that committing to Anthony at top dollar, and letting the rest of the pieces fall where they may, can make the Knicks a title contender.

So this is where we are, back where we started. Nowhere.

*Or maybe we do. This seems a good spot as any for a related mini-rant: the outrageous number of leaks that come out of the front office hurts this team. Seemingly every proposed trade, every small idea, every lunch order this organization has gets leaked to the media. The Knicks have been trying to trade Iman Shumpert for over a year now, and it seems like we’ve known about, in detail, every single rumor. For the good of, say, not destroying the confidence of a 23-year-old promising and extremely athletic two-way wing player, this team needs to stop having the details of every phone conversation end up on Twitter. When the Yankees traded Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda in 2012, it was a total shocker — no one had heard a word about the proposed blockbuster. For all its warts, the Yankees’ front office has done a masterful job avoiding leaks, which improves their leverage in trades and doesn’t destroy their players’ confidence in themselves and the organization. The Knicks need to fix this. End rant.*