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.