Mike Woodson's 2013-14 New York Knicks have the potential to earn a high seed in the Eastern Conference and give the Miami Heat a scare deep in the playoffs. They also run the risk of lacking chemistry and bowing out of the party early at the hands of a team like the Chicago Bulls or Indiana Pacers.
Where they land largely depends on the efforts of third-year pro Iman Shumpert.
Of course, they need Carmelo Anthony to be his elite self, and they need Tyson Chandler to lock down the paint. But Woodson will lean on Shumpert's young legs and versatility to give this squad a new, dangerous dimension.
He is the X-factor, the season-changer.
Even though the Knicks roster isn't loaded with defensive talent from top to bottom, there are enough key veterans and stoppers to make it a cohesive, highly successful unit.
If Shumpert plays up to his potential on the ball and as a helper, New York could outperform its 2012-13 defense—a defense that allowed the seventh fewest points in the regular season and surrendered the fewest points per game of any playoff team.
Chandler is a stout post defender, and Metta World Peace can still slow down opponents effectively. Shumpert, on the other hand, has unknown, untapped heights to discover.
As soon as he entered the league, he displayed stretches of stoppage prowess, but he has occasional lapses. When he's locked in, he can disrupt anyone, using his exceptional body control and great hands to create takeaways.
The Knicks are glad he has that kind of talent, because they will run up against some dynamic guards and swingmen in the playoffs.
New York needs him to be elite 24/7 throughout the season and especially in the spring, because there is a hungry pack of playmakers who could square off against him.
Here's a list of the stars Shumpert could potentially guard in the playoffs:
- Cleveland Cavaliers (7/8 seed): Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters
- Indiana Pacers: George Hill and Paul George
- Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler
- Miami Heat: Primary matchup is Dwyane Wade
Given the caliber of the top-heavy Eastern Conference, a sustained focus and pressure from Shumpert would dramatically boost the Knicks' chances of advancing past its Eastern Conference foes.
By forcing turnovers against the opponents' stars and hampering them for stretches, he can give New York favorable odds to beat anyone.
Secondary Offensive Option
Through his first couple of years in the Association, Shumpert was a sporadic offensive contributor, talented but unreliable. It was partially because his playing time and ACL recovery prevented him from heating up, but it's also because he was a youngster trying to find his way.
In 2013-14, Woodson would love to see Shumpert produce substantially on a nightly basis and even become an option secondary to 'Melo.
Shumpert can become a critical secondary component because he already shows signs of offensive versatility.
He shouldn't be counted on for excessive facilitating or playmaking, because Raymond Felton, Anthony and J.R. Smith are all suited for that task, and Shumpert's isolation numbers aren't great.
However, his on-ball skills show promise, and he has proven several times that he can be much more than a straight-line slasher.
That being said, Shumpert's value as a substantial scorer on this squad lies in his ability to hit spot-up triples.
'Melo naturally draws a bunch of attention every possession, so Shumpert has a bundle of chances to properly position himself for catch-and-shoot attempts.
In 2012-13, he drilled 55 of 124 (44.4%) spot-up threes, according to Synergy Sports. You can bet Woodson knows that number and is currently working on ways to set him up for a steady diet of perimeter chances.
This team has a number of ball-dominant scorers. And the best way to complement them is by surrounding them with players who can shoot. The more threatening Shumpert becomes as a spot-up shooter, the less help-defenders help and the more space his counterparts have to work with...If guys like Shumpert start missing the open looks Melo creates, that's when Melo goes into hero-mode. And Melo in hero mode could be real bad news.
Playing alongside 'Melo isn't always a piece of cake, but it can be a fun gig if you know where to be and are ready to hit open shots or cut to the hoop.
'Melo is a willing passer when teammates are appropriately positioned, so it's up to Shumpert to slide to the wing or the corner for open looks. He also must know when to keep defenses honest by cutting to the rim.
Postseason Production: Shumpert's Numbers Make the Difference
In all likelihood, New York's defense won't be the limiting factor in a 2014 playoff run. Much like 2013, the question will be whether the Knicks can deliver enough balanced scoring to keep up with the best of the East.
Last spring, they averaged 88.6 points per game in the postseason, ranking them 13th out of 16 and worst among all teams that advanced past the first round.
Shumpert had some solid games and a couple particularly impressive ones. However, he disappeared for a few, and his scoring average for New York's 12 games was 9.3.
Getting that number up into the 13-16 range would put the Knicks in a much greater position to win more than one series.
It's simple. If Shumpert makes baby steps in 2013-14, New York is little more than an early-round competitor. But if he can break out and be a top-five defender and score 15-16 per night, the orange and blue can grab a No. 3 or even No. 2 seed and march to the conference finals.
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