Nothing with the New York Knicks is ever easy.
That's not an insult as much as it's a matter-of-fact reality.
Depending on whom you talk to, Carmelo Anthony is either in the Big Apple for the long haul or plotting his escape to the sunny streets of Los Angeles, as Rafi Kohan of the New York Observer reports.
Amar'e Stoudemire is either All-Star dominant, somewhat healthy or never going to play at a high level again, the addition of a bionic knee (or two) notwithstanding.
Andrea Bargnani was either a fantastic acquisition or a clear indication the Knicks have no regards for draft picks or common sense.
On a team defined by internal debates, it comes as no surprise that not even a ribbon of certainty can be found at the shooting guard position, where Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith will be battling for the right to start.
"I'm going to let [Smith and Shumpert] fight it out," coach Mike Woodson said, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley.
Last season, the Knicks experimented with mostly hybrid guard lineups that proved wildly successful. They were 38-14 when two point guards were in the starting five. When healthy, Shumpert started at small forward and things just clicked.
This year, after the acquisition of Andre Bargnani and addition of Tim Hardaway Jr., the Knicks figure to field a more traditional lineup with a bigger shooting guard.
"I've always wanted to start," Smith said, according to Begley. "Everybody knows that."
That we do. Smith was intent on starting last season, but Woodson liked him in the sixth man role. Woody's instincts paid off when Smith was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year for 2012-13.
But that was last year.
"I want him to be past that Sixth Man," Woodson said of Smith, via Begley. "Let somebody else get the Sixth Man if he deserves to get that starting job. Last year was last year."
Anyone else sensing an odd pattern here from Woodson, a creature of habit and preacher of defense, two virtues he would be completely ignoring if he starts Smith over Shumpert?
"I've always said I wanted to go this year with a bigger [shooting guard]," Woodson explained, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "Unfortunately, J.R. hasn't been in camp to fight for it and right now, Iman's ahead of schedule, so he's going to be the guy who's going to end up being in there."
"That's not to say it'll be final for the whole year," Smith adds.
Unfortunately? Seriously? Shumpert, not Smith, is the answer at shooting guard. I'm not sure what Swish is spiking Coach Woody's coffee with, but Shump has always been the answer, and that's not about to change.
One of These Shooting Guards Is Healthier Than the Other
Woodson said it himself: Shumpert is ahead of schedule.
Smith, meanwhile, is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and only just started running again. There's no guarantee he'll even be ready to play in the final preseason game.
"I'm trying to play the last preseason game but I'm not going to put the pressure on myself," he said, per Begley. "If I don't feel I'm ready, I'm not going to play,"
Commend Smith's patience. I'm serious. The last thing the Knicks need is last season's second-leading scorer rushing back only to re-injure himself.
But also remember that he hasn't been practicing with the team, scrimmaging or, you know, playing like Shumpert has. The third-year shooting guard was hampered by knee soreness over the offseason—a residual hindrance from tearing his ACL in 2012—but he's still the freshest he's been. And fresher than Smith.
Given the option, it's better to run with the player who's, well, playing. Not the one who will need a preseason's worth of games to work through rust after the games start mattering again.
The "D" Word
Subpar defensive teams don't win championships. Hell, middling defensive teams don't win championships.
The last team to win a title while finishing outside the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. But that team had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in their primes, and that was 12 years ago. Twelve other champions have been crowned since then.
Last year, the Knicks ranked 18th in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions. But don't look at that. Look at the 95.7 points they allowed per game, the seven-best mark in the league last year. How nice.
Once you regain your eyesight, travel below to see how last year's Knicks stack up against the last 12 championship teams in terms of defensive efficiency:
Yuck, and stuff.
My point here is that the Knicks need defense in the starting lineup. The same five-man combination that Raymond Felton, Anthony and Bargs—three of the team's biggest defensive liabilities—are all likely to be in. The Knicks need someone other than Tyson Chandler to clamp down on defense.
Unlike Shumpert, Smith isn't known for his defense. I hate to trot out the "when he's engaged" argument, but with Smith it's actually true. When he's engaged, he can be a good defender.
Most of the time, however, he's reckless, careless and just not good enough.
Smith is allowing opponents to score an average of 106 points per 100 possession for his career, while Shumpert is at a more impressive 103. He worries me most on pick-and-rolls.
New York was killed by dribble drives last year thanks to the absence of a legitimate rim protector. Opponents ran pick-and-rolls like crazy, forcing Chandler or Kenyon Martin out of the paint and opening up lanes for ball-handlers.
Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Smith allowed 0.89 points per pick-and-roll possession compared to Shump's 0.85. The numbers, however, don't worry me as much as his lack of instincts or effort. You decide what the source of his issues are.
Roy Hibbert sets a screen on Smith, which he correctly goes over. Martin is waiting underneath in case Paul George decides to attack, so Swish is able to go around.
Problem is, he does so rather halfheartedly, giving George way too much time.
The result is this:
George hits the paint when he realizes that Hibbert has rolled toward the rim. Defensive logic would suggest Smith continue his pursuit of George. Martin cannot guard both Hibbert and George.
Smith doesn't follow George or Hibbert inside, electing to rely on the help defense. Were a pair of shooters waiting in the corner, then we could at least understand his decision.
But no one's there.
Help defense is of little value when it's coming from behind the play, like Pablo Prigioni's here. And it's even less valuable when it's not really help. Prigioni's assistance gives the Knicks a two-on-two, not a three-on-two. Smith is basically outside the play at this point.
Which isn't to say Smith is opposed to patrolling the paint. Sometimes he does.
Hibbert sets another pick that Smith goes over because Martin is once again waiting underneath. Once Smith catches up to George Hill, K-Mart can drop back down to cover a rolling Hibbert.
So he does:
Smith gets caught sleeping, though. He gets in front of Hill, but he leaves way too much space, almost like he was the one chasing Hibs:
I know the Indiana Pacers weren't known for their shooting, but daaaaamn. Could Hill be any more open? The time to explore the paint was in the previous play, not this one.
Simple things like fighting over screens and then sticking with your defensive assignment are common mistakes for Smith. For each time he's a defensive stud, there are three instances like this where he messes up.
Shumpert, on the other hand, tends to battle through screens with more gusto.
David West is the one setting the screen. That big body of his can be hard to get around, especially when he sets his feet further than shoulder-width apart.
Our now flattop-less friend doesn't let this slow him down, nor does he lose track of Hill. Rather, he's able to keep him in sight:
Defense isn't Smith's forte, and that's fine. But what the Knicks need more than anything else in their starting five is defense.
Until Smith becomes a juggernaut on that end of the floor (unlikely), there's not enough reason to start him over Shumpert.
Smith has a No. 1 option's mindset trapped in a role player's ability.
When he's on the floor, he's going to handle the ball. His career-usage rate stands at 24.3 percent and came in at 26.5 last season. That's high for someone playing next to Anthony, who just notched a career-high 35.6 percent usage.
Bargs' presence complicates things as well. He's another player with a No. 1 scorer's mindset. Running with him, Smith and 'Melo could prove problematic if the Knicks wish to move the ball at all.
Shumpert doesn't come with the same offensive demands. He can play off the ball for possessions at a time and it'll be no big deal.
Also, per Synergy, he hit a higher percentage of his spot-up attempts (41.2) than Smith (38.9) last season. His spot-up clip from deep was even more impressive (44.4).
But forget the numbers for a moment. Once you consider the possibility of Woodson starting three alpha scorers, you should be turned off. Anthony, Bargs and Smith will be playing together at some point, no doubt, but it's important not to get carried away.
Next to Anthony and Bargs, a secondary scorer like Shumpert makes way more sense than a habitual chucker like Smith.
If It's Not Broke...
Leave it the hell alone.
Did Smith not just win the Sixth Man of the Year award? And Woodson's reasoning behind switching things up is that "was last year?" Come on now.
New York is already going bigger by playing 'Melo and Bargs next to each other. The Knicks are also putting themselves at a defensive disadvantage by doing the same. Removing the much-needed tenacity of Shumpert on that side of the ball would be defensive suicide.
"When [Woodson] decides to make the choice we both have to live with it, between myself and Shump," Smith said, per Begley.
Don't think of Shumpert starting over Smith as an insult to the latter. Think of it as a commitment to defense. Think of it as him not depriving his rotation of its most indispensable bench scorer from last season.
Think of it as him doing what's best for these Knicks.