As with countless kingdoms and countries throughout history, any time a new regime usurps the old, courtiers and congressmen walk about wondering whether a tap on the shoulder means guaranteed good graces or a trip to the gallows.
In the case of the New York Knicks' Iman Shumpert, all indications are that Phil Jackson, the team’s newly anointed president of basketball operations, has happier designs in mind for his team’s third-year shooting guard.
That’s a good thing for both Shumpert and the Knicks.
While Jackson has been publicly mum on whom he sees as part of New York’s forthcoming rebuild, ESPN New York’s Ian Begley has reported Shumpert is indeed part of the picture:
Shumpert’s name was floated in several trade rumors throughout the first few months of the year. The Knicks nearly completed a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers to flip Shumpert for Darren Collison prior to the Feb. 20 trade deadline. It seemed at the time that the Knicks would revisit talks to trade Shumpert at some point in the 2014 offseason. But the team then hired Phil Jackson to serve as president. And the thinking on Shumpert changed. ESPN New York reported that Shumpert was one of the players that impressed Jackson when he watched the team before being hired.
According to the New York Post’s Marc Berman, the feeling is mutual with Shumpert, who grew up very much in the shadow of Phil’s first basketball empire as coach of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls:
I love Phil Jackson. Just being a child, seeing him, how he conducted the Bulls. I just love him… Whatever Phil adds on, I’m sure will be positive for this ballclub. I’m happy about it. Anything that will help my game — he’s had success helping players.
“Cry for help” might be putting it a bit too preciously, but Shumpert is right to be concerned with his career trajectory.
Chalk up the statistical stagnation to what you will: a knee injury sustained at the end of Shumpert’s rookie season, a slew of attendant aggravations, the depth of Mike Woodson’s guard-heavy rotation.
At 23 years old, Shump might well be ripe for a leap, one Metta World Peace believed Shumpert was ready to make this season when the former referred to his teammate as the "best shooting guard in the league."
Whether those lofty expectations will be met under Woodson’s tutelage seems like a foregone conclusion.
Still, assuming Jackson does what most predict—namely, replace Woodson with a coach inclined to install the vaunted triangle offense—there’s plenty of reason to believe Shumpert could flourish.
Conceptually, Shumpert in the triangle makes sense: He’s a capable spot-up shooter, can move fluidly without the ball and is a legitimate threat slashing from the weak side.
In fact, it’s not so crazy to think of Shumpert as a kind of poor man’s Scottie Pippen—minus a few inches of height and wingspan and a whole lot of offensive talent, obviously.
Still, the rudiments of a dangerous system player are there, begging for a bit of savvy fine-tuning and smoothing around the edges.
With Tim Hardaway Jr. in the midst of an All-Rookie season, some, including Bleacher Report’s John Dorn, have speculated Shumpert—whom the Knicks have tried to trade at more than one juncture, remember—will only become more dispensable.
But a lot can happen between a player’s rookie and sophomore seasons. Just ask Shumpert, who finished his 2012-13 campaign with a furious flourish that had just about everyone convinced this was to be the breakout year.
If anything, a full year with both players healthy will only help Jackson and the Knicks discern which of the two—if not both—are triangle-ready.
Hardaway might well be the more enticing long-term prospect, but as for the kind of two-way talent Jackson is looking for, Shumpert—however you see his ceiling—fits the Zen Master’s vision to a very appropriate “T.”
But there’s another, more immediately practical reason for Jackson to want Shumpert in the future fold: his fit with Carmelo Anthony.
Of course, Jackson has made no bones about his desire to retain the services of New York’s singular superstar, taking the occasion of his first official press conference to say the following (via Begley):
There's no doubt about Carmelo being one of the top scorers in the league, maybe the best individual isolation player in the game. I have no problems with committing to saying Carmelo is in the future plans.
Anthony’s importance as a basketball building block is obvious. What’s less clear—but just as important, perhaps—is how the two players Jackson singled out as likely targets for retention have operated in tandem.
Consider: Of the 44 two-man units that have logged a minimum of 250 minutes for the Knicks this season, the Shumpert-Anthony tandem ranks sixth in overall net rating (6.7), per NBA.com (media stats subscription required). They are first if you break it down by duos with over 1,000 minutes tallied.
Statistical cherry-picking? Perhaps. But with over 1,500 minutes logged on the floor together, neither is it an accident.
What’s more, Jackson still has ample time to gauge Shumpert’s long-term fit: Shumpert's $3.9 million qualifying offer does not kick in until after the 2014-15 season. At that point, the Knicks will have the ability to match any offer—something Jackson could certainly convince owner James Dolan to do if he believes the risk is worth the reward.
Few remain under the illusion Shumpert is somehow destined to be a homegrown franchise savior.
At the same time, tired and starved for a title as they are, Knicks fans are more than happy to entertain an alternate ending, one which Phil has authored more than once: the turning of a lost cause into championship cog.
Some NBA.com stats subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 12 unless otherwise noted.