Phil Jackson never stops searching for roster upgrades.
Not even in late July.
And most certainly not when he finds the New York Knicks with too many guards.
Ian Begley of ESPN New York says Jackson is discussing "potential trade options" involving J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in an attempt to clear up the Knicks' backcourt logjam. No trade is considered imminent, nor is it clear whether the Knicks actually have options or are just spitballing amongst themselves.
Whatever the case, they're looking to deal. That's no secret. The Zen Master has been openly aggressive this offseason, and general manager Steve Mills recently hinted at more activity.
“We’re trying to build a roster that has a little bit better balance than it looks right now,” Mills said on MSG Network during a Knicks summer league game, via the New York Post's John DeMarzo. “We’re a little too heavy at the 2-guard right now."
Lo and behold, Shumpert and Smith—and Shane Larkin—are ripe for the taking, ready to be shipped out in hopes of clearing up an overpopulated backcourt.
But Jackson won't be trading either player for a Yoga mat and some incense. He'll want value in return, which means one of these guards is more valuable than other.
Shumpert has wandered in and out of trade rumors since joining the Knicks. That apparently hasn't changed with Jackson running the show.
The relationship that exists between player and team here is, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore characterizes it, just plain weird:
It's been fascinating to watch the evolution of the Knicks' relationship with Shumpert. He was a bright-eyed talented rookie who battled to get back from a major knee injury, then returned as a pure three-and-D guy, one of the few Knicks last season who legitimately played within his role. And yet he's consistently been on the trade block for over a year. Mike Woodson soured on him, and jerked him around in preseason. There were rumors that James Dolan had essentially turned on him for bailing on summer league last year.
Part of New York's infatuation with trading Shumpert in the past has been easy to understand. He was the team's only tradeable asset for so long, and under the previous regime, anyone who could be moved was susceptible to being moved.
But Shumpert's lack of progress hasn't helped his case, either. Though he's often touted as a two-way guard capable of making a significant impact, he's wildly inconsistent on the offensive end.
Injuries have hurt, but through three seasons, he's averaging just 6.7 points on 39.1 percent shooting. After he supposedly turned a corner with his shooting in 2012-13, his three-point conversion rate plummeted, dropping from 40.2 percent to 33.3 last season.
His mid-range game is basically nonexistent too. He connected on just 24.2 percent of his shots between eight and 16 feet last season, though he did hit on 42.1 percent of his attempts between 10 and 19 feet, according to NBA.com.
Equally concerning was Shumpert's diminished athleticism. His end-to-end explosion hasn't been the same since he returned from an ACL injury midway through 2012-13.
Rim attacks once promised posters. They're now more likely to end in hesitation and discombobulation.
Still, Shumpert offers defensive value to what was a horrible defensive team last year.
The Knicks ranked 24th in defensive efficiency for 2013-14. With him on the bench, they were the equivalent of the league's worst defensive team, per NBA.com. When he was on the floor, they were a top-seven defensive faction.
|Knicks (2013-14)||Def. Rtg.||Rank Equivalent|
At just over $2.6 million next season, Shumpert is a steal for any team looking to add a defensive specialist. Aggressive perimeter stoppers are difficult to find, but, when healthy, Shumpert's energy and impact will not be outdone.
That we're prone to saying things such as "J.R. Smith won Sixth Man of the Year for 2012-13" tells you just how bad his 2013-14 campaign was.
Swish was suspended five games to start the year after violating the NBA's anti-drug policy, and he never seemed to recover from offseason knee surgery—which he delayed until signing a new contract with the Knicks.
When all was said and done, Smith finished 2013-14 averaging 14.5 points on 39.4 percent shooting. For most of the year, he was even worse.
Through his first 60 games, Smith was posting 13.2 points on 39.8 percent shooting. His shot selection was very J.R. Smith, and he was rarely getting to the free-throw line. It wasn't until New York's final, unsuccessful postseason push that he started to come on.
Over his last 14 games, Smith looked, well, un-Smith-like. He averaged 19.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor overall and a blistering 43.1 percent from beyond the arc.
That's the version of Smith the Knicks will be selling—the one who goes on scoring torrents, looks like a No. 1 option and can provide offensive sparks as a sixth man or starting 2-guard.
The one who can be a valuable difference-maker on a good basketball team.
Who's the More Intriguing Option?
Contract situations will invariably come into play as the Knicks try to move players around.
Smith's pact is considered a deterrent after the season he just had. He's owed nearly $6 million and holds a player option worth $6.4 million for 2015-16. If last season is his ceiling, there won't be a single team out there willing to pay him $12-plus million over the next two years.
Shumpert's contract isn't any better in some ways.
While he's owed a reasonable salary, he's due to enter restricted free agency next summer, where a semi-lucrative contract likely awaits.
Barring a breakout seasons that reveals Shumpert to be a defensive sage and offensive powerhouse, he's not looking at anything crazy. But Avery Bradley—another defensive specialist with a slightly more polished offensive game—took home $32 million over four years. Shumpert could see something similar.
Any team that acquires him, then, has to look at the 24-year-old as a long-term investment or a one-year rental. If interested clubs see him as the latter, they're not going to forfeit assets of genuine worth, like first-round draft picks.
Truthfully, it's hard for teams to do that anyway—unless we're talking about draft picks.
Impact players aren't earning $2.6 million. They're making more. Way more. Shumpert can only headline a blockbuster deal when accompanied by a more expensive contract in what has to be a salary dump since the Knicks don't have long-term deals outside franchises are fawning over.
Unloading exorbitant salaries—like those of Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani—was previously of interest to Jackson and crew, per NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks:
Speaking on First Take, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said the Knicks and Sixers have had conversations about a deal that would send Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert to the Philadelphia. Although what the Sixers would send back isn't clear, it likely wouldn't be much more than a draft pick or non-guaranteed contract player, as the Knicks would do the deal to clear cap space.
The move would clear roughly $25 million in cap space for the Knicks, and would potentially allow them to chase another prime free agent.
Using Shumpert as a salary-dump buffer made sense then, when there were still prominent free agents to chase. It makes little sense now, so deals such as those are likely dead.
All of this bodes well for Smith's market value.
Some look at him as an agent of chaos and champion of poor shot selection and untied shoes. And to an extent, he is all those things.
With the way free agency has unfolded this summer—Jodie Meeks being overpaid, for one—Smith's contract doesn't look so bad, though. He's on an affordable deal and gives suitors a proven scorer—albeit a proven enigma as well.
Absorbing his contract also allows teams to send back a more expensive contract in return, perhaps an unwanted one. The Knicks won't take on pricey pacts that extend beyond 2015 but would be amenable to eating an extravagant one-year deal if it meant guaranteeing flexibility next summer.
Which player is more valuable as trade bait?
Would Shumpert be easier to trade? In a vacuum where the Knicks aren't looking for any value in return, yes. Within a deal where the interested party is looking for a more established scorer who won't necessarily be up for a massive raise in one year's time? Not so much.
"No. Absolutely not," Smith said on ESPN's First Take when asked whether he would be surprised if he was traded (via Begley). "The way I was playing, I was playing like a person who didn’t want to be there. Not looking as focused as a person should be in that situation that we were, in the trenches. I wouldn’t blame them at all."
Comments like those are why Smith isn't going to anchor a blockbuster deal. They're also why he may have to be paired with another player—like Shumpert himself—for the Knicks to receive any real value in return.
But given what he does, what he's being paid and the overpriced payday Shumpert himself is tracking toward, he's the safer investment and, therefore, the more intriguing trade bait.