Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, and the Knicks' Commitment to the Four Seed

When Donnie Walsh undertook the epic feat of clearing the blight of the Isiah Thomas Era following his arrival in New York in the spring of 2008, it is doubtful that his ultimate goal was to re-bloat the Knicks' payroll with a collection of flawed "superstars," overburdened young role players, and past-their-prime vets eagerly gobbling up the league minimum salaries that the Knicks offer.  Unfortunately for the Madison Square Garden faithful, that's exactly where the Knicks find themselves following the sign-and-trade for Tyson Chandler and the unceremonious waiving of Chauncey Billups.

Instead of patiently waiting out this season, content to watch the age-ravaged Billups play out the last year of his contract while hoping that his self-delusional shot-selection and declining play-making ability didn't submarine Amare Stoudamire's and Carmelo Anthony's efforts to secure a bottom-three playoff seed, the Knicks instead eschewed the coming payroll flexibility Billups's expiring contract (and to a lesser extent, Ronny Turiaf's expiring contract) would have afforded them for a commitment to the pursuit of the Eastern Conference's number four seed for the foreseeable future.  While Chandler should bring a defensive intensity to the Big Apple hardwood not seen since Jeff Van Gundy walked away from the MSG sidelines, there is only so much one man can do in the face of the league's most defensively indifferent atmosphere, especially when that atmosphere is so thoroughly cultivated by the head coach and embraced and practiced by the team's Big Two.  Add in Chandler's extensive injury history, as well as his offensive limitations (which isn't that much of an issue playing alongside two high-usage players like Melo and Amare, but, still, it's odd to see someone with an 8.3 points-per-game career scoring average get $14.5 million per year), and his contributions may be muted even further.

Jared Jeffries will return to try to help Chandler in the good fight at the "other" end of the floor, and two-guard Landry Fields and (especially) rookie point man Iman Shumpert have the tools to become above-average-to-elite defenders, but can those tools be honed by Mike D'Antoni, a man Jalen Rose claims never discusses defense, let alone coach it?  And considering how little D'Antoni goes to his bench, how many minutes will Jeffries actually be out there to help Chandler, and even when they are together, how crippled will the Knicks' offense be as a result?

As for Shumpert, his ability to develop into a serviceable NBA point guard will be the key factor in determining if the Knicks are a middle tier pretender or a potential Eastern beast.  While possessing perhaps the best physical tools of any player in last year's draft class, Shumpert struggled as the lead playmaker at Georgia Tech, averaging only 3.5 assists per game his junior season.  If he stay out of the way of Stoudamire and Anthony (something Billups couldn't do, which is why his loss on the court isn't as impactful as the loss of his cap hit would have been), play lockdown defense, and better utilize his athletic gifts on offense (for a 6-5 athletic freak, Shumpert relies far too much on his shaky jump shot), Shumpert could be an unexpected source of cheap production for a paper-thin Knicks squad that could use it.  If he can't, Mike Bibby was brought in to provide a much cheaper version of what Billups would have, which doesn't help the Knicks much today or down the road.  Shumpert's rapid development is key.

Of course, if Shumpert does show signs of being a useful NBA player, Knicks fans and NBA observers will instantly want to package him for Chris Paul or Deron Williams or someone similar, which would be both unrealistic (what package are the Hornets getting for Paul?  Shumpert and Stoudamire?  And that won't get vetoed by David Stern and The Corporation?) and short-sighted.  The Knicks already have nearly $57 million committed next season to only five players (Stoudamire, Anthony, Shumpert, Chandler, and Renaldo Balkman), and, assuming they re-sign Landry Fields at a much higher rate than his current $788,872 salary and pick Toney Douglas's roughly $2 million option, they will already be over the cap with only seven players under contract .  Adding another superstar to eat up even more of the payroll would mean five more years of filling the roster with the Jeffrieses and Bibbies of the world.  That's no way to build a team, and when coupled with the troubling injury histories of Amare and Chandler, and the heavy minutes the starters would have to continue to log with absolutely no depth to support them, it's a dangerously flimsy premise.

The only way for the Knicks to escape the mediocre ceiling they seem to have set themselves for is to pray for the development of Shumpert, the continued development of Fields, and tremendous injury luck with their two bigs.  Without that, the MSG crowds have three to four years of entertaining but ultimately empty 45-win seasons in store.

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