By John Schmeelk
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There was a lot of excitement this offseason about the potential emergence of Iman Shumpert this year.
After recovering from his torn ACL for much of the 2012-2013 regular season, he exploded in the playoffs and looked like a “difference-maker” type of player. The bad news started early in the offseason when it was revealed he left the Knicks’ summer-league team before the club wanted him to. It got worse when rumors leaked that he had a minor knee surgery to clean up his surgically repaired knee in the middle of the summer.
The trade rumors began as early as September when it was made clear that Knicks owner James Dolan was angry at Shumpert and wouldn’t be against finding him a new home. That attitude seemed to infect head coach Mike Woodson, who seemed very critical of Shumpert, while letting other players make the same mistake without a word of criticism. Constant trade rumors dogged Shumpert throughout the season and his play offensively was downright putrid. Even now, he is shooting only 38 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point land.
His confidence offensively looks shot, and for a good part of the year it seemed like the only way to get him going would be to find him a new home.
But even throughout all those offensive struggles, he continued to play solid defense, even if not as spectacularly as he played in the postseason last year. Other than Kenyon Martin, no other Knicks player has been as good defensively as Shumpert has been. The team is allowing only 102.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor, which would make the Knicks a very respectable 10th-best team in the league defensively.
When he is not on the floor, the Knicks allow an unbelievable 111.1 points per 100 possessions. That would make them the worst defense in the league by more than three points per 100 possessions.
No one on the roster, including Carmelo Anthony, has a better +/- than Shumpert. Since the trade deadline, the Knicks are 12-4 in games that Shumpert has played in. In the games he missed, they were 0-6. That’s the Shumpert effect, and it should not be underestimated. His offensive game might be ugly, and his jumper extremely inconsistent, but Shumpert helps the Knicks win games with his defense. On a team that has no one making defense a priority, Shumpert is the opposite, and the team desperately needs more players like him.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this equation is the fact that Shumpert has had such a positive impact despite the fact that Woodson declines to use him on the opponent’s primary ball handler and playmaker, where Shumpert strives the most. Even as Felton gets abused again and again by quicker guards, Shumpert is stuck on a wing standing by the three-point line. If Woodson actually unleashed Shumpert on the opponent’s top guard, like he did against Deron Williams at the end of the first half on Wednesday, his impact would be even greater.
Shumpert can still improve defensively as well. He takes too many chances more times than not. He reaches in when he doesn’t have to, often resulting in unnecessary fouls. He loses focus and struggles fighting over screens.
But even with those flaws and the non-existent offensive game, he is perhaps the most valuable Knick who plays in the backcourt. He does something no one else does: He plays defense and makes it his top priority. Felton, Tim Hardaway, Jr. and J.R. Smith are all subpar defensive players. Shumpert is also one of the best rebounding guards in the league, averaging more than four per game.
Perhaps it’s Phil Jackson who sees that his impact on defense overcomes his lackluster offensive game. The bottom line is that the Knicks are much better off with Shumpert still here. His minutes going to Smith and Hardaway, Jr. might have meant a few more points, but it also would have meant many more points allowed on defense.
For a team whose primary deficiency is its defense, that is something it cannot afford. If the Knicks do make the playoffs, a big “thank you” needs to be extended to Shumpert, the only man keeping the Knicks’ defense adequate enough to get them there.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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