By John Schmeelk
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When this season started, one of the keys to the Knicks’ success was to develop a two-way player at shooting guard who could help on both ends of the floor.
Not only have they failed in that respect, but they have struggled to find a player to consistently help on one end. These players are not only capable of helping the Knicks win some games this season, but they could also be valuable trade chips at the deadline.
Iman Shumpert started the season shooting well, but in his last six games he has shot just 26 percent from the field and 10 percent from three-point range. His field-goal percentage has dropped below 43 percent and his three-point shooting has dropped under 38 percent. Defensively, his impact this year isn’t showing in the team’s performance.
Unlike last year, when the team played significantly better defense when he was on the floor, the impact this year has been minimal. The team’s defense only improves by 1.4 points allowed per 100 possessions when he is on the court, as opposed to off. Deron Williams and Dwyane Wade both had their way with him at different points this season.
Shumpert is a free agent after the season, and his skill as a defender gives him potential value to a team trying to make a deep run into the playoffs. The Knicks might be able to move him at the deadline for a future pick, preferably a 2016 pick since the Knicks traded theirs for Andrea Bargnani.
The other young player the team hoped to develop was Tim Hardaway Jr., but he has gone in the complete opposite direction. His minutes are down from 23 last season to under 18 this year. His shooting percentage is down almost three points (.428 to .403) and his three-point percentage is down four points (.363 to .323). Head coach Derek Fisher should be credited for holding Hardaway responsible for his porous defense — something Mike Woodson didn’t do — but his step backwards on offense is disturbing.
There’s a chance this is a necessary step back for Hardaway, and something that will finally force him to become dedicated to defense. If he does improve on that end his minutes will go up, which might help him get into a better rhythm offensively.
Last year Hardaway was almost considered untouchable by the Knicks’ front office, but his play has reduced his value to the point that the Knicks might have trouble moving him if they wanted to. At some point this season, Fisher will have to figure out a way to get him his confidence back. He should have value in the triangle offense as a spot-up, catch and shoot guy, something that the Knicks desperately need.
The last piece of the Knicks’ shooting-guard puzzle is J.R. Smith. He has started slow for a second straight season, and there is no excuse of a knee injury to explain it. Smith appears to be having trouble finding his way in the triangle, shooting under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three. He’s averaging just nine points per game in 25 minutes.
His defense has been typically hot and cold, with constant inattentiveness off the ball that leads to open threes. Even his rebounding numbers are down to just 2.2 per game. Of the other players who have significant playing time this year, only one — Jason Smith (-16.2) — has a worse net rating (points-per-100-possessions differential) than J.R. Smith when he is on the floor.
The only concern that Phil Jackson should have regarding J.R. Smith is how to get his contract off the books for next year. Smith has a one-year player option for $6.4 million next year, a number that could limit the Knicks’ flexibility when navigating the free-agent landscape. They will have to give something up with J.R. Smith, like a Shumpert, to convince a team to take on his contract, but it might be worth the sacrifice to clear that space.
The Knicks’ shooting-guard position was supposed to be a strength this year, but so far it has been an absolute disaster. It has been perhaps the biggest reason, spare Jose Calderon’s injury, for the team’s failures this season. If the Knicks want to turn the season around, that is going to have to change.
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