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J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and the Knicks' (non-existent) guard problem

Are the Knicks too heavy at the wing? Not if history is any judge.

Al Bello

At the end of the 2013-14 season, Phil Jackson made perhaps the boldest statement by any president since Kennedy challenged the United States to land a man on the moon: He told Raymond Felton he would be traded by the end of the summer. And just as NASA did for Kennedy, the Knicks made Jackson's dream a reality by shipping him off to Dallas. It was one small step for a team, and one giant leap toward competence.

Alas, the Knicks may be on the verge of taking their backcourt cleansing a step too far. Per Ian Begley, the front office are discussing potential trade options involving Shane Larkin, Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith:

The idea that the Knicks are trying to make a trade to balance the roster isn’t earth-shattering. President Phil Jackson and GM Steve Mills have mentioned the Knicks have a surplus in the backcourt, with Mills saying last week the Knicks are "heavy" at shooting guard.

Assuming they waive Wayne Ellington and keep Thanasis Antetokounmpo in the D-League (sad, but it has to be done), that would leave the roster looking something like this:

Point guard: Jose Calderon, Pablo Prigioni, Shane Larkin

Shooting guard: Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway, (Shannon Brown)

Small forward: Carmelo Anthony, Cleanthony Early

Power forward: Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, (Jeremy Tyler)

Center: Samuel Dalembert, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith

It wouldn't make much sense to carry fewer than three point guards on the roster -- especially with the top two on the depth chart both on the wrong side of 30, so let's just assume that someone (Larkin or perhaps Toure' Murry) will stick around.

That leaves shooting guard. By now, we pretty much know the trade market for Shump (late first-round pick at the most) and J.R (LOLZ NOPE). A trade for either would likely be little more than an excuse to dump salary for next summer and free up minutes for this season.

I'm not going to get into the value of draft picks or potential cap space here; I want only to address this idea that the Knicks are "heavy" at shooting guard. This idea of based on a number of assumptions...each of which scares the crap out of me.

The first assumption is that the Knicks have a viable starting power forward on their roster other than Carmelo Anthony. Woo, boy...they don't. The notion that Melo is a natural small forward has been completely irrelevant for three years now, and will continue to be so until STAT and Bargs come off the books next summer. He played power forward 72 percent of the time in 2012-13 (when they won 54 games) and 62 percent of the time in 2013-14.

Melo is 4...4 is Melo!

The second, nearly-as-scary assumption is that J.R. and Shump are exclusively shooting guards -- meaning they can be paired together on the wing. Not only can they play together, they, from the opening tip. The pairing of Shump and J.R. shared the court for a total of 833.6 minutes last season, and the Knicks averaged an impressive net rating of +10.0 points per 100 possessions. The pair meshed well with several incumbents:

MIN Net-Rtg
Shump/J.R./Melo 623.1 +10.6
Shump/J.R./STAT 213.0 +15.3
Shump/J.R./Prigs 191.7 +16.9
Shump/J.R./Aldrich 57.3


But those were the olden days of Mike Woodson's "offense" -- can this small-ball lineup work in the triangle, which relies on passes in and out of the post? I see no reason why not.

As people much smarter than me -- Coach Daniel, Today's Basketball Plays and the Coach Pop of the D-League, Dylan Murphy -- have pointed out, many of the best plays in the triangle revolve around Melo's favorite spot on the floor, the weak-side elbow. Melo will simply begin the action with his back to the basket (the so-called "pinch post").

Here's a helpful video on Melo's weak-side pinch post options. He can dribble handoff to a guard or run a weak-side two-man game (as Thanasis and Cameron Moore do at various times) or he can face up and stick his famous elbow jumper (as Will Sheehey does near the :33 mark).

For a change of pace, the center can flash to the weak-side high post, and Melo can run over from the strong side and take a dribble handoff.

The other nominal "forward" can spend most of his time on the strong side. His job will be setting screens, cutting and hitting open jumpers. Those are things Shump and J.R. can do just fine.

Notice in Dylan's triangle play diagrams that he puts Melo at the 4...almost as if the guy has watched a Knicks game or two over the years

Hey, if Phil wants to throw some of Golden State's Klay Thompson voodoo at the Timberwolves, and convince them to trade Shumpert for Kevin Love, then I'd be all for it. But since that's not an option, this is the active roster I would use:

Point guard: Jose Calderon, Pablo Prigioni, Shane Larkin

Shooting guard: Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway

Forwards: Shump/J.R., Carmelo Anthony, Cleanthony Early, Amar'e Stoudemire

Center: Samuel Dalembert, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith

Coat rack: Andrea Bargnani

Coats need a place to hang, after all. They can keep him around as an insurance policy or they can buy him out, but the guy shouldn't play one minute for the Knicks unless they have suffered a catastrophic injury. He's not in their future plans, he never should have been a part of their past, so why bother with him in the present?

Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher don't have a viable starting power forward other than Melo. What they do have is a stable of pretty good wing players who can play multiple positions. It's not exactly the worst problem to have.

Mike Woodson got himself fired by trying to pretend he had a traditional frontcourt, despite all evidence to the contrary. If the Knicks' new brain-trust repeats Woodson's mistake, they will squander much of the goodwill they've built up over the past few months.