Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Iman Shumpert Cleared for Contact

Iman Shumpert eyes a return to the court. (nypost.com)
Despite being ravaged by injuries and not having their full complement of players for even one game of the 2012-13 season, the Knicks sit just a game behind the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference thanks in large part to MVP-caliber play from Carmelo Anthony. With Amar'e Stoudemire's recent return and Iman Shumpert being cleared for full-contact practices today, New York is getting healthy in the early portion of 2013.

While Stoudemire is still shaking off the rust from a long layoff, Shumpert likely won't suffer from a similar fate. Stoudemire's strength is on the offensive end of the court, where timing, chemistry and overall fluidity are key components. Not to say that those aren't important parts of defense too but with Shumpert's major impact coming on that end of the floor, his return should prove smoother than Stoudemire's has.

It's physical games like last night's loss against the Celtics where Shumpert is sorely missed on the defensive end. This is no secret to Shumpert or anybody else around the team but watching certain Knicks get pushed around and lose their composure last night, especially Anthony, really shows how much this team needs Shumpert's tenacity and perimeter defense to go along with Tyson Chandler's interior defensive presence.

Having Shumpert on the floor in last night's game may not have prevented double technicals on Anthony and Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter or Anthony's post-game antics around the Celtics' locker room, especially after what Kevin Garnett reportedly said about his wife. Despite that assertion, adding a defensive-minded player like Shumpert to any lineup immediately makes a team stronger and more suited to go up against a physical opponent.

One issue for the Knicks this season has been dealing with physical play; we've seen it in losses to the Grizzlies, Lakers and two to the Bulls, a team whose focus lies with defense and big men Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer in Derrick Rose's absence. The return of a player like Shumpert, who has elite defensive abilities, will only help New York against Eastern and Western Conference contenders who play a more physical brand of basketball than the Knicks.

Depending how the second-year guard's knee responds to full-contact practices, his return could happen as soon as this week as the Knicks play again Thursday, Friday and Sunday. He would be a welcome addition for Friday night's battle at the Garden against the aforementioned Bulls and should help a backcourt that has been without starting point guard Raymond Felton since Christmas.

Felton's ability to penetrate the lane and create opportunities for his teammates on the perimeter has been sorely missed by the Knicks' offense. Shumpert, while not the creator Felton is, can help fill some of that void and relieve Pablo Prigioni of his 20-minute per game duties; Prigioni was exposed last night against Boston with no assists and 4 turnovers and as much as I like his game, he's better suited as the team's third point guard rather than the primary backup.

After Stoudemire's return on New Year's Day, Shumpert's in the near future and Felton's hopefully by January 24, the Knicks' next matchup with Boston, this team is getting healthy just in time for the season's second half. Shumpert should help a defense that has struggled a bit since a hot start while Felton will get the Knicks' offense flowing once again, especially once Stoudemire rounds into form as a scoring option off the bench or a starter against bigger teams.

Despite all of their injuries, the Knicks have an impressive 23-11 record through 34 games. If they can keep themselves within striking distance of Miami over the next two weeks, New York will have the opportunity to stake their claim to the conference's top seed over their final 40-plus games of the season.