Google “Iman Shumpert” and you’ll be beset on all sides by trade rumors. This is nothing new. But NBA Draft Week trade rumors are a little different: more teams have cap space in the summer than during the season and draft picks themselves are the closest things the NBA trade market has to liquid currency. This means that trades that might otherwise get bogged down by details and cap minutiae in the thick of the winter slog can be consummated rather painlessly amid the hopeful environment of an NBA June.
For Shumpert, then, this may truly be the last of an exhausting stretch of speculation, near-deals, and intermittent boostings and downplayings of trade value. If he wakes up Friday morning traded, it will almost certainly be to a team that has moved well beyond its rebuilding phase and has targeted him specifically for a role that they believe to be well-suited to his skill set as an athletic defensive wing. Mercifully, Shumpert’s career would then be able to become more about the things he does well than the things he lacks. As someone who has liked and appreciated Shumpert as a player and a person, I’d like to see that for him. And as someone who is all too familiar with his shortcomings, I’d like to see it for the Knicks too.
New York took Shumpert with the 17th pick in the 2011 Draft. By any reasonable measure, he has met both the expectations that were set forth for him personally and the standard expectations for that draft slot. It may seem at first blush odd, then, that the Knicks would trade him to the Suns, Thunder, or Heat for a pick in the 20’s. There are two reasons it would make sense.
First, the Knicks will need to extend a $3.7 million qualifying offer to Shumpert to retain him in the summer of 2015. That’s the very same summer that Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, and Tyson Chandler come off the cap. While projecting the series of interconnected events that will play out between now and then and ultimately determine their specific targets that offseason is an inherently foggy task, the odds are decent that they will at some point be happy to have a spare few million bucks around. Swapping Shumpert for a player taken in the early to mid 20’s would mean a savings of between $2.4 and $2.8 million for the Knicks next summer. Also, if the Knicks don’t fill out their cap with long-term deals in 2015, they could save substantially more than that amount in 2016 if they employ a 3rd year player on a rookie deal compared to Shumpert, who will be a restricted free agent that summer and could force the Knicks to match a deal of the mid-level or better in order to keep him. Put succinctly, Shumpert is unlikely to play on a cheap contract for a Knicks team that can legitimately push for a title; while kicking the can down the road can be unsatisfying, the simple reality is that an equivalent talent that won’t get his first big deal until 2019 is substantially more valuable to the Knicks than Shumpert.*
*This is to say nothing of the fact that, if Carmelo leaves, the Knicks might be better off losing games in 2015 (with a pick in the 2016 Draft) than winning them. Such logic would argue even more strongly for a Shumpert swap.
The second reason a trade makes sense is the more important one: the Knicks are currently in a position where they should be actively pursuing high-variance talent. It’s possible that whatever player they can draft between, say, 21 and 27 would turn out to be a total bust or, at the very least, inferior to the undeniably useful Shumpert. And to that I say: so what? If Shumpert retired tomorrow, it would be sad but ultimately not be the type of development that forever altered the course of Knicks history. They would be losing a young player who is a bright spot on a very mediocre team. The biggest hit the Knicks would take if this were to happen would, frankly, be the loss of Shumpert’s value as a trade asset. Conversely, a player drafted in the late first round could be just about anything.* And what I would submit to you is, even if Shumpert is better than the average player taken around his place in the draft, the 1 or 2 or 5-percent-ish chance that the Knicks grab Rajon Rondo or Tony Parker or their like outweighs the 40-percent-ish chance that they downgrade from Shumpert to a lesser player who also won’t get them any closer to a conference title in the next two seasons.