Shumpert is the Knicks' only hope

NEW YORK -- Just like Patrick Ewing was locked inside Michael Jordan's prime, it seems Carmelo Anthony has no way out of LeBron James' Eastern Conference, no way to clear that path to a parade Ewing never cleared.

Not with this roster, anyway, the one that survived on opening night at the Garden after somehow blowing a 25-point lead to the faceless Milwaukee Bucks. Winners by a 90-83 count, the Knicks tried the solo-star-and-accomplished-supporting-cast approach last season, the formula Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks applied to perfection in 2011. It didn't work then and it won't work now.

These Knicks are certain champs only in the wildest corner of Jim Dolan's imagination. So before Anthony's grand entrance into free agency, one of two things has to happen for the Knicks to be worthy of sharing the postseason stage with the Miami Heat, who only felt like they were eliminated from three-peat contention after their shocking loss in Philly:

1) Steve Mills, new president and GM, has to acquire a legitimate second star to complement Anthony before the February trade deadline.

2) Iman Shumpert has to become that legitimate second star, much sooner rather than later.

And until Mills proves he is capable of making a franchise-altering deal, the Knicks are left with Shumpert, a 23-year-old bundle of energy and athleticism still learning how to play on offense.

You say it's a long shot that Shumpert develops into the kind of big-time player who can help Anthony ultimately win the ring he appears almost certain not to win this spring?

I say it's the only shot the Knicks have.

Tyson Chandler is a pro's pro who played big in the end Wednesday night and who aided Nowitzki's cause in Dallas, but he has broken down physically on the Knicks two postseasons in a row. J.R. Smith, he of the five-game drug suspension? He's also failed the Knicks in his two postseasons, and he's too unpredictable and immature to ever be counted on as a viable second option.

Andrea Bargnani? This is his eighth year in the league, and there's no reason to believe he's suddenly going to morph into a player worthy of that No. 1 overall draft pick. Raymond Felton? He worked his way through a bum hamstring against Milwaukee, showing off his junkyard-dog toughness one more time, but his limitations are well established.

Amar'e Stoudemire, benched all night, has been betrayed over and over by his body, leaving Shumpert as the last man standing in the desperate star search that will define the Knicks' season.

"I think he has an opportunity to be a really good player in this league," Mills said. "He's such a strong defensive player, and came in as ... a real stopper. We've encouraged him to work on his offensive game. We've spent a lot of time and have people assigned to help him do that, so I think he has an opportunity to be a really, really complete player in the league."

The Knicks need Shumpert to be more than a complete player, much more. He finished with 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting against the Bucks, and sank a critical pull-up jumper and two free throws in the middle of the fourth quarter when the renovated Garden and its shiny new bridges appeared to be crashing down on the home team.

Cramps in his calves forced Shumpert out of the final minute and change, but his teammates had his back. When the pre-Halloween scare was complete, when the Knicks were finally done committing turnovers, Shumpert walked into the winners' locker room, towel wrapped around his waist, and recoiled at the size of the opening night media contingent in his midst.

"We've got J-Lin back?" Shumpert asked Chandler through a laugh.

No, Jeremy Lin isn't walking back through that door. The Knicks need something else out of left field, something permanent this time, something that will elevate them above a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the East.

Something like Shumpert arriving, immediately, as the more aggressive two-way force he pledged he'd be.

"I think I've got a better understanding for the NBA game," Shumpert said. "I think I've just been doing a lot of studying as far as watching other games, watching how other guards are performing, watching how I performed my rookie year, how I performed my sophomore year in the league.

"In taking a step back and looking at all the film, I just know when I can pick my spots. I know where to be more aggressive, and I think once you get that comfort and that confidence going, you're a better player in this league."

Mike Woodson reiterated that he might start Smith once he returns from his suspension, and the coach needs to rip that page out of his playbook for good. The Knicks need to de-emphasize Smith. They'd be foolish to expand his role at Shumpert's expense.

"This year," Shumpert said, "I'm just making a conscious effort to make sure I touch and explore every part of the game offensively."

This has to happen, too, if the Knicks are to challenge the Heat, the Bulls, and the Pacers, and if they are to protect their turf and hold off the Brooklyn Nets.

Shumpert nearly saved the Knicks with his sudden offensive explosion in Game 6 of the lost Indiana series last spring, and maybe, just maybe, he'll get the chance to save them now. And yet Knicks coaches and executives rarely seem to talk up his impact on their current and near-future fates.

Shumpert was asked to play summer league ball in Las Vegas -- a strange request given his standing on the team, and his return from a devastating knee injury -- and his one-and-done appearance reportedly enraged Dolan. Asked Wednesday night about his quest to find the right complementary piece for Anthony, Mills raised the names of Bargnani and Chandler, and later identified the "core of this team" as Anthony, Stoudemire, Felton, and Chandler.

No mention of Shumpert. In some corners of the franchise, some might worry about the kid focusing too much on scoring at the expense of his signature defense. Some might worry about the kid getting a big head.

But his head is smaller these days, literally, after he cut his high-top hair style down to size following what he described as a self-centered preseason effort against Boston. In a video he posted on Twitter, Shumpert said he decided to "punish myself" with the haircut "to end that separation of trying to be cool or trying to separate myself so that I look different."

Shumpert said he only cared about winning a ring, and that he would "never, ever ever put myself outside the circle [of his teammates and coaches] ever again. ... I need to look everybody in the eye and say this is me."

Chances are, a new and vastly improved Shumpert this year or next won't be enough to deliver Anthony the kind of celebration at the Garden that the Red Sox just won for themselves at Fenway.

But look at it this way: With this roster, in LeBron James' conference, what other hope do the Knicks really have?