When J.R. Smith first joined the New York Knicks halfway through the lockout-shortened season in 2012, I thought it was a terrific pickup. In his Denver days, Smith showed he was fully capable of taking over games with an array of jumpers and by getting to the basket. He was athletic and talented, which more than made up for the fact that he could be a major head case at times. But his time in China must not have served him well, because Smith looked completely out of sync and couldn’t regularly knock down 3-pointers in limited minutes.
Not exactly inspiring stuff, especially since his shooting splits were the worst of J.R. Smith’s career since his second season in 2005-06. But I defended his rough transition back into the best professional basketball league in the world, thinking that his time in China has softened him up a little bit and that once he shook off the rust, the Knicks would be a much-improved team. And J.R. Smith quickly proved me right this year, playing an important role off the bench, submitting the most minutes of his career and thriving in that expanded time. His per-game numbers jumped in nearly every way possible from the year before:
2011-12: 35 games, 27.6 minutes, 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 40.7 FG%, 34.7 3P%, 70.9 FT%.
2012-13: 80 games, 33.5 minutes, 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 42.2 FG%, 35.6 3P%, 76.2 FT%.
BIG difference, as you can see. And certainly deserving the of the Sixth Man of the Year award that Smith earned this season. But it’s hard to mention Smith’s on-the-court success without laughing about his off-the-court nonsense … or his on-the-court antics for that matter. If you need further proof that J.R. Smith’s head isn’t always in the right place, just follow him on Twitter. From the infamous “You trying to get the pipe?” incident to his general lack of candor and brutal honesty in responding to fans and/or haters, Smith’s social media incidents alone have been well-chronicled. Smith’s Twitter battles and social media misconduct show his immaturity, but they were mostly amusing to the general public and never really affect his performance on the court. But then you get into the kinds of things that did, as evidenced by his disappearing act in the playoffs. Let’s start here:
Not only was that play thoughtless and needless, but it got him suspended from a potential close-out Game 4. The Knicks lost that game. Normally, a player with a conscience–or at the very least, respect for a resilient Celtics squad that has actually won a title–would mentally prepare for the next game and put it upon himself to make amends. But not J.R. Smith. Instead, he talked smack about how the series would’ve been a sweep if not for the suspension. To make things worse, he actively participated in Kenyon Martin‘s childish idea for the Knicks to “wear black for the Celtics’ funeral” before Game 5. If he had been able to back up the talk and the off-the-court antics, that would’ve been one thing. But Smith had his worst game of the postseason, tallying 14 points on a miserable 3-for-14 shooting night. And it wasn’t just one night either. Take a look at how his regular season numbers dipped once New York needed him most in the postseason:
Regular season: 80 games, 33.5 minutes, 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 42.2 FG%, 35.6 3P%, 76.2 FT%.
Postseason: 11 games, 31.9 minutes, 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 33.1 FG%, 27.3 3P%, 72.1 FT%.
To be fair, 11 games is a much smaller sample size. But the fact remains: J.R. Smith’s mental toughness faded when Carmelo Anthony needed him most. I bring up Melo because he was the only one in the Knicks-Pacers series who played worth a damn. And as the team’s second-best player, it was Smith’s job to back up New York’s superstar. Instead, Smith bricked everything he touched, felt his all-around production slip and saw his minutes per game go down as well. And even when he did something worth noting (in this case, back-to-back-to-back great plays to close the first half of Game 2 against Boston) he backed it up with more of his characteristic antics as if he were once again begging America to stop taking him seriously:
So the question stands: Is J.R. Smith worth the headaches? Is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in line for a contract extension? Or should New York start over and try and put a better supporting cast around Melo?
In my mind, the Knicks have a much bigger problem that needs to be addressed first: Amar’e Stoudemire. When you’re paying a guy almost $20 million to sit out nearly all season with yet another injury problem, you have problems. When that same guy has an injury history and doesn’t fit in with your best player, you have even bigger problems. STAT fits in with both of those categories. So in spite of Smith’s wacky celebrations and sometimes unruly off-the-court behavior, it’s hard to deny his results on the one place where it matters: the court. I’m not condoning any team signing knuckleheads, but New York has bigger fish to fry than J.R. Smith right now. Coach Mike Woodson seems to have things in relative order and any time you’ve got a guy coming off the bench who can throw down on the Heat like this, you’ve got to give the man his money and a chance to continue to flourish in an environment where he’s thrived.