To many basketball fans, the New York Knicks' J.R. Smith is the quintessential sixth man. He is a perimeter scorer with excellent range and a decent handle, but one who is simply too erratic and unpredictable to be depended on in the starting lineup.
Wherever Smith has played during his NBA career, he has primarily come off the bench, with the exception of his rookie year with the New Orleans Hornets. In the 2011-12 season, Smith filled that same scorer-off-the-pine role for the Knicks once he joined the team after playing in China during the lockout.
Smith put up solid numbers: 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 40.7 percent shooting from the field and 34.7 percent from three-point range, while having his share of outstanding games and atrocious ones too.
A team simply cannot have their starting 2-guard going two-for-13 regularly as it disrupts the flow of the offense, but Smith's off-nights will be far less detrimental if he continues to play off the pine.
Despite a hole at the shooting guard position with Iman Shumpert still recovering from his ACL tear and Ronnie Brewer banged up himself, coach Mike Woodson told the New York Daily News that he much prefers to have Smith come off the bench.
Woodson sees Smith's ability to provide an instant offensive spark in the second unit as essential for New York's success and he is right; J.R. Smith is absolutely built to thrive in the sixth man role.
In the starting lineup, Smith would be competing for shots with the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, both of whom are elite scorers that use the brunt of available offensive possessions to try to take their man one-on-one. However, off the bench Smith can come in and be the featured scorer looking to create open shots on the perimeter or use his athleticism to attack the basket.
While it is very likely that Smith shares the court with Stoudemire and 'Melo at some point each game, having them play long stretches together would be horrendous for New York's ball movement as none of them are pass-first players.
Smith was miscast for much of the 2011-12 season as a reserve point guard and spent a great deal of time working with the ball in his hands, but with Jason Kidd also coming off the bench, Smith will revert to his natural role as a pure scorer without having to run the squad's offense.
Kidd will be able to find Smith both open on the perimeter and especially slashing to the basket and the two will undoubtedly connect for a number of showstopping above-the-rim plays during their time on the floor together.
Because of his shooting touch, Smith is an excellent option to have coming off the bench for the purpose of spacing the floor and stretching out a defense. The Knicks have plenty of dynamic shooters on their roster but even Steve Novak cannot heat up as quickly as J.R. Smith. His quick release and ability to create space make him one of the league's premier marksmen, even if his percentages are never elite by themselves.
Mike Woodson will usually run a methodical halfcourt offense centered around Carmelo Anthony's isolation prowess, but having a freewheeling scorer like Smith that loves to play in transition and push the tempo of the game gives New York the opportunity to throw different offensive looks at an opponent and make it more difficult for them to game-plan for the Knicks.
Very few teams have a player on their bench with the quickness and discipline to be able to guard J.R. Smith, and he will feast thanks to his ability to hit outside shots, blow by his man and finish at the rim.
Should J.R. Smith start or come off the bench?
A major concern for Smith throughout his controversial professional career has been defensive effort, but that is not as significant of an issue when he is being asked to guard second-string players as opposed to starters. Smith has the physical talent to be a good defender but rarely puts in consistent effort.
While he is a far better scorer than either Brewer or Shumpert, both of them are considered top-shelf perimeter defenders that can play aggressive defense on even the league's best wing scorers, something Smith rarely does. It would be foolish for New York, a defense-oriented team, to waste Shumpert's defensive talents by having him chase around reserve guards, but that is something Smith is absolutely capable of doing.
Smith would be featured in a second unit comprised of veterans Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, all of whom are team-oriented players who could hopefully help Smith mature as a player and make less selfish decisions that ultimately hurt the team. Discipline has been a problem for J.R. Smith in the past, but this New York team is filled with elder statesmen that could provide an influential voice.
This older ball club could use a dose of explosiveness off the bench which is exactly what Smith, who should also see a fair amount of crunch-time minutes, can provide. He certainly has the talent to be a starter, but his skill set is far more suited to being the first substitute than a starter.
Nearly every great team in the NBA has a quality sixth man, and with his immense physical talents and clearly defined role in this team's offense, J.R. Smith has the potential to be among the best of them in the 2012-13 season.