Can J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire Co-Exist in NY Knicks' 2nd Unit?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 29, 2012

Mar 21, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire (1) during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Knicks defeated the Sixers 82-79. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks have the Big Apple buzzing with championship thoughts.

At 21-9, coach Mike Woodson's club holds the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. They are one of just five teams holding a winning percentage of .700 or better.

With an increased focus on the defensive end, a historically strong perimeter attack and an unwavering commitment to a shared goal, the Knicks have every necessary ingredient to compete for a title.

Coach Woodson has needed some evolution on his roster, and his players have granted each of his requests.

Carmelo Anthony gets the most publicity for his transformation from volume scorer to MVP candidate, but the similar metamorphosis of guard J.R. Smith has been equally brilliant.

Smith has shown a newfound hesitance in his typically automatic trigger. He's changed his productive desires from quantity to quality, taking and making big shots only when they fell within the system.

And there's been no shot bigger for the eight-year veteran than his sensational turnaround, buzzer-beating jumper that helped his Knicks avoid an unsightly loss against the Phoenix Suns on December 26.

The shot wasn't a season-defining moment, but rather a reflection of the success that Smith has enjoyed under Woodson's direction. With capable distributors and willing passers surrounding him, the game has been simplified to the point where Smith has been asked to do little more than take the open shot or keep the ball moving.

It's as frighteningly simple as it's been efficiently successful.

It isn't a restriction on Smith's skills. He can still put the ball on the floor and create offense, a quality lacking in the rest of New York's reserves.

But it's one that has brought enough opportunities to keep him satisfied and engaged on both ends of the floor.

That could quickly be coming to an end, though, with the looming return of former All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire (knee surgery).

Whereas Smith has found wild success in this free-flowing attack, Stoudemire's return to the second unit (which is where he'll likely be heading according to what league sources told's Ian Begley) could result in a controlled, post-oriented attack.

Stoudemire's well-versed in the pick-and-roll, something that rookie point guard Pablo Prigioni is adept at running. Stoudemire's also thrived in creating his own offense in the post or on the elbow.

There will be shooting chances to be had by Smith in any of these situations. If the defenses overcommit to the screener or the roller, Smith should inherit some open looks. The same can be said for aggressive defensive contests on those Stoudemire isolation plays.

But he won't be the primary option, and often not even the secondary option. Will the lost touches cost the club some energy and focus from Smith defensively? He doesn't exactly have a flattering reputation on that end after all.

Then again, there is one thing that could keep Smith involved and Stoudemire engaged in those pick-and-rolls. Woodson can hand over the reins to Smith as the ball-handler, something the coach has been forced into with starter Raymond Felton sidelined with a broken pinkie.

Smith has the handles to consistently initiate the offense, and this season he's sharing the basketball more than he has in the past three years (2.7 assists per game).

So once again, the onus for the Knicks' success falls on the shoulders of the coach with the golden touch. Woodson has consistently pulled the right strings since taking over for Mike D'Antoni midway through the 2011-12 season.

But this is the adjustment New York fans have dreaded all season long. With so little room for apparent improvement, the Knicks are simply hoping to withstand Stoudemire's return.

If Woodson plays his cards right, though, Stoudemire could give this club yet another scoring option to bolster what's already the league's seventh-best offense (102.1 points per game).

The Knicks' championship hopes are very real and could even be enhanced with a dynamic duo of Smith and Stoudemire leading the reserves.

*All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 12/27/2012.