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With Amar'e Stoudemire Rolling, NY Knicks Must Start J.R. Smith

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27: J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks celebrtaes scoring a three pointer against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter at Madison Square Garden on February 27, 2013 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2013

For the New York Knicks, it's time for change. And by change, we mean it's time for head coach Mike Woodson to bench James White in favor of J.R. Smith, courtesy of Amar'e Stoudemire.

Relegating Jason Kidd to the second unit was fine, encouraged even. Running with the rest of the backups has put the ball back in Kidd's hands and helped him regain his shooting touch (40.1 percent from deep over last four games). Demoting him allowed Iman Shumpert to return to his natural position as well.

What it also did, though, was pave the way for James White to start, which isn't okay. Not even slightly.

White has started four consecutive games for the Knickerbockers and hasn't performed up to snuff. He's averaging just 0.5 points and hasn't played more than 11 minutes in any of these contests.

For a team that fancies itself a title contender, White isn't a starting caliber player. And when the Knicks are forced to start Kurt Thomas in the absence of Carmelo Anthony, it gives New York an extremely vulnerable starting five.

Don't just take my word for it either. The numbers tell more of the story.

Against the Detroit Pistons, a starting lineup of Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Shumpert, Thomas and White was outscored by a rate of 14.1 points per 100 possessions.

Admittedly, that's not what's most important here. Melo hasn't missed any extended time thus far and Woodson isn't counting on White or even Thomas to be a game-changer. He just wants to keep Smith on the bench. Not because he devalues his abilities, but because of how much he means to New York's second unit.

Prior to the start of the regular season, Smith indicated a desire to start, something Woodson quickly shot down (via Mark Berman of the New York Post):

I kind of like J.R. where he is in terms of coming off the bench, but he could start, too, you never know. Everybody can’t start. I’ve got a nice mixture of guys in that starting unit from an offensive standpoint. I have to have some offense coming off the bench as well.

Like I told J.R., if he comes off, there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, he could be the best player coming off the bench in this league and maybe be the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Hopefully that will translate to a lot of wins and get us to a championship round because at the end of the day that’s what we’re in it for.

Back then, it was difficult to discredit Woodson's logic. Smith gives the Knicks a potent scorer off the bench and deepens their rotation considerably. But there's no longer a significant need for him to come off the pine.

Smith's 16.1 points per game are a career-high and he does lead a bench that ranks fourth in scoring. He's also coming off a bench that now boasts Stoudemire and Kidd. Earlier in the season, Stoudemire was unable to play and Kidd was starting. Now, they're both readily available to anchor the second unit.

Meaning?

The need for Smith to come off the bench is no longer as pressing. Not as much as the need for him to start is anyway.

Assuming Woodson continues to stick with the starting lineup he's been riding as of late (with Melo healthy), he'll be putting the Knicks at a great disadvantage come playoff time.

New York is just 4-3 when starting Anthony, Chandler, Felton, Shumpert and White, and this particular outfit is being outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when playing together. That's unhinging for a combine whose task is to set the tone for the entire game. Severely unhinging.

Replacing White with Smith though, changes everything. Emphasis on "everything."

A lineup of Chandler, Felton, Melo, Shumpert and Smith is currently outscoring opponents at a rate of 8.7 points per 100 possessions, a 14-point swing in the Knicks' favor when pitted against their current projected lineup.

Said legion is also New York's seventh-most used five-man combination this season. Shumpert has appeared in just 21 games this season so yes, that is saying something. It's screaming a lot of things, actually. None more lucid than the cry of "Start Smith Now."

But what about the bench? Smith leads them in scoring and is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, the second unit clearly can't survive without him. Woodson has the right idea starting White and getting Smith in the game early.

That would be true, except it isn't.

Stoudemire and Kidd are more than capable of carrying the second unit. Stoudemire especially.

He's the only player in the NBA to be averaging at least 14 points in fewer than 25 minutes per game. Only 31 other players in league history, who have appeared in a minimum of 10 games, have been able to do that over the course of a season.

Ironically, this is a situation where we can only hope that Stoudemire doesn't become No. 32. Not because we're pulling for him to fail, but because he should be receiving more playing time. As one of only four players in the league (Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Brook Lopez) averaging at least 21 points and seven rebounds per 36 minutes, STAT is owed that much.

He's also earned the opportunity to make the jump from seventh to sixth man. Woodson's not about to thrust him into the starting five, and rightfully so. Coming off the pine allows Stoudemire to spend more time at center, where he's currently posting a 22.6 PER and holding the opposition to a mark of 13.8. Statistical evidence supports Woodson's decision to not start him.

It also supports his ability to be the first one off the bench. 

As a member of the second unit, Stoudemire spends extensive time alongside Kidd, Prigioni and Steve Novak. When either of these three players is paired with Stoudemire, the Knicks are outscoring their opponents

Which means we've arrived back out our initial conclusion—New York's bench doesn't need Smith. Stoudemire has them covered.

The same cannot be said of the Knicks' starting lineup. They have need a change. 

They have a need to rid themselves of White.

They have a need Smith.

A "need" that is no longer unreasonable now that the Knicks know the second unit will be in good hands without him.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

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