Why J.R. Smith Is Really NY Knicks' Most Important Player

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Why J.R. Smith Is Really NY Knicks' Most Important Player

There is no better barometer for the New York Knicks than J.R. Smith.

Not Carmelo Anthony. Not Tyson Chandler. Not Raymond Felton or anyone else. Smith.

Considered a residential conundrum, Smith has always drawn attention for his ability to score points in bunches. He's commanded even more attention for his inefficiency.

Smith is averaging 13.1 points per game for his career while shooting just a 42.5 percent clip from the floor. He's connected on fewer than 40 percent of a season's shot attempts twice, and converted on just 40.7 percent of his field goals in his first (partial) year with the Knicks. And of every player in NBA history to average at least 13.1 points a night (minimum 500 games), only 32 players have a lower career clip than Smith.

Smith hasn't exactly embodied efficiency during his time in the NBA (career shot chart via NBA.com).

By now, most of us are thinking, "How can a player like that be important? Place his past off-court transgressions alongside his inconsistencies from the floor and shouldn't you have a liability?"

Perhaps you should. But with Smith, you don't. You have a weapon.

As Smith continues to expand his offensive horizons, his accuracy has improved. And when he plays efficiently, the Knicks win.

A lot.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
It's not that the Knicks need Smith to score, it's that they need him to do so efficiently.

Smith has tallied 20 or more points 25 times this season, the second most of any reserve in the NBA (Jamal Crawford).

In those 25 games, the Knicks are 16-9. They're also 7-8 when he drops more than 25.

Confused?

I thought you might be.

New York's record when Smith drops 20-plus is respectable, but the Knicks are currently 20 games over .500, not seven. And as for their showing when Smith hits 25 or more, quite frankly, it's ghastly.

So what gives? He can't be some sort of savior if New York is only mediocre when he scores in excess.

Except we're not talking strictly about his scoring. We're all about his efficiency.

Good things happen when Smith attacks the basket.

Smith is shooting just 41.7 percent from the field this season. When he hits on fewer than 42 percent of his shots, the Knicks are 19-16. When he converts on at least 42 percent of his attempts, though, they're 27-10.

Going out of our minds further, when Smith shoots at least 50 percent, the team is 18-3.

The key, then, is getting Smith to shoot a higher percentage from the floor. To do that, he's had to be more selective.

And he has (via Tommy Beer of Hoopsworld):

Smith certainly hasn’t eliminated the three-pointer from his arsenal (he averaged 6.3 three-point attempts in March), he’s just been more selective. In addition, he has drastically reduced the amount of long two-pointers he’s taking. Smith is either taking threes or getting to basket, which typically results in a dunk, lay-up or trip to the charity stripe.

In March, Smith was one of just five NBA players who knocked down at least 20 three-pointers as well as 80 free throws. The other four members of that exclusive club: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Kevin Durant.

Whenever you've managed to place yourself among four of the NBA's top 10 players, you're in good shape. And because Smith is in good shape, so are the Knicks.

More of what happens when JR attacks.

Over the course of New York's league-leading winning streak, Smith is averaging 25 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting from the floor. He's also attempting 8.8 free throws a contest as well.

Smith has averaged just 2.6 free-throw attempts per game for his career, and he shot just 55 in 35 games with the Knicks last season. He's shot 70 over the last eight games.

Only Dwight Howard, James Harden, John Wall and Kevin Durant have spent more time at the charity stripe than Smith over their last eight contests. Should we believe that's not directly related to the Knicks winning all eight of those bouts?

We could, but we shouldn't. Because it's not true.

Generally to get to the free-throw line, you need to attack the basket. Harden leads the NBA in free-throw attempts per game, and according to hoopdata.com, more than 42.6 percent of his shots come within nine feet of the basket. 

It's the same story with Durant, who's second in free throws per bout (9.4). More than a third of his shot attempts are within nine feet.

Until recently, under 25 percent of Smith's shots came within nine feet of the rim. As he has strayed away from setting up shop in no-man's land, though, he's attempting more free throws and getting easier looks at the basket. 

Take his monstrous performance against the Charlotte Bobcats, which was the seventh of New York's eight successive victories.

Smith against the Bobcats (via NBA.com).

Smith shot 66.7 percent from the field that night and more than 80 percent of his looks came right at the rim. He scored 37 points and the Knicks won.

Just like they usually do when he puts forth a balanced performance.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport
How far New York goes from here depends largely on Smith.

New York is always going to need Smith to score—it's what he was brought to the Big Apple to do. But the Knicks also need him to be conscious of the manner in which his points are being totaled. 

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They need him to be efficient.

This team is 12-3 when Smith shoots at least 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three, and they're 13-1 when he scores at least 20 points on 50 percent (or better) shooting overall. 

They're success is directly related to that of their biggest "X-factor," and right now, few players in the NBA are playing at as high a level as Smith.

Will he be able to keep this up, to sustain such a pace for the rest of the season (and beyond)?

All we need do is look at the Knicks' closing record to find out.

 

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

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