NY Knicks' Biggest Problem Isn't Carmelo Anthony, It's J.R. Smith

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NY Knicks' Biggest Problem Isn't Carmelo Anthony, It's J.R. Smith
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks will go as far in the NBA playoffs as Carmelo Anthony can carry them, but that's not necessarily 'Melo's problem. Not as much as it for those who have put him in this end-all, be-all situation. Like J.R. Smith, for instance.

'Melo's shooting struggles are a problem for the Knicks. A big one. He's shooting just 39.3 percent in the postseason and has connected on 50 percent or more of his field-goal attempts just once in eight tries.

But Anthony's shot selection is not the Knicks' greatest quandary. And neither is his lack of passing (it's actually improved). His ailing shoulder isn't even their greatest concern.

Good ol' J.R. Smith is.

'Melo isn't as big a problem as Smith is.

Should the Knicks fall short of the Eastern Conference Finals (or even the NBA Finals), 'Melo will shoulder a majority of the blame and be forced to swallow most of the public's belligerence. That's just how it is. He's New York's most valuable player—he's Gary Washburn's league MVP, too—and will be exalted for any success the Knicks incur and held responsible for any failures.

Just as troubling as 'Melo's postseason performance is Smith's. He ended the regular season on an absolute tear, a run that likely cemented his status as the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year.

Through his final 16 regular-season contests, Smith averaged 23.5 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor overall and 37.7 percent from downtown. He was also getting to the foul line 6.6 times a night.

Since the playoffs began, that version of Smith has been nowhere to be found. He's averaging 14.4 points on 14.7 shot attempts, good for 34 percent shooting overall and a 30-percent conversion rate from deep.

Smith's been even worse since returning from a Game 4 suspension against the Boston Celtics. From then on, he's averaged 13 points on 27.8 percent shooting (14-of-57).

To put that in an even more chilling perspective, Smith has combined for 52 points over his last five games on 57 shots. Feel free to pull your hair out at any moment.

Smith's shot chart for 2013 playoffs (via NBA.com).

Just so we're clear, I'm not jumping off the J.R. Smith bandwagon. I've been on it for quite some time and began to get pretty comfortable after he won the Sixth Man of the Year award. So he can hold onto his form...for now.

All of us would be lying, however, if we didn't admit that his recent struggles went beyond troubling and into the realm of "Where in the hell is that panic button????"

Though he's always been considered inefficient (and that's being kind), this year was different. He had changed, especially later in the season; he was attacking the rim and getting to the line. He was an asset. And he still is.

The thing about assets, however, is that they can also become your greatest liability. New York needs Smith to be efficient. Not LeBron James or Kevin Durant efficient, just more economical offensively than he is now.

When Smith shot at least 42 percent from the field during the regular season, the Knicks were 32-10. So again, we're not talking anything crazy. Not even close.

Until recently, this wasn't expecting too much. Truthfully, it still isn't. But Smith is wallowing in a woefully bad shooting slump that we're left trying to rationalize. Which he hasn't appreciated.

New York needs Smith to regain his focus.

Reports surfaced that Smith was out partying just hours before he went 4-of-15 from the field and New York lost Game 1 to Indiana.

Smith took exception to such rumors—after he had already posted a picture of that nifty form we discussed earlier—claiming he wasn't out "clubbing" the night before.

While the evidence suggested otherwise, we had an obligation to believe him, or at the very least, ignore the situation entirely. After all, he had "changed" oh so much over the last six months or so.

"My thing is, being professional 24 hours a day - 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Smith said back in November (via Marc Berman of the New York Post). "I can’t let myself slip as well as my teammates slip. In order for me to hold them accountable, I have to hold myself accountable."

Clad with a shiny new sixth man award, Smith appeared to be holding himself accountable.

Soon after the initial "clubbing" rumor, though, Smith was spotted with Iman Shumpert celebrating a Game 2 victory at pop star and former squeeze Rihanna's after party. The latest festivities kind of detracted from the whole "not going out" persona Smith had been trying to sell.

Now, it's none of our business how Smith spends his time. He's 27 years old, in the greatest city in the country and has access to anything he wants. It's expected that he do it up, especially after a win and most certainly when the Knicks didn't have another game for nearly 96 hours.

Our problem isn't with his partying or even with his decision to don black attire to a pivotal Game 5 against the Celtics. Our problem is with him failing to deliver on the floor at the most crucial point in the season.

Smith can frolic with Rihanna if he chooses. We're not in a position to judge that aspect of his life. But he is subject to whatever criticism is hurled his way after shooting 3-of-15 from the floor before he went off gallivanting.

Smith needs to get his mind right.

He's an integral part of New York's offensive attack. When he's hitting shots, it lightens the load that 'Melo needs to carry. When he's not, it's putting unnecessary pressure on Anthony and the rest of his teammates.

Smith needs to get back on track.

To top off a detestable shooting rut with bad press only makes things worse. His off-court jaunts are of little importance when what he's doing on the court is actually of importance. Right now, it's not. And the bulk of New York's trials are being put on 'Melo because he's the star, which isn't entirely fair.

Save for the Knicks' most recent victory over the Indiana Pacers, 'Melo's offense has been unsightly. He's shooting just 35.6 percent from the field over the last five games and has hit on just four of his last 27 three-point attempts (14.8 percent).

Even when 'Melo has been at his worst, though, he hasn't been the liability Smith has. He went just 10-of-28 from the floor in Game 1 against the Pacers, but when he was on the court, the Knicks still outscored Indiana by seven points. They were outscored by 14 points without him.

Smith hasn't had that kind of impact. The Knicks are actually plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions better without him on the floor compared to when he's on. This comes on the heels of a regular-season campaign where they were a plus-2.9 with him compared to without. He's been that bad.

Something needs to change. Whether it be his attitude, his night life or how many minutes he's playing, something has to give. And we can't pretend that's not true, because Mike Woodson and the Knicks can only afford to let him work through his laborious performances for so long.

"If he's struggling and I feel the need (to) pull him, I'll turn to someone else," Woodson said (via Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com).

Well, Smith is "struggling." Tremendously, in fact. To the point where he's become yet another burden for the Knicks to bear, 'Melo included.

Which player's performance is more troubling for the Knicks?

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It's difficult to bench Smith, though. He's the type of player who can bust out of a furrow without notice. Woodson can't just bury him on the bench.  He has to show faith in him, like he has all year.

But for how much longer?

"I'm not going to kick him to the curb," Woodson said (via Begley). "He's a big part of what we've done this season."

At the moment, he's a big part of why the Knicks haven't been able to establish continuity. And if they fall to the Pacers and fail to advance through to the Eastern Conference Finals, he'll be a huge part of that failure, too. More so than 'Melo.

Deep down, Woodson knows this, so it's up to Smith to hold himself accountable the way he apparently has all year.

Before the Knicks are forced to do it for him.

 

*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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