Could Nate Robinson be a better option than J.R. Smith?
The New York Knicks don't have much money to throw around during the 2013 offseason, but they should be able to sign one high-scoring backup guard. Either bringing back J.R. Smith or stealing Nate Robinson away from the clutches of the Chicago Bulls, N.Y. will be sure to have some offensive firepower in its second unit.
Smith was fantastic down the stretch of the 2012-13 regular season, exploding enough times that he was named the league's Sixth Man of the Year. Rather than opting in and taking $2.9 million next year, the oft-shooting 2-guard has decided to decline his player option and become an unrestricted free agent, according to ESPN's Jared Zwerling.
Meanwhile, Robinson didn't need any options. He's just going to be an unrestricted free agent as soon as we hit July.
For a while now, conventional wisdom has said that Smith was opting out of his contract solely to re-up with the Knicks. He was too much of a bargain at $2.9 million, something that he and the organization were well aware of.
However, Robinson's agent, Aaron Goodwin, has allowed doubt to creep into the equation. In speaking with Zwerling, Goodwin said the following:
Nate's first thought would be to remain with the Bulls, but if the Knicks' opportunity presented itself, I am sure he would appreciate an opportunity to play in New York again.
It's no doubt an interesting development, and it brings about two pertinent questions: Can the Knicks afford either of these high-scoring guards, and which would be a better fit?
Can the Knicks Afford these Guards?
The answer to the first inquiry is a positive one, although it would require some sacrifices. While the Knicks are already well over the expected salary cap of $59 or $60 million, thanks to the expensive trio of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, the new CBA still allows them to make a few moves.
With Smith, we'd see N.Y. use the Early Bird exception, retaining the premier player of its second unit for $4.9 million. It's an offer that Swish should accept. While he'd have the potential to make more money elsewhere, he has explicitly stated his desire to retire as a Knick.
As for Robinson, Chicago's general manager Glen Grunwald wouldn't be able to spend as much money. He'd only be able to offer the diminutive floor general $3.18 million, or the value of the Knicks' taxpayer mid-level exception.
While Robinson made only $1.15 million during his last season with the Bulls, he's likely to seek a bit more than that. His play—and especially his astounding Game 1 performance against the Miami Heat—dictates that.
However, he could still spurn the extra cash for a chance to play with a contender. The Knicks, despite their premature exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, are still contenders.
Robinson or Smith?
So, if we accept that N.Y. somehow has the financial means necessary to sign either Smith or Robinson, which player should be the target? That's the more interesting, and pertinent, question.
It should be noted that I am considering the two signings mutually exclusive. While the Knicks could indeed offer contracts to both guards, that would be redundant and a waste of resources. The team would be better off signing a distributor to promote ball movement or a frontcourt player with the mid-level exception rather than hiring a miniature version of Smith in addition to the tattooed 2-guard.
The answer to the question in the headline is a resounding "no." The Knicks cannot replace Smith with Robinson, simply because the former brings so much more to the table.
Remember that putting the ball in the basket is only one facet of the game. Smith is better in most other areas, with the exception of passing. Although that's natural, seeing as he's a shooting guard and Robinson lines up at the 1.
The incumbent member of the Knicks is a vastly superior rebounder and defender, and that's what N.Y. needs. While J.R. isn't particularly great at crashing the boards, it's not too difficult to find more success on the glass than a 5'9" spark plug.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Robinson averaged 2.2 rebounds per game, good for a total rebounding percentage of 5.1. Well, "good" probably isn't the right word there.
Smith, meanwhile, pulled down 5.3 boards per contest and recorded a total rebounding percentage of 9.3, the second-best mark of his career.
On defense, a similar story unfolds. Smith made noticeable strides as a defensive player during the 2012-13 campaign, but Robinson continued to function as a human sieve. It was almost embarrassing for opponents if their point guards couldn't get into the lane against Nate's lack of defense.
While the floor general did only allow opposing point guards to post a PER of 14.3 against him, according to 82games.com, that's mostly due to the overall defensive excellence of Tom Thibodeau's lineups. As soon as he had ushered a player into the paint, Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson were usually there to pull a Dikembe Mutombo and say, "No, no, no! Not today!"
Smith received similar benefits from Tyson Chandler, but his defense was much more aesthetically pleasing, and he held opposing shooting guards to a PER of 12.9, again courtesy of 82games.com.
When Robinson played, the Bulls allowed 101.9 points per 100 possessions, and that number dropped to 98.6 when he took a seat on the pine. However, Smith gave us the reverse trend. N.Y. allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions when he was out on the court and an additional 3.4 when he sat.
It's not about the numbers themselves, but rather the trends. Don't look at the points allowed in a vacuum, because context is necessary. Even though Robinson's Bulls allowed fewer points than Smith's Knicks when they both played, the latter is clearly a vastly superior defender.
Additionally, his offense fits in with the Knicks' system more effectively.
The Knicks thrived during the 2012-13 season because they made three-pointers at historic levels and completely refused to turn the ball over. As a whole, N.Y. had a turnover percentage of just 11.7, easily the best mark in the league.
Even though Robinson was a more efficient shooter, particularly when straying further from the basket, it's his lack of turnover averseness that pushes him behind Smith. The former Slam Dunk champion's "Kryptonate" can often be coughing the ball up.
Well, at least when compared to Smith.
Robinson averaged 1.8 turnovers per game during his first season in those red Chicago jerseys, which is only 0.1 more than Smith put up on a nightly basis. On the surface level, it seems fairly even.
However, Robinson also played 8.1 fewer minutes per game and had less responsibility within the offense when he was on the court. If you look at turnover percentages, the 5'9" floor general's 12.6 pales in comparison to Smith's 8.8.
And interestingly enough, Swish's turnover percentage took a dip for the fifth season in a row. There's no telling how infrequently he could hand the rock over to opponents during the 2013-14 season.
Which guard should the Knicks sign?
For an offense that prioritizes possessions above all else, Smith's additional care for the orange sphere is invaluable.
Seeing as Robinson was a fan favorite during his time in Madison Square Garden, it might be a popular decision if Grunwald landed him over Smith. Well, it wouldn't be popular for long when the Knicks started having more difficulty winning games.
If New York wants to find success once more, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year is the superior option.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.