Although Smith has several attributes that an NBA shooting guard could not live without—scoring ability, athleticism and the belief that he is better than most players—the reality is that that he has never been, and never will be, consistent.
I thought last season was Smith’s breakout season, I really did. After he won the SMOTY award, there was no way that he would revert back to his ball-hogging, boneheaded ways. He was putting up 21.3 points a night after the All-Star break and finished the regular season with 18.1 per game.
In the final month of the regular season, Smith shot 48.3 percent, but April was the only month in which he shot greater than 45 percent from the field. Despite a fluctuating shooting percentage, Smith was carrying the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony in and out of the lineup and was making a case that this season was his shining moment.
The Knicks finished the season and got into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, and that’s where it all went downhill for Smith.
Smith was ejected for Game 3 of the first round against the Boston Celtics for throwing a blatant elbow at Jason Terry in the second game of the series and finished up with 15.2 points on 38.4 percent from the field in Round 1, which the Knicks would end up winning in six games.
The second round against the Indiana Pacers was a nightmare for Smith. The reason that he finished with 13.5 points per game is probably because he seemed to launch a wild shot every single time he got his hands on the ball. When the series was over—New York lost in six games—Smith’s shooting percentage was 28.9.
This was the best season of Smith’s career, but he just couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. Now, am I saying that Smith is the worst player ever? Absolutely not—the guy has tons of talents and earned the Sixth Man of the Year award, just as he earned the contract that he's about to receive.
The Knicks just can’t pour money into a guy who has really not made serious improvement over the course of his nine-year NBA career. Sure, he seemed to play harder and actually played defense this season, but that’s not a skill—that’s about heart. Statistically, he's been erratic from season to season since he entered the NBA.
Now, Smith has opted out of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent, according to Ian Begley of ESPN New York.
Smith, 27, earned the NBA's Sixth Man Award after averaging 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He played an integral role in the Knicks' regular-season success but struggled mightily in the playoffs, making just 33 percent of his field goals.
Still, retaining Smith is the Knicks' top offseason priority, according to a league source. They can offer him a contract starting at approximately $5 million per season with standard raises over four years, using the Early Bird exception.
Another club with ample cap space can offer Smith more money annually, but Smith has said he values his relationship with head coach Mike Woodson. Playing for the Knicks also provides Smith, a native of Freehold, N.J., the chance to be near his family.
Last season, Smith was the one who the team turned to when Anthony was either out of the lineup or just not feeling it. Without him, who could the Knicks go out and get to be the team’s No. 2 scorer?
No search for a second star is necessary—the team already has one.
Iman Shumpert has the game to become a star in the NBA, and he’s ready to step up and be the second option for New York in 2014.
Shumpert showed plenty of potential on offense late in the season. He averaged 9.3 points per game in the playoffs for the Knicks and poured in 19 points in Game 6 against Indiana.
If free agent J.R. Smith signs with another team, Shumpert believes he can fill the void as the Knicks' secondary scorer next season.
"I think I can. I've always accepted all challenges. I would just take that as another challenge," Shumpert said. (via Jared Zwerling of ESPN New York)
Other teams are interested in Smith and restricted free agent Chris Copeland, who showed immense scoring potential in his first season in the NBA. The Knicks could be without some scorers next season, so Shumpert had better be up for the challenge.
Shumpert is simply a better investment than Smith and will probably end up being the better player. The flat-topped guard is already equally as athletic, a better defender and a superior distributor than Smith. Smith is a better scorer at this point, but keep in mind that Shumpert is still just 23 years old—he'll learn.
The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks could potentially outbid the Knicks for Smith, and if they do it won’t be devastating. Smith will always be a guy who can score in bunches, but he’ll always make boneheaded plays, too—it’s just who he is.
You know exactly what you’re going to get with Smith, but Shumpert has an endless ceiling. The Knicks need to plan not only for next season, but for the future of the franchise.
If Smith does return to the Knicks, he'll still contribute to the team and won't exactly be a detriment. But if it comes down to it, the younger player with more upside is the one that New York need to invest in.