The way he looks and the way he plays, J.R. Smith is the classic polarizing NBA player.
With so many tattoos that he has lost count—and the kind of unapologetic pursuit of being in the zone that shows he sure isn’t counting his shot attempts, either—Smith invites fans to focus on just how good, bad, exciting or disruptive he can be.
So it was wholly predictable that the peculiar timing of Smith’s knee surgery—announced just five days after he signed a new contract with the Knicks—twisted quickly into controversy about what this self-absorbed individual had done to the team this time.
It’s much ado about nothing, really. No team is going to do a deal without full research, especially in this case, where Smith was already seen by the Knicks’ own medical staff throughout the season. Both parties wanted to be together, so after the understandable posturing, it happened.
The better question is whether New York fundamentally erred in not realizing that re-signing Smith, their second-best scoring option last season and the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, only continues what is clearly wrong with them.
Backlash against Smith comes with the territory of how he carries himself. It’s worth wondering in this era of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin whether there’s still an intrinsic stigma attached to Smith for the way he looks.
Newly acquired forward Andrea Bargnani has actually played a game far more contrary to the team concept than Smith, yet being a seven-foot Italian shot-forcer carries the connotation of being soft as opposed to ruthlessly hard-headed and selfish.
Bargnani has rather amazingly averaged 1.3 assists in more than 30 minutes per game for his career. There’s a positional variance, of course, but Smith has averaged 2.1 in 25-plus minutes for his career.
The Knicks overachieved with Carmelo Anthony growing as a leader, but they are shaping up to be an awfully interesting case study for selfish offense with their top four offensive threats now all notorious ball-stoppers. Although Amar’e Stoudemire will be limited by his knees, “STAT” clocks in with a career average at 1.4 assists in 34 minutes and can do less than ever.
There is some logic to having Bargnani as a floor-spacer when Anthony is so powerful in the post. But no one should gloss over the clear limitations in Anthony’s attack that Mike D’Antoni couldn’t rectify and Mike Woodson doesn’t address.
For comparison’s sake, consider that Kevin Durant’s assist average has increased the past three years: 2.7 to 3.5 to 4.6. Anthony’s has gone from 3.0 to 3.6 and then back down to 2.6 with Woodson.
The reason there is an inherent bias against ball-dominating gunners is that NBA history shows that the best playoff teams rarely depend on that kind of awkwardly individual offense. The game is at its most beautiful with some flow to go along with specific player pyrotechnics, and in that sense, the issue with the Knicks runs far deeper than whether they overpaid Smith when he had knee problems.
No matter how much Smith’s knee was hurting him in the playoffs, the Pacers showed in the second round how easy it is for an outstanding defensive team to smother a limited offense in a postseason series.
In the critical Games 3 and 4 in Indiana, the Knicks scored 71 and 82 points, respectively, and they lost both. Anthony’s assist-to-turnover ratio in those games was 2-to-7 and he shot 39 percent from the field. Smith didn’t have an assist in either game and shot 32 percent.
It’s not just the nearby Nets that the Knicks have to worry about in the Eastern Conference; there’s no rational way to project New York to be better than Miami, Chicago or Indiana without a big uptick in offensive flow.
That’s where the undertone was coming from in Phil Jackson’s tweet to Metta World Peace’s signing:
@mettaworldpeace going home to NYC and the Knicks. Best wishes, Ronnie, will be rooting for you. They’ll need your D.— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) July 15, 2013
World Peace can help Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert make this a better defense. What goes unspoken there is that World Peace is, alas, another individual-offense offender who will go on his own forays with the ball at any time. There might not be anyone in the NBA today who thinks he can do more on offense than World Peace believes he is capable of.
The ultimate challenge will lie with the guy who really can do so much, Anthony, to expand his game again—including on defense—to lift the Knicks to an elite level. It’ll also be essential for Bargnani, who fits the description of a post-hype sleeper, to improve in rebounding and team defense at least to token-effort levels while rediscovering his scoring touch.
As far as Smith and Stoudemire go, well, it’s pretty much unimaginable for them to broaden their styles at this point.
And really, there shouldn’t be anything automatically damning about being a player, regardless of his appearance, who possesses daring confidence on offense. But if the Knicks are going to play with all these guys who simply don’t know how to share the ball, it’s not going to look pretty.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.