J.R. Smith's on-court game has always been a mixed bag, punctuated as often by terrible shot selection as breathtaking scoring binges. But now that Smith is becoming a bigger off-court distraction than ever, the New York Knicks may soon find themselves looking for a way to cut ties with their troublesome shooting guard.
Smith's latest transgression, a five-game ban for violating the NBA's anti-drug program, means he could wind up missing as much as the first month of the 2013-14 season. Remember, Smith also underwent knee surgery that could cost him a few weeks to start the year. Tack on that five-game ban and Smith might not see the court until December.
In 2009, Smith earned a seven-game ban and 24 days in jail after a car accident resulted in the death of one of the passengers in his vehicle. In 2006, the league forced him to sit out 10 games for his part in the brawl between the Knicks and Denver Nuggets.
And, of course, he was suspended for Game 4 of the Knicks' first-round series against the Boston Celtics last year for elbowing Jason Terry in the face.
It's been a bumpy ride for Smith since he came into the league, and his knack for undesirable headlines is nearly peerless among his NBA contemporaries. Last year, though, he enjoyed his best season as a pro during the most successful Knicks campaign in more than a decade. So Smith ducked most of the bad press his extracurriculars would have otherwise warranted.
But if his play slips upon his return and/or the Knicks get off to a slow start, Smith will find himself in the crosshairs of an unforgiving New York media contingent faster than he can pull the trigger on a 25-foot step-back jumper.
Will the Knicks be willing to put up with Smith's antics if he can't produce at a level that matches his career-best 2012-13 season? Perhaps not.
What About the Deal?
This is the part where you should start questioning the likelihood of the Knicks dumping Smith just a few weeks after inking him to a three-year, $18 million deal—which, by the way, has a 15-percent trade kicker, per Shamsports.com.
Remember, though, that the Knicks signed Smith largely because they didn't have many better options. Cash-strapped and unable to offer free agents anything more than a piece of the mid-level exception or the veteran's minimum, New York figured its best option was to retain Smith at a heftier price by using its Bird rights on him.
According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the Knicks may have made the decision to sign Smith with the idea of trading him down the line.
That’s exactly what the Brooklyn Nets did with Kris Humphries. When Humphries was a free agent last year, the Nets didn’t necessarily want to bring him back. But they had his Bird rights and couldn’t spend the same amount of money on another team’s free agent. So they signed Humphries to a two-year, $24 million contract, with the idea that they could eventually trade him for another player making similar money.
Maybe that's been the plan all along. Maybe the Knicks knew they'd already gotten the best of Smith and they signed him with an eye toward selling him off in short order. If that's the case, Smith's continued screwups won't make moving him any easier.
But there's something else that could prevent the Knicks from dealing him: his grossly overblown value as a scorer.
At this point in his career, Smith is a known commodity. Defensively, he's erratic. And as a rebounder and a facilitator, he's below average. Put simply, he's a guy who the Knicks value because he puts the ball in the basket.
Scoring is what he does.
But according to ESPN, Smith ranked 87th in the NBA last season in points per shot. So if all he gives the Knicks is scoring, shouldn't he generate points a bit more efficiently? And remember, the 2012-13 season was arguably Smith's most productive.
If the best he can do as a pure scorer is 87th in the league, the Knicks are eventually going to realize that his best isn't enough. Of course, New York traded for Andrea Bargnani over the summer as well, so maybe it's not all that concerned with offensive efficiency.
Granted, there's some intangible value in the ability to create shots when the clock is winding down or the offense has otherwise stalled. Bad field-goal attempts are better than shot clock violations.
With Smith, though, his penchant for wasting perfectly good possessions by stopping the ball and firing off ill-advised flings pretty much cancels out his value as a desperation option. And that's really the problem with Smith: Too often, he acts as though all of his touches require some kind of heroic heave.
The Out Date
Because the Knicks used their Early Bird rights on Smith, they can't trade him until Jan. 15, 2014, per Schuhmann. A number of factors—Smith's knee, his ability to stay out of the news cycle and the team's overall performance, just to name a few—will inform the Knicks' decision on what to do with their headache of a shooting guard.
If the team starts out well and Smith stays out of trouble, there's a good chance that he'll stick around in New York all year. But if he winds up making headlines for the wrong reasons again, or looks more like the version of himself that tanked in last season's playoffs, he could wind up on the trading block well before the league's February deadline.
Now that Metta World Peace is on the roster, it's possible that the Knicks could shift Iman Shumpert to shooting guard on a full-time basis. In that scenario, a combination of Pablo Prigioni and rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr. could step in to absorb the reserve minutes at the 2.
With Smith sure to miss time to start the season, the Knicks are going to get a look at how life could be without him.
If head coach Mike Woodson and general manager Glen Grunwald like what they see, Smith's departure becomes all the more likely.
Realistically, the Knicks probably can't get equal value for Smith until he proves he can play at something approaching last season's level while also staying out of trouble. That means he's likely going to remain in New York—at least through this season.
Of course, if he manages to get himself into a few more serious off-court scrapes, or makes any more boneheaded moves on Twitter, the Knicks could get desperate.
It's appropriate that Smith's future is totally unpredictable, don't you think?