New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson and his staff must figure out how to compensate for the absence of guard J.R. Smith during the early part of the season. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is expected to be sidelined until at least mid-October after undergoing surgery on his left knee in July. Once healthy, he will serve a five-game suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy.
Smith was a de facto starter last season, playing 33.5 minutes per night, and the team's second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. The former Denver Nugget is one of the few Knicks who can create his own shot and is adept at breaking down defenses with dribble penetration.
Smith was particularly impressive late in the 2012-13 season, when he made a point of taking the ball to the basket instead of settling for outside shots. He averaged 22.5 points on 47.3 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent from behind the arc over his last 20 games (via NBA.com), during which the Knicks won 13 in a row.
That type of production is difficult to replace.
Smith's absence will have a ripple effect on the Knicks rotation. Woodson, who indicated over the summer that he has not settled on a starting unit, may be compelled to go away from the two-point-guard lineup that was so successful for New York last season due to a lack of depth at 2-guard, at least until J.R. returns.
Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton are locks to start, with Pablo Prigioni, who finished last season as a starter, one of the favorites to grab the fifth spot. However, if Prigioni and Shumpert are both in the starting lineup, the only 2-guard on the bench would be rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who may not be ready for big minutes early in his first season.
Woodson was likely considering switching to a bigger lineup prior to Smith's injury. New York struggled to match up with a physical Indiana Pacer team in the playoffs last season, and three of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, Indiana, the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets, have big front lines.
With the additions of Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani, and hopefully a healthy Amar'e Stoudemire, Woodson now has the personnel to play a bigger lineup.
He can start World Peace at the 3 or slide Anthony to small forward and play Bargnani at the 4. With the Knicks short on wing players while Smith is out, it is most likely to be the latter.
Replacing Smith's scoring will be trickier than doling out his minutes. The mercurial shooting guard is the No. 1 option for the Knicks' second unit and carried the team for stretches offensively last season. He had a 24.4 usage rate and hoisted 15.6 shots per game (via NBA.com).
Who will take those shots while he is out?
J.R. Smith's 2012-13 shot distribution chart, courtesy of NBA.com
Anthony already carries too much of the load. The star forward had the highest usage rate in the league last season (32.2, via ESPN.com).
Stoudemire and Bargnani are two candidates to see more opportunities. They have averaged 21.3 and 15.2 points, respectively, over their careers, and each has experience as a go-to scorer.
However, the Knicks do not want to lean too heavily on either player.
Stoudemire has an extensive injury history, including two knee surgeries last season, and Bargnani is trying to regain his confidence after a dismal end to his tenure with the Raptors.
Stoudemire is the more likely of the two to pick up shots. Amar'e will definitely be working with the second unit. He is capable of creating his own shot in the post and scoring off of pick-and-rolls, whereas Bargnani will serve primarily as a spot-up shooter. Stoudemire is also more comfortable in a featured role.
Yet Stoudemire alone is not enough to compensate for the loss of Smith. New York will need greater production from their wing players, specifically Shumpert.
The third-year guard is an excellent on-ball defender and had some impressive offensive spurts during his first two seasons, but his growth on that end of the floor was stymied by a torn ACL at the end of his rookie year and a lack of training camp thus far in his career. The lockout in 2011 led to an abbreviated preseason, and his recovery from surgery kept him sidelined during training camp and the early part of last season.
Shump developed into a deep threat in his second season, improving his three-point shooting percentage from 30.6 in his rookie year to 40.2. The next step in his offensive evolution is to elevate his field goal percentage (just 39.6 last season) and attack the basket with greater frequency and efficiency.
Shumpert is quick off the dribble and an exceptional athlete, yet he averaged a mere 1.0 free-throw attempts per game last season. He struggled to score when he did penetrate. As seen below, via NBA.com, Shump converted just 40.9 percent of his shots around the rim in 2012-13.
Shumpert's inability to finish can be attributed in part to his recovery from major surgery. He looked more comfortable on the court as the season progressed and his shooting numbers improved accordingly. As seen below, via NBA.com, Shumpert shot 45.1 percent from the field and 50 percent around the rim over his last 20 regular-season games.
However, Shumpert's improved accuracy did not translate to a more aggressive approach. His usage rate (14.9) was essentially the same over that span (14.8) and he continued to average a microscopic .9 free throws per game, via NBA.com.
Expect Shumpert to be more assertive this season, especially with Smith out of the lineup. New York can further incorporate the young shooting guard into the offense by featuring him in more pick-and-roll situations.
According to Synergy Sports, 9.7 percent of Shump's offensive plays last season were as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll. Forty-one percent were spot-up shots. By comparison, 20.6 percent of Smith's plays were as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll and 20.3 percent spot-ups.
Shumpert is not as skilled of a ball-handler as Smith, though he should be able to use his quickness to get into the paint off pick-and-rolls.
The Knicks will struggle to score at times without Smith, though they should be able to minimize the damage by playing a bigger lineup and expanding Stoudemire and Shumpert's offensive roles.