Where Does J.R. Smith Fit on This NY Knicks Team?

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Where Does J.R. Smith Fit on This NY Knicks Team?
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J.R. Smith may be in line for a spot in the Knicks' starting five.

J.R. Smith may be gunning for a starting job, but he would best serve the New York Knicks by coming off the bench again.

Smith told Ian Begley of ESPN New York that he is more than willing to defend his Sixth Man of the Year title, but that he would choose to be a starter.

I've always wanted to start. Everybody knows that. I won the Sixth Man [Award] last year, so I felt as though there's nothing left to prove at the sixth-man spot.

But at the same time, if that's what my team needs me to do, that's what I'll do. If Coach wants me to be a sixth man, I'll be a sixth man. If he wants me to start, I'll start. That's up to him.

The Knicks' rotation is still up in the air, and Smith's role in it is particularly unclear. He is still rehabbing after having surgery on his left knee over the summer, so he can't even compete directly against Iman Shumpert for the shooting guard spot.

There has been no indication that Woodson is interested in starting three guards in 2013-14 as he did much of last season, so Smith would have to unseat Shump to join the first unit.

Playing a dynamic scorer over a lockdown defender would be a bold stylistic choice for the Knicks, a team with plenty of offensive options. That decision would single-handedly shape New York's strategy for the season.

 

Smith as a Starter

For the purposes of this argument, let's assume that Raymond Felton, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler all stay in the starting lineup, joined by newcomer Andrea Bargnani at power forward.

There is definitely something tantalizing about playing J.R. with such a scoring-heavy group.

When they're willing to work for position instead of settling for mid-range jumpers, Melo and Smith can blow by their men at will. Ditto for Bargnani when he's facing plodding bigs and takes them off the bounce. Add in Felton's superb pick-and-roll play with Chandler, and every man on the floor is capable of getting high-percentage looks.

Furthermore, all four penetrators on the floor for New York can also rain threes from beyond the arc when they're open.

When every shooter is also a threat to drive, the opposing defense has to take a collective step in towards the basket in order to protect the paint. By adding Smith to the mix, the three-point opportunities become that much easier.

But he also makes defending more difficult.

Somehow, Smith is the second-best defender in this group. Chandler anchors the unit with no help from Bargnani, who is a sieve, to put it politely. Anthony is inattentive and especially poor at rotating on the perimeter, while Felton is too slow to be more than average.

That leaves J.R., who can use his athleticism to lock guys down in spurts but lacks the discipline to do so consistently.

That also means Shumpert joins Metta World Peace to form a particularly staunch defensive tandem off the bench. While that arrangement can give Mike Woodson some flexibility later in games, it also sets up Shump and Metta to match up against some lesser offensive players, which would diminish their impact.

As attractive as an imbalanced rotation with Smith starting might look, it comes with complications.

 

Smith off the Bench

Starting Shumpert gives the Knicks another plus defender in the opening minutes, but there's also a quiet need for Smith's scoring in the second unit.

The only other Knick off the bench defenses need to worry about is Amar'e Stoudemire.

With his knees a question mark and an aching body, STAT is too brittle to really exert himself on the court anymore. He's good for a brief injection of offense, but he's a massive defensive liability at his healthiest.

As for the guys more directly competing for J.R.'s touches, Pablo Prigioni is occasionally allergic to shooting, Beno Udrih is nothing special and Tim Hardaway, Jr. is a rookie who'll need time before becoming a major contributor.

Sacrificing defense in the starting lineup and putting Shump with that unit would hamstring Woodson's ability to make sure his backcourt can score for all 48 minutes. The coach would be playing a boom-or-bust game, relying on short spurts with J.R. and the starters while crossing his fingers that the bench guys don't screw anything up.

The offense-heavy starting lineup is only viable if Woodson believes Shumpert can function as a bench scorer. He made great strides as a three-point shooter in 2012-13, hitting over 40 percent of his tries, and he had an offseason to work on harnessing his athletic ability after losing the last one to a torn ACL.

But if a rejuvenated Shump can complement his shooting with an offensive game off the bounce, then why bother playing him off the bench? That version of Shumpert becomes something like what Kawhi Leonard was for the San Antonio Spurs during the 2013 playoffs, adding more and more offensive tools while continuing to provide lockdown D.

Worst-case scenario, Smith should come off the bench just for equilibrium's sake.

And even if Shumpert is improved enough to handle greater offensive responsibility, that's all the more reason to start him over Smith.

 

Trading Smith

There is a third scenario in which the Knicks deal Smith in early 2014, but it's neither realistic nor wise.

As maddening as J.R. can be when he's bricking long two after long two, New York could never get equal value for his talent. He has too much history of erratic play and contentious relationships with coaches. A big part of Smith's success in New York is due to his affinity for Woodson, which could dissuade potential buyers who are unable to offer that bond.

Yes, the Knicks could use an athletic, two-way big or a rangy, defensive point guard, but they also need a wing who can create his own shot and put up 18.1 points per game. Even if Shumpert makes a leap, they need Smith and his scoring.

Trading him for one area of need just opens up another.

Smith has so much ability, and no one will likely ever figure out how to harness it completely. If that happened, Smith could be an All-Star, a prospect that motivates the Knicks to consider him for an even larger role.

But the Knicks should be just as concerned about his inconsistency as any of the other 29 teams in the league that might trade for him. When Woodson played Smith off the bench, it allowed the coach to utilize that immense talent under more controlled circumstances. Despite the allure of capitalizing more on J.R. in some way, the best course of action is to stick with what has worked.

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