What do the New York Knicks and TNT have in common? Both of them know drama,and all too well in the case of the former.
No team has a seemingly tougher time bringing hobbled pieces back into the fold.
Two seasons ago, New York found lightning in a bottle with Jeremy Lin. But his rise coincided with injuries to both Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, and the team never found its footing once all three players were back in action. Lin found a new basketball home in Houston the ensuing offseason.
One year later, it was Stoudemire's turn to play the role of awkward returner. Hobbled at the start of the 2012-13 season by an offseason knee procedure, Stoudemire struggled to find his place alongside the suddenly post-oriented Anthony. Stoudemire managed just 23.5 minutes a night, more than 10 fewer than his career average (34.3).
Now that role falls on the shoulders of J.R. Smith. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year had a tumultuous summer, amazing in a way considering he managed to ink a three-year, $17 million contract this offseason. But, then again, these are the Knicks we're talking about, so amazement is never hard to find.
Limited both by a five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug program and his own knee surgery, he's been unavailable for the Knicks' (1-2) first three games of the year. After his Knicks play a two-game set with the Charlotte Bobcats, Smith will be free to return for Sunday's home tilt with the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs.
Not exactly the best way to ease back in the action, is it?
But could Smith be facing a bigger challenge than an excruciatingly long night butting heads with staunch Spurs defenders Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard? Or will his return push a different member of New York's crowded backcourt out of the rotation?
Rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who's filled New York's sixth man role in Smith's absence, won't go down without a fight. Although he's struggled finding his range (.333/.214), the former Michigan standout has impressed both his new coach and his new teammates.
"His work ethic, how much time he puts in," Anthony told Kerber, "it pays off and shows when he gets on the basketball court."
Still, he may be the odd man out in Woodson's backcourt rotation. Hardaway, Iman Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni have all seen time at Smith's shooting guard spot.
This much already seems clear—Smith won't be fighting for minutes. Absent a reliable secondary scorer, Anthony's seen his efficiency marks dragged down to the treacherous realm of volume scoring. He still leads the team with 21.0 points per game, but his field-goal percentage (37.7) is at a career low and his three-point shooting isn't far behind (26.7).
Smith's been called many things in his playing days, none of which was reliable. But the mere threat of his hot nights—he scored 20 or more points 29 times last season—is scarier than anything his backcourt mates bring to the table.
The time he's spent away from the floor might actually help him find a more stable temperature in 2013-14. He told Marc Berman of the New York Post—in what can only be called a that's-so-New-York-kind of quote—that his suspension could be a blessing in disguise:
It worked out kind of good, getting healthier, getting my mechanics down, focused on the knee getting to 100 percent as much as I can. I’m trying to look at it in a positive way, getting more time to practice and prepare.
If nothing else, his time off allowed Shumpert to prove he's ready for an expanded offensive role (11.7 points per game, .444/.364/1.000 shooting slash). It also helped Andrea Bargnani find his niche as a complementary scorer (9.7 points, 50.0 percent shooting from the field), which should keep him active even when Smith starts stealing some of his shots.
Smith is a shooter above all else. But despite New York's offensive struggles (24th in offensive efficiency, 95.0 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com), the Knicks need Smith's floor game more than they need his perimeter stroke (career 36.7 percent).
If he can maintain the aggressiveness that he showed last season while attempting a career-high 3.9 free-throws per game, New York can pull attention away from its floor spacers. Right now, there just isn't a reason to do anything but crowd the Knicks marksmen.
Prigioni (50.0) and Raymond Felton (26.3) are the only players taking more than 15 percent of their field-goal attempts off of drives to the basket, via NBAWowy.com. Tyson Chandler's never been a real offensive threat, and the team's top scoring options in the post (Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin) are both working under medically imposed minutes restrictions.
Smith's one of the few players on the roster who can buck that trend. When he fights the urge to fire shots well beyond the three-point line, he has the handles to break down his defender and the explosiveness to finish plays above the rim.
Just 11.4 percent of his field-goal attempts came on drives to the rack last season, via NBAWowy.com, but his aggressiveness was an asset whenever he allowed it to be. Smith's top-two scoring months in 2012-13 (22.1 points per game in March, 22.0 in April) were also his most active months at the free-throw line (6.0 and 4.5 free-throw attempts per game, respectively).
It's that same aggression that appears to be lacking with these Knicks.
Who should lose playing time upon Smith's return?
New York is tied for the 10th-most three-point attempts in the NBA (23.0) despite having the 23rd-ranked attack from beyond the arc (30.4 percent). Only the Spurs have attempted fewer free throws (12.7 per game) than the Knicks (14.7).
Smith might not the secondary scorer that Anthony wanted, but he's the most capable player on this roster of filling that role.
If Knicks owner James Dolan wants to even entertain championship thoughts—outlandish as they may be, they're still a better alternative than meddling in the dance team affairs—Smith has to factor heavily in Woodson's rotation.
Even if it means delaying Hardaway's development and cutting into the rook's playing time. Or breaking up the shared floor time of Prigioni and Felton.
Anthony's still the engine that drives this Knicks team, but Smith can be the accelerator. Who knows, maybe this mandatory time away from the floor will even help him avoid the stop-and-go production that has plagued his efficiency in seasons past.
Stranger things have happened in the Big Apple before.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.