What's Wrong with J.R. Smith?

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 3, 2013

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The New York Knicks weren't supposed to be one of the worst teams in the NBA, and J.R. Smith was expected to be a quality contributor during the follow-up to his Sixth Man of the Year campaign. 

So much for that. 

Nothing has gone according to plan in Madison Square Garden, and Smith in particular has struggled immensely. Eleven games into his 2013-14 season, the ice-cold 2-guard has averaged only 11.7 points and 2.0 assists per contest while shooting a putrid 33.1 percent from the field. 

Obviously, that's not what Mike Woodson and the rest of the N.Y. coaching staff was looking for. Not at all. 

Something isn't right here, and it's time to figure out what that something could be. 


Bad Jumper

Dec 1, 2013; New York, NY, USA;   New York Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith (8) shoots a free throw during the second quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

It all starts with the jumper for Smith. 

If his shot is falling from the perimeter, he becomes a much more dangerous player, one whom the opposition must both respect and fear. But if he's drawing more iron than net, there's no reason for defenses to do anything other than sag off and let him put his poor shot selection on display. 

That's been at the heart of Smith's problems in 2013-14, as he just can't remain on target for more than a shot at a time.

When Peter Botte penned an article for the New York Daily News following the Knicks' eighth loss in a row, he wrote this about the beleaguered 2-guard: "Smith scored 11 points but shot just 1-for-7 from three-point range as he struggles to rediscover his stroke following summertime knee surgery and a five-game suspension for violating the NBA's drug policy."

Between the knee injury and the suspension, Smith hasn't been able to get into any sort of rhythm, which is awfully problematic for such a hot-and-cold player. 

Hot-and-cold players (the Katy Perrys of the NBA, if you will) have value. Cold-and-colder ones don't typically tend to stick around in big roles, even if they're coming off campaigns that left them with the Sixth Man of the Year award.  

In 2012-13, Smith hit 35.6 percent of his looks from beyond the arc and 45.8 percent inside it. Now, take a look at how those numbers have trended during the early portion of the 2013-14 campaign: 


It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that's bad. 

Smith admitted to Botte that his knee was the cause of some of his woes, but he also delivered one more telling quote: "My jumper just hasn't been there. That's situations where I got to make my teammates better, get guys open shots and keep driving to the hole. But one thing, I'm not going to stop shooting."

Of course.

Of course, J.R. Smith isn't going to stop shooting. 

Nov 29, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8) shoots the ball during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

As B/R's Dan Favale wrote, "Smith shoots. Almost exclusively. He was brought to New York midway through the 2011-12 campaign because he could shoot. Which he has. And score. Which he hasn't."

The volume of shots he's taken for the reeling Knicks is just as problematic as the ineffective stroke, as he's receiving way too much negative reinforcement when he lets fly. It's not good for Smith to be averaging a career-high 6.5 triples per game while shooting worse than he has since his rookie season for the New Orleans Hornets

If the shots aren't there, don't take them. 

It's as simple as that. Smith is shooting the ball poorly and averaging fewer field-goal attempts per 36 minutes than he has since joining the Knicks, but he's firing away with reckless abandon from downtown. 

That's just not a recipe for success. 


Can't Get Anything Else

We've all been there, whether in person or in front of our televisions, and witnessed Smith hitting an absolutely ridiculous shot like the one you can see up above. 

Maybe it's that type of Gerald Green-esque athletic dunk. Maybe it's a pull-up jumper during a 1-on-4 fast break. Maybe it's a falling-away three-pointer over a defender at the end of the shot clock. 

Smith just has a knack for hitting incredible shots that only he would dream of taking, and it's not like he limits himself to one area of the court. He's a valuable scorer because he can light up the scoreboard from all areas of the court. 

The 2-guard typically creates looks for himself in mid-range areas, cuts to the basket both with and without the ball, hits his shots from downtown and attacks the rim with reckless abandon. 


Take a look at his shot distribution last season: 


And now, the one from the early portion of the 2013-14 season: 



Not only is the percentage ugly in the latter graph, but so too is the distribution. The shots just aren't spread around the entire court like they were during the SMOY outings. Instead, they're clustered around the three-point arc, and there's a scary lack of activity from the areas Smith has typically thrived in. 

In fact, he's breaking a trend that he's established over the last few years, courtesy of Basketball-Reference: 


As he's matured, Smith has been less reliant on his three-point shooting. Instead, he's played to his strengths and harnessed his remarkable athletic talents, using them to his advantage on bursts to the basket.

You can see that represented up above by the changing disparity of two- and three-point attempts. Notice how the orange portion is trending over the recent portion of his career? 

Well, until this year. 

Smith either isn't mentally committed to putting up shots from all areas of the court or isn't physically able to get by his defenders. It would take him answering that question accurately to get the true reason, and that's about as unlikely as him spending 30 minutes on the court without taking a single field-goal attempt. 

But until his shot distribution changes, we'll continue watching him shoot brick after brick. 

And when Smith is serving as a bricklayer, he's helping build a wall between New York and one of the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.