Let's forget about the whole don't-draw-causation-from-correlation rule for a second.
As he developed into the shooting guard who would eventually win Sixth Man of the Year, the Knicks followed suit. They rose in the Eastern Conference standings—both in terms of reputation and record—and were eventually viewed as a squad that could challenge the Miami Heat in a playoff series.
But then he went ice cold in the playoffs and effectively killed their momentum. Unsurprisingly, the Knicks bowed out at the hands of an Eastern power.
That momentum hasn't been regained during the 2013-14 season, not for Smith, and certainly not for the Madison Square Garden residents.
It's a strange coincidence, and it may just be a major cause of the Knicks' struggles.
Decline Last Season
Smith played absolutely fantastic basketball throughout the 2012-13 campaign. Well, the regular season, at least.
There's a reason he was awarded the Sixth Man of the Year Award, and it all starts with the numbers he posted: 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.3 blocks per game on 42.2 percent shooting from the field. He also improved throughout the year and was playing sensational offensive basketball by the time the playoffs rolled around.
But that quickly changed.
You know it's never good when Marc Berman of the New York Post writes a sentence like this: "So Smith’s struggles weren’t only about his sharp elbow in the Celtics series, alleged hangover and viral infection."
Smith was apparently sick during the 2013 postseason, but he was also plagued by a knee injury. The elbow being referred to is the one you can see below:
And after that move, which left Smith suspended for Game 4, the wheels fell off.
Game 4 was a seven-point loss to the Boston Celtics, and then New York eventually closed out the series 4-2 after winning each of the first three games. During Games 5 and 6, Smith averaged 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists, but he also shot only 29.6 percent from the field.
Amazingly enough, his 37.5 percent shooting was his highest mark for the portion of the playoffs that came after his one-game suspension.
In fact, take a gander at how his shooting percentages progressed throughout the postseason, and you can see how quickly things fell apart:
The Indiana Pacers' suffocating defense presumably had something to do with the decline, but a talented scorer like Smith should have been able to post at least one decent line over the course of a six-game series.
Instead, the mercurial 2-guard averaged 13.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 28.9 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from beyond the three-point arc and 74.1 percent at the charity stripe.
The Knicks would've been better off if he hadn't shot at all. Certainly, 13.5 points per game might seem valuable, but not when the player producing the buckets needs a boatload of shots to get there. It's like the Rudy Gay problem taken to an extreme.
But was the drama over?
What do you think?
The Issues Continue
Smith opted out of his contract, and then no one knew exactly what was going to happen. Although it was widely assumed that he'd be returning to the Knicks, there was no guarantee of that happening.
Eventually, he re-signed with the team, much to the surprise of absolutely no one. The deal—$18 million over the course of three years with a player option for the fourth—seemed perfectly fine at the time. That changed as soon as Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling, then with ESPN New York, reported the unfortunate news.
According to Zwerling, Smith "had patellar tendon surgery and an arthroscopy for a tear in the lateral meniscus of his left knee." The recovery time was expected to leave him right on the brink of returning for the season-opener.
Oh, and the Knicks knew about the injury before offering him a new contract:
One more clarification: the #Knicks say they knew about JR Smith's knee condition before they re-signed him to new deal.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) July 16, 2013
Soon after, the dream of returning without missing a game was shattered.
Smith was suspended five games for substance abuse, so he obviously wasn't going to be playing during the first contest of the 2013-14 campaign. As Berman reported, the shooting guard tried to view the suspension as a positive.
Even if he successfully met that goal, it would be the last positive.
After his drama-filled offseason served as a microcosm for the Knicks' overall problems, his struggles on the court have done the same during the actual season.
Summing up all of the negative developments during the 2013-14 campaign would take a lifetime. The Knicks have been one of the most embarrassing teams in the league, falling down to the basement of the standings and bottoming out with a 41-point loss to the Boston Celtics.
Mike Woodson's job isn't secure. Carmelo Anthony's shot won't fall. Iman Shumpert's name is constantly tossed about in trade rumors. James Dolan is James Dolan. Tyson Chandler got hurt. Etc, etc.
Oh, and Smith has been absolutely awful. Just as the Knicks rose to prominence last year while he was balling out, their ship has sunk along with his shooting percentages.
I tried to break down what was wrong with Smith earlier in the year, and it wasn't an easy task. At the heart of his problems is the injured knee, as it's sapping his explosiveness and forcing him into settling for jumpers instead of attacking the hoop.
But there's also a confidence problem here, and his shooting stroke might need to be tweaked at this point.
Through 17 games, the shooting guard is averaging only 10.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, and it gets worse. Smith is shooting 34.2 percent from the field, 33.3 percent beyond the arc and 65.5 percent at the charity stripe. It's the last number that makes me question his confidence more than anything else.
New York has to stick with him, though.
It's not like Woodson has another option that he can throw out onto the court and rely on. There just aren't many shot-creators other than Smith and 'Melo on the Knicks roster, especially since the goatee-clad coach seems intent on wrecking Shumpert's development.
As Smith goes, so too do the Knicks.
Is there a guarantee that this will suddenly change?
We might want to assume it will, based solely on his history and reputation. Smith is only a year removed from winning a major award, and he's been a developing source of offense throughout his career.
He and Woodson also enjoy a close relationship, and the currently troubled head coach was able to maximize Smith's output last season. For the first time in a while, the 2-guard committed on defense and coupled his offensive numbers with great work on the glass.
But as a history teacher of mine once said, "When you assume, you make an (insert alternate word for donkey) out of you and me." If you don't get it, I'm sorry.
Right now, there's more risk than reward in the realm of assumptions.
Even Woodson is hesitant to declare an upcoming turnaround on behalf of the often outspoken member of the struggling Knicks roster. Here's what he had to say on ESPN Radio, as relayed by Berman:
J.R. has had his struggles. I don’t think he’s still 100 percent. I don’t know if he’ll ever be this season based on the surgery he had this offseason. I have to be patient with him. I still expect him in the minutes he plays, he’s got to contribute more.
Yikes. Far from a ringing endorsement. As B/R's Zach Buckley wrote, "New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson sits atop a raging inferno every night, but even he can't find a spark for struggling gunner J.R. Smith."
Will J.R. Smith get back on track?
Maybe Woodson is managing expectations. Maybe he's telling the truth.
Regardless, it's a terrifying statement because it's essentially an admission that he might not round into form at all during the 2013-14 season. Smith's game goes as his knee goes, and the Knicks go as Smith goes.
One onomatopoeiac phrase can sum everything up at this point.
For more musings about Smith's knees and other NBA topics, follow me on Twitter.