In a season full of struggle, rumors and heartbreak, the New York Knicks need some stability within their team.
What they don't need is J.R. Smith.
After cashing in on his 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year award with a three-year deal worth nearly $18 million over the summer, Smith has been absolutely atrocious. Through his first 20 games of the season, he’s given New York just 11 points a night while shooting under 34 percent from the field.
At his best, Smith is an elite talent. And throughout his career, the nine-year veteran has done enough good to make up for the bad that comes with his game. This season, that has not been the case.
It’s time for Mike Woodson to give up the pipe dream of turning Smith into a consistently productive player. Woody is coaching for his life right now, and he’s got two young studs who are much better suited for this Knicks team—both at the moment and down the line.
Like Smith, Iman Shumpert has not lived up to expectations this season. Both guards were expected to emerge as the Knicks’ top scorers after Carmelo Anthony, but as of Dec. 20, Smith and Shumpert were combining for under 20 points a game.
Shumpert has struggled to find his role in New York this season, and his offensive production has suffered because of it. But unlike Smith, Shumpert actually plays something called defense, a term relatively unfamiliar to J.R.
Against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 13, Smith attempted just one shot in 26 minutes. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported that the lone field-goal attempt was in retaliation to a heated exchanged with Woodson prior to the game. But even despite the spat, Woodson stuck with Smith down the stretch, and the Knicks lost in large part because of that decision.
Smith got burned by Jeff Green and the C's throughout the fourth quarter, even giving up a huge and-one as time dwindled down, while Shumpert rode the pine. But a night later against the Atlanta Hawks, Woodson wised up and played Shump in the fourth quarter—and sat Smith—as New York pulled off a 111-106 victory.
The Knicks simply play better with Shumpert on the floor than they do with Smith. In both contests against Boston and Atlanta, New York was in the negative with Smith in the game (minus-13, minus-five) and in the positive with Shump (plus-two, plus-25).
It’s possible to catch lightning in a bottle offensively with Smith, but if he isn’t scoring, the offense gets significantly bogged down while he’s on the floor. And even when Shumpert can’t get going offensively, his defense and effort can still be counted on.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
After playing like a star in the preseason, Tim Hardaway Jr. has turned himself into a huge part of the Knicks. Even Woodson, a hardheaded believer in seniority and experience over youth when it comes to playing time, has given the former Michigan stud the nod of approval.
Hardaway Jr. is averaging over eight points per game while shooting nearly 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point territory.
While his distributing (one assist) and rebounding (1.3 boards) aren’t noteworthy, New York’s offense is much more fluent with Hardaway Jr. on the floor. He’s displayed maturity beyond his years in letting the game come to him, firing when he’s open and not forcing up ridiculous shots.
(Speaking of ridiculous field-goal attempts, here’s Smith’s 2013-14 shot chart. In New York's Dec. 18 game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Smith hoisted up 17 three-pointers and connected on just five. Yes, he missed 12 three-pointers. And no, he doesn't care.)
The only problem with Hardaway’s rookie season—and it isn’t even within his control—has been his playing time. Through his first 24 professional games, Hardaway Jr. has played just over 17 minutes a night.
Despite the fact that Shumpert (28.3) and Smith (31.2) both nearly double Hardaway Jr.’s time on the court, the dynamo rookie has been significantly more productive on a per-36 minute basis.
According to Basketball-Reference, Hardaway Jr. has given the Knicks nearly 17 points per-36 minutes, which stands in stark comparison to Smith’s 12.7 and Shumpert’s 8.1.
ESPN New York's Ian Begley reported that the rookie's minutes could definitely grow thanks to his explosive performance through the season's first quarter.
Woodson suggested after the game that rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. could get more minutes in light of his strong play. Hardaway Jr. had 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting in 27 minutes against Atlanta. He also had four rebounds and three steals.
"Without a doubt that could happen," Woodson said when asked if Hardaway Jr.'s minutes could increase. "He was great tonight on both ends of the floor."
He’s young, raw and inexperienced, but Hardaway Jr. appears to be the real deal. It’s time to let him loose.
How to make it work
To say that Shumpert and Hardaway Jr. need more playing time doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith will ride the bench every game.
Ever since he was drafted out of high school at 19 years old, Smith has been one of the most erratic players in the NBA. When he’s feeling it, there’s no stopping him. But when he’s off, Smith has the ability to make coaches and fans alike pull their hair out.
How should Woodson handle the playing time dilemma?
Right now, the Knicks need stability and guys they can count on for production. In Shumpert and Hardaway Jr., that’s exactly what they’ll get.
The pair of athletic, young guards needs to be on the court in big spots. Smith can’t be trusted on a regular basis, so his minutes need to slide down to around 26 per game, but when he catches fire, Woodson can still ride him.
Anthony needs a consistent second scorer, and Smith is not the answer. But the combination of Shumpert and Hardaway Jr.—and an incline in their minutes—will give New York a balanced, more efficient product every night.
J.R. Smith had his moment last year. Now it’s time for Shumpert and Hardaway Jr. to have theirs.