Will NY Knicks Use JR Smith's Benching as Turning Point in Season?

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIJanuary 12, 2014

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 7:  Head Coach Mike Woodson of the New York Knicks talks with J.R. Smith #8 during a break in the action against the Cleveland Cavaliers at The Quicken Loans Arena on December 7, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The New York Knicks 2013-14 season has been a catastrophe when compared to the 54-28 finish the team posted a year ago, but head coach Mike Woodson’s decision to bench struggling guard J.R. Smith may act as a turning point for NY moving forward.

The New York Knicks are in the midst of a four-game winning streak highlighted by a 10-point victory over the 27-10 Miami Heat. In that game, Smith received a DNP-CD (did not play—coach’s decision).

Against Miami (sans Smith and an ill Tyson Chandler), the Knicks rallied by scoring 102 points on 53.7 percent shooting. Raymond Felton dished out 14 assists, Iman Shumpert grabbed nine rebounds to accompany four three-point makes, and the tandem of Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire combined to shoot 16-of-25 from the field for 33 points while grabbing 16 rebounds.

Woodson was finally able to inject vivacity into a team that has looked downright lifeless.

In response to getting benched, Smith said, “It’s the worst feeling in the world,” per ESPN New York’s Ian Begley.

Smith was fined $50,000 by the league for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct" after untying Shawn Marion's shoe on Jan. 5, then attempting the same hijinks on Greg Monroe of the Detroit Pistons two days later, per Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports.

While that slap on the wrist may not have been a deterrent for acting out in Smith’s mind, it’s clear that the benching got through to the 28-year-old.

The 10-year veteran returned to the court on Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers and played arguably his best game of the season. He finished with 14 points, draining 3-of-4 attempts from behind the arc and 5-of-8 shots overall (62.5 percent), which was his most efficient shooting game of the season by far.

Also, the Knicks outscored Philly by 20 points when Smith was on the floor.

“I thought he was a real pro tonight,” Carmelo Anthony said of Smith’s performance, per Begley’s article. “For him to bounce back the way he did today and obviously put that stuff behind him and move forward, that was big-time for him as a person.”

After Saturday’s 102-92 road win over the Sixers—New York’s fourth-straight victory—the Knicks sit just 0.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets (15-22) with a 14-22 record.

There’s still plenty of time left in the regular season, but the Knicks have a big opportunity ahead of them. Of their 10 remaining games in January, only three are against opponents with a winning record. Two of those three are the Phoenix Suns (who will be without Eric Bledsoe indefinitely following knee surgery) and the Los Angeles Clippers (who lost point guard Chris Paul to a separated shoulder).

Smith has been awful this season by averaging 11.4 points per game on a career-low 35.4 percent shooting clip. At least for the time being, however, Woodson’s decision to threaten Smith’s minutes by benching him appears to have lit a fire under his rear end.

I’m not convinced that the Knicks will be able to compete in the 2014 playoffs from what they’ve shown so far—nobody should be. However, Woodson has extracted some life from his roster, which has led to a season-high four-game win streak.

The Knicks still have to climb an uphill battle to solidify a playoff spot in the East, but the decision to bench Smith is already paying big dividends.

Not only did the guard’s performance bring flashbacks to the 2012-13 season, but the Knicks are also distancing themselves from the “circus” label by taking disciplinary action and moving forward.

Even though Smith’s level of play to this point has frustrated the fan base, the Knicks (and Smith) are showing signs of a turnaround.