New York came into the matchup riding a five-game winning streak, which included victories over strong teams like the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. Charlotte played its first home game in a week, going just 2-8 over the last 10 games. Yet, the Bobcats still managed to thwart the Knicks, 108-98, and it could spell trouble going forward for New York.
The Knicks defense still has a ways to go.
For the month of January, New York has allowed opponents to score 98.2 points on 45.9 percent shooting. That isn't a terrible defensive effort, but it needs to be much stronger if the Knicks wish to contend in the Eastern Conference.
New York did have Tyson Chandler back (illness), but he played just 16 minutes en route to five points, four rebounds and a block. He has long been the team's defensive anchor and will likely help in this department, but the Knicks cannot rely solely on Chandler to keep the defense active.
Bobcats center Al Jefferson went off for 35 points (14-of-20 field-goal shooting) and eight rebounds, with Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson providing 25 points and 17 points, respectively. Charlotte shot 50.7 percent from the field as a team, going for 42.9 percent on three-point attempts and committing just five turnovers (three courtesy of Walker).
With Chandler barely playing, Jefferson was free to score at will inside. New York will need more from the frontcourt in terms of defense going forward, as a backup plan should be in place should the team lose Chandler again.
The same can be said for the backcourt.
Iman Shumpert has been lauded for his versatility as a defender, but the Knicks don't have anyone else who can really lock in on the perimeter. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an intriguing prospect but still needs to make some improvement in that department.
Whether it's locking down on shooters, preventing driving lanes, containing pick-and-rolls or simply getting into passing lanes, New York needs to make strides to ameliorate the team's weaknesses.
At the end of the day, this was just one game in a very long season. The lackadaisical defensive pressure against the Bobcats can be blamed on fatigue in one regard, as this was New York's third game in four nights.
Yet, simultaneously, with all due respect to Charlotte, the Knicks wish to be and should be able to contain an offensive team like the Bobcats, one that can be labelled as solid at best. Charlotte is ranked No. 28 in points per game as a team and No. 27 in terms of field-goal percentage, per ESPN.com.
It should be noted that the Bobcats have improved through the month of January, pushing those categories to No. 19 and No. 14, respectively. In hindsight, this should be more of a positive for Charlotte than a negative for New York. But given how the Knicks are on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture looking in (with a 15-23 record), it's an area that must improve to change the team's fortunes.
What to do with J.R. Smith?
Smith registered another DNP-Coach's Decision against the Bobcats, despite the fact the Knicks could have used his offense and defense.
He also missed New York's game against the Miami Heat on January 9, but he played against the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns the next two games. It wasn't sparingly, either, as Smith lodged 27 minutes and 25 minutes in those games, respectively.
He's been in the media for all the wrong reasons on this struggling Knicks team, most recently due to untying opponents' shoelaces on the edge of the key in free-throw shooting scenarios. According to ESPN.com's Ian Begley, Smith was fined $50,000 by the NBA for doing so.
It's far from what is expected, as well as what is needed, from Smith, especially considering his value and integral role as the team's second-best scorer.
Head coach Mike Woodson was less than impressed, per a report from The Daily News' Frank Isola: "He's got to be more of a pro and do the right things and just concentrate on playing basketball."
Smith himself had this to say after being benched against Charlotte, per The Daily News' Peter Botte:
I stopped being surprised after the Miami game,” Smith said, adding Woodson gave him “no reason” for his latest benching and didn’t tell him he wouldn’t play before the game began. “I haven’t the slightest clue (what’s going on). . . If I’m not helping the team, there’s no point in me being here.
After such a bout of unprofessional conduct, Smith isn't helping his case to get some court time with insinuating a trade request. He also said, "The communication from my end is over" and "I’m going to show by my effort," further forcing the concept that sacrificing to be a part of the team is less important than simply moving on.
Smith can't be easily traded, either, based on his three-year, $18 million deal that doesn't come close to his production on the court. Few teams are in the market for a guy providing 11.4 points per game on a poor 35.7 shooting percentage.
It's a difficult situation for the Knicks, but it's a hole they've dug themselves into based on Smith's track record throughout his career. New York can officially begin to look for suitors this week, given that he was signed in the offseason and cannot be moved before January 15, per the rules of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Trading Smith will be a stretch for the Knicks, but it's a move the team should explore if Smith's attitude does not improve. He's a key cog in New York's machine, and keeping him would be in both parties' best interest, especially considering it's likely (or absolute) that the Knicks won't get the same value back for Smith in a deal.
In doing so, the team would essentially lose their second-best scorer for nothing (depending on the deal). It's unlikely New York will receive any assets or players of high value, which is imperative to have as a return.
Smith's play thus far has been less than impressive, but he can still put the ball in the basket. Whether it's him playing unfocused basketball or the team's lack of chemistry, Smith can pull it all together at a moment's notice.
As seen against the 76ers (two nights after being benched versus the Heat), Smith chipped in 14 points (5-of-8 shooting) and six assists in the 102-92 victory. New York lacked that production against the Bobcats, despite Hardaway Jr. coming off the bench for 12 points.
The Knicks don't have another versatile scorer like Smith on the roster, hence it leaves the backcourt depleted. Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert combined for just 18 points against Charlotte, shooting 5-of-12 and 2-of-5, respectively.
In either case, it's a predicament New York could do without as it looks to improve and secure a place in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Smith can be a big part of that, but only if he chooses to.