Smith's future has become a serious problem for New York, more severe than usual after registering his second "DNP" in four games against the Charlotte Bobcats.
Many of the issues now taking center stage are on him and his shoelace-obsessed, fine-worthy behavior. But that's Smith. The Knicks knew what kind of person they were keeping last summer.
Fresh off a Sixth Man of the Year campaign, Smith has always been a, shall we say, wild card. Repeated transgressions should come as no surprise. What's shocking is how poorly the Knicks have handled the situation (even for them), playing him then benching him, only to play him then bench him again.
Drama and rumors (and injuries) find the Knicks just fine. Problems arise like they do everywhere, but it's worse in New York where the media is persistent and fearless, and the Knicks indecisive and less-than-forthcoming.
And it needs to stop.
Admit What the Hell Is Going On
Silence is sometimes golden, but not here.
It's brown, smelling vaguely of carious sour cream and diets consisting of too much fiber.
When Smith was first benched in the Knicks' win over the Miami Heat, it was clear why—coach Mike Woodson wasn't amused by Shoelace-gate:
Woodson: "Again, I'm not talking abt JR. If you wanna talk about the game, we'll talk about the game."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 10, 2014
Woodson wasn't answering any questions about Smith, but we knew.
We knew that Smith had crossed the line too many times. That Woodson, one of his biggest supporters, was at his wit's end.
That he was done.
"At at the end of the day, he has got to grow up," Woodson said on ESPN New York 98.7 FM following Smith's shoelace incident, per Hoopsworld's Tommy Beer.
Woodson hasn't revealed much, or said anything worth noting, about Smith since then. Stubborn silence reached new levels of absurd after New York's loss at Charlotte, when Woodson flat-out refused to divulge anything pertaining to Smith, via the New York Daily News' Peter Botte:
Woodson redux: "I'm not even commenting on JR. I just didn't play him tonight."— Peter Botte (@PeterBotte) January 15, 2014
Some, like Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan, point out there's nothing Woodson can say to make this better:
People: Woodson telling us exactly WHY he benched J.R. would cause infinitely more drama. Considering the alternative, silence is preferred.— Jim Cavan (@JPCavan) January 15, 2014
Others will argue saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. But is that really true?
Leaving questions unanswered paves way for further speculation, something the Knicks, who dress themselves in question marks daily, don't need. Not when they're attempting to rebound from an unsightly 9-21 start.
What is it that Smith did this time? Spearheaded more contrived wardrobe malfunctions? Decapitated Woodson's favorite stuffed animal? Danced naked in the locker room to a song entitled "I Heart the Heat" he recorded himself?
"Well, you know, J.R.'s got a lot of growing up to do. We can't have any more of this chainsawing holes into the sides of our private jet."— Jim Cavan (@JPCavan) January 15, 2014
Exaggerated conjecture—i.e. everything I just penned—can be dismissed, but legitimate theories can't. And the only one who tried to safeguard New York against rampant speculation, however mordant, is assistant coach Herb Williams:
According to Assistant Coach Herb Williams, J.R. isn’t benched; They were just sticking with the hot hand, Tim Hardaway Jr. Carry on.— Dime Alert (@DimeAlert) January 15, 2014
End of story, right?
If that was actually the case, why couldn't Woodson just say so? What's the big deal? Tell us. Tell Smith. Admit what's going on, whatever it is.
A little clarity goes a long way.
Transparency is good; sensible decision-making is even better.
Smith's status has been in flux since he was benched for the first time. Prevailing wisdom suggested his absence would become a familiar sight.
While Smith didn't set the world on fire in either contest, he played well, combining for 24 points and eight assists on 10-of-19 shooting from the floor (52.6 percent). Just like that, the narrative changed. Maybe Smith wouldn't consistently be given 30-plus minutes, but he would play.
Then he didn't. Again.
Afterward, he was just as miffed as the rest of us, per the New York Times' Scott Cacciola:
JR: Was not told why he was benched. Learned during game. "I haven't the slightest clue."— Scott Cacciola (@ScottCacciola) January 15, 2014
Lack of insight prompted him to take drastic action. Or rather, inaction:
JR: "Communication from my end is over." <annnd scene>— Scott Cacciola (@ScottCacciola) January 15, 2014
Truth be told, this isn't so much about Smith's attitude. Justified or not, he needs answers. The Knicks need answers.
They need to make a decision.
Picking a course of action removes much of the unnecessary speculation. Outlandish theories won't die until Woodson and the Knicks remain consistent. Until they solve this Smith problem by figuring out where his future lies.
To be sure, it lies in New York.
ESPN's Ian Begley and Marc Stein previously reported that the Knicks were exploring trade possibilities, further evidence of their mounting frustration. Smith isn't going anywhere, though. Not when he's owed more than $12 million over the next two seasons and shooting 35.7 percent from the field.
Not when he's still a lightning rod for off- and on-court theatrics.
What's his role in New York? That's the question. The one the Knicks must answer soon. Like now.
Milking the hot hand business is utter malarkey. Smith isn't some injury-prone, aging veteran you sit every third game. He's either a part of your rotation, or he isn't.
If Woodson wants to bench Smith indefinitely, then go ahead. It's certainly not an unreasonable decision. Not only have Smith's latest antics shed further darkness over his character, the Knicks have actually fared better with him off the court this season.
|When||Off. Rtg. With||Off. Rtg. Without||Def. Rtg. With||Def. Rtg. Without|
|First 30 games||102.0||100.1||107.6||103.6|
Or play him. They're paying him roughly $5.6 million this season. Most will understand a desire to try getting their money's worth.
What should the Knicks do with J.R. Smith?
But pick something in general. Put an end to the self-imposed ambivalence that has Smith and fans confused, and the Knicks entombed in even more superfluous stagecraft than usual.
"If I can’t help the team, no point in me being here," Smith said after his second benching, via the New York Post's Marc Berman.
Unable to move him, Smith is a problem the Knicks will only solve once they finally inject traces of certainty into this unraveling fray of distrust and disorder.