Are New York Knicks Simply Better Off Without J.R. Smith?

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Are New York Knicks Simply Better Off Without J.R. Smith?
Sharon Ellman/Associated Press

The short answer: yes. There's a relatively easy case to be made with basic statistics, one that drives home J.R. Smith's well-known inefficiency. He's shooting below 40 percent from the field and averaging only three assists in 31 minutes per game, per ESPN.com.

In-depth analytics paint an even bleaker picture. His true shooting percentage has hovered around 45 percent all season, per Basketball-Referencean abysmal rate for a guardand his usage rate, which currently sits at 20.5, is extremely high for a player of such poor efficiency. 

Still, NBA teams respect Smith to a degree. His skill level is high enough that on any given night when his shot is falling, he can be extremely dangerous. In this sense, his lack of production—or at least his abysmal shot selection—is disappointing. 

It's Year 10 in the Smith experiment now, and nothing much has changed since that first season in Denver. For a Knicks team that struggles with ball movement and offensive balance due to Carmelo Anthony as its centerpiece, having Smith as the second fiddle only exacerbates the problem.

At the very least, Anthony is a dangerous scorer; he scores in spite of his reliance on the mid-range game and other inefficient areas of the floor. Smith is not that, and he often sucks the energy and ball-sharing mentality out of the team. 

Smith's biggest issue, however, goes deeper. It's not just that he's allergic to passing and takes bad shots; he tends to hold the ball and bring the entire offense to a screeching halt. 

This has a dual effect which negatively impacts Smith's ability to perform at his highest level. The first is a matter of defensive timing. Teams like Miami swing the ball from side to side, not allowing the defense a moment to set. Help defenders are in the wrong spot by a few feet; on-ball defenders have their momentum carrying them too strongly in one direction; there's a lack of continuity in the movement, and defenses can find themselves in scramble mode. 

The key is to attack the gaps when they open up. Here, the Knicks run a nice double stagger for Smith. He properly runs off Kenyon Martin's pick, catching the ball and immediately attacking the paint. His defender, Gerald Green, gets nailed by the screen and is now in a trail position. Ishmael Smith is too spread out guarding Toure Murry, the Knicks point guard, to help on the drive. This leaves the sagging, big (guarding Martin) Miles Plumlee back in a two-on-one situation.

MSG

As Ishmael Smith attempts to recover, J.R. Smith halts with a behind-the-back dribble into a fadeaway from the elbow. This stunt is enough to deter J.R. from driving and forces a bad shot. But it's up to J.R. here to understand that a defender's outstretched arm is not enough to corral his drive. He can easily power through, tucking the ball into his body like a running back to avoid the strip.

Instead, he relies on his fadeaway jumper, an all too familiar move from him. As usual, it misses. 

The second impact relates to the momentum of the play the Knicks are running. Offense is mostly a matter of timing. Particular cuts aim to drag certain defenders to an area of the floor where they can't help. A well-timed play puts an on-ball or help defender in a position with few good options. 

That's what's supposed to happen here, when Beno Udrih runs a horns set with Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler. As Bargnani rolls and Chandler pops, Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas trails the roller. Due to the angle of the screen and the direction of Chandler's roll, it forces Valanciunas to momentarily twist his body away from the ball. 

In this moment, Udrih has a number of choices: hit Bargnani, hit Chandler, attack the rim or quick swing the ball to Smith in the corner. He chooses the final option.

MSG

The quick swing should be followed by a quick attack; Smith's defender is sucked in to defend against the roll, and Valanciunas has his back turned to the ball. This is a prime opportunity to head towards the basket since the on-ball defender is heading the wrong way and the help is pivoted backwards. 

This does not happen, and Smith chooses to break the play by throwing a few useless jabs before settling with a step-back fadeaway

All it takes is that moment of hesitation to undo the entire play. With some of the world's greatest athletes in the NBA, offenses only have split-second moments and slight seams to penetrate. It's up to the offensive player to properly read and react, taking advantage of what's there. Smith struggles in this area and almost always prefers to take his man one-on-one.

Let's take a look at one final example, with the Knicks running a horns variation that leads to a pick-and-roll with Pablo Prigioni as the ball-handler. As Prigioni slices into the lane, he kicks to Smith on the right wing.

MSG

Notice the space Smith has for a spot-up jumper. This is a great shot for him and would be a solid outcome for the possession. A secondary option is to attack DeMarre Carroll, who's closing out at significant speed after pinching in to help on Prigioni. One of the easiest ways to penetrate is in these situations, with the defender running at full speed away from the rim.

Smith, as you might have guessed, chooses a third option: holding the ball, waiting for a pick, rejecting said pick and forcing up a bad shot. Not only does he give Carroll time to recover and get in a stance, but he also takes a bad shot on top of that. 

If there's one way to categorize Smith's problems on offense, it's that he doesn't understand his strengths. He's a great driver to the rim. He's an excellent spot-up shooter. He understands how to probe the pick-and-roll to find the roller at the rim. He's not a good shooter off the dribble, and he's not that efficient in pure one-on-one situations. Yet, it's in these last two aspects of his offensive repertoire that his shot volume is at the highest. 

If the Knicks want to make the playoffs at all, they'll need to severely limit Smith's minutes. The rest of his teammates, at the very least, understand their roles. Prigioni knows he's a passer. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert know to defend and shoot threes. Martin and Chandler defend, finish at the rim and grab rebounds. Smith has his own niche, too, and can be a devastating player when he relies on his strengths. But until he does, he's hurting his team. 

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