For a team so long mired in mediocrity, the New York Knicks certainly don’t have a problem taking enormous roster risks.
From Micheal Ray Richardson to Latrell Sprewell to Stephon Marbury, examples abound of New York’s penchant for pinning ever-dwindling title hopes on castoffs, characters and outright clowns.
With each, there were red flags and backstories, regrets and redemption, each to varying degrees.
In some instances—as when they jettisoned Richardson to the Golden State Warriors after signing Bernard King—the Knicks were able to cut their losses for the better.
In others, the losses cut them back, as happened with "Starbury."
Lessons were learned—unless, of course, they weren’t.
When it comes to fostering a culture of character and accountability, the Knicks might never figure it out completely. But if they were going to start anywhere, cutting J.R. Smith adrift would be a pretty good place to start.
The damage done
It’s not that the Knicks need to give J.R. the boot because he’s been terrible on the court, although that’s part of it.
It’s not that J.R. is a bad person, even though some of his more infamous incidents might leave you wondering.
It’s not even that Smith is a clubhouse cancer, despite the caustic comments and curious antics that have peppered his Knicks employment.
The problem is that all of these things have been issues at one point or another during Smith’s two-plus years in orange and blue.
The problem is not being able to help yourself from untying your opponent's shoelaces in the middle of a game—not once, but twice. (Hat-tip to The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring.)
JR Smith gets a $50,000 fine from NBA for recurring shoelace incident, league announces.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 8, 2014
The problem lies in never really knowing when any or all of it will happen again.
Unpredictability is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Unpredictability is a big reason why Smith has enjoyed such a long NBA career.
It’s the Knicks—always looking for the draft-day reach and home run signing—who took a chance on him in the first place.
But unpredictability assumes a certain degree of oscillation, between a brownstone’s worth of bricks on the one hand and trails of can’t-miss smoke on the other. The assumption is that, for every off night and awful showing, there’s a shimmering glimpse or could-be to come.
Thus far this season, the only thing unpredictable about Smith’s performance is how much deeper down each game will find him drilling.
As the Knicks approach the season’s midway point, their firebrand bellwether is charting his worst season since 2004-05, the year Smith arrived as a fresh-faced 19-year-old with a reputation for being able to hit—and miss—from just about anywhere on the floor.
For a player ostensibly in his prime, such an alarming drop-off naturally invites the question: How can J.R. possibly have gotten this bad, this fast?
Sadly, the basketball-related explanations have taken a backseat to other more ancillary concerns.
You could point to the secret knee surgery Smith underwent last summer, as reported by ESPN New York's Ian Begley.
Others chalk up the poor play to a funk stemming from the casting out of brother Chris, whom some believe the Knicks signed to a one-year guaranteed contract in part to sweeten the elder Smith’s free-agency tender.
Beyond that, the speculation only becomes more sordid: murmurings of a long-festering feud—as reported by Begley—interspersed with accusations of candles burned at only one end.
A threatening tweet here, a vulgar tweet there, with concerns of judgment the prickly thread through it all.
All of which adds up to a seeming imperative: dealing J.R. as soon as possible.
A complex calculus
What the Knicks would stand to receive in a prospective trade is another question altogether. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any team wanting to absorb the two years and nearly $11.5 million remaining on Smith’s contract after this season.
And that’s not even taking into account the cost of the extra-basketball baggage.
Obviously, New York would have to be careful not to fall into a familiar trap: getting rid of one onerous contract in exchange for one that might well end up being worse.
If the Knicks can somehow find a willing trade partner who doesn’t exact too much in the way of financial flesh, they have to do it.
Barring that, New York has another recourse at its disposal: a CBA-sanctioned "stretch provision." This allows a team to waive a player and pay out the remainder of his salary over twice the number of remaining years.
In J.R.’s case, that would amount to just under $3 million a year over the next four years, should the Knicks pull the trigger before July 1.
It’s not as if the Knicks don't have the money: In 2006, owner James Dolan paid then-coach Larry Brown $18.5 million just to go away.
Add that to the hundreds of millions Dolan has arguably wasted over the years, and suddenly Smith’s contract doesn’t seem so crippling.
There are backup plans in place, after all. Parting with Smith would give Iman Shumpert and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. the opportunity to prove their place in the team’s grand plan—assuming there is one.
More importantly, jettisoning J.R.—whether by hook or by crook—would help send the message to fans and players alike that the Knicks aren’t above issuing mea culpas.
Casting one bad contract aside doesn't erase 15 years of flagrant mismanagement. But it can send the message that cutting corners will no longer be an acceptable substitute for earnestly outlining the right road forward.
J.R. Smith is a talented basketball player who, in the right situation and with healthy mind and body about him, can be a valuable contributor on a good team—even a contending one.
It’s just grown increasingly obvious that that team is not the New York Knicks.
Too much damage has been done, not only to the on-court product and off-court rapport, but also to Smith’s very sense of trust in his own team—the team that brought him out of basketball purgatory and into the bright lights and the pomp and the too-many promises.
Like two reckless drivers colliding in an ice-packed parking lot, who’s most at fault is almost beside the point; both parties made bad decisions. Unfortunately, in this instance, only one side has the power to do something about it.
Unless, of course, J.R. is somehow able to turn it around—to make good on the tantalizing talent and recapture last season’s controlled chaos.
Knicks fans sure aren’t betting on it. But if there’s one basketball universe where scripts flip on dimes and yesterday’s Satan is today’s savior, it’s New York, where weird wins all and single flicks of the wrist turn court jesters to kings and back again.