Don't shoot the messenger if you're angry. Likewise, don't ask the messenger to take shots with you if you're super excited either.
The, shall we say, "troubled" shooting guard has always been important to the Knicks' plans. They handed him a three-year contract for reasons their front office wouldn't call "stupid." Smith winning last year's Sixth Man of the Year award was a turning point, a sign that Smith had changed and was exactly what the cash-strapped, devoid-of-other-options Knicks needed.
By then, it was clear trading Smith would be preferable. But he's damn near immovable unless attached to an asset of actual value.
It's partially because of his contract but mostly because he's prone to lapses in judgment, and that's being kind—not to mention the Knicks, who are still trying to salvage what's left of their season from expensive hell, need him.
Short of Danny Ainge suffering from a case of David Kahn and trading Rajon Rondo to New York for Raymond Felton, Beno "You Can Put The Blame on Me" Udrih and Smith, the Knicks won't turn their season around without him.
Shoe lacing around cost Smith dearly.
Finally fed up with his erratic behavior and makeshift moral code, Knicks coach Mike Woodson benched him in a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. The Knicks won and a precedent had been set: Abide by the rules or sit down.
BasketballInsiders.com's Tommy Beer points out that since then—save for a benching against the Charlotte Bobcats—Smith has played almost like it was last season:
In 29 gms prior to the “shoelace suspension” JR Smith avg 11.3 ppg & shot 34.8% … In the 9 games since, he’s avg 15.1 ppg on 45.5% shooting.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 29, 2014
Compare those numbers to what he was putting up previously, and there's an obvious difference:
Smith's 2012-13 production is clearly superior, but he's been noticeably more efficient and resembled the scorer from last season in terms of volume.
This is what the Knicks need—that second scoring option they don't currently have.
Carmelo Anthony is the only Knicks player averaging more than 14 points per game. Adding another reliable scorer removes a cumbersome offensive burden from his shoulders, ensuring he doesn't have to lead an inconsistent and unpredictable scoring charge on his own.
That's the role Smith was supposed to play this season. The role he's neglected to assume this season.
The role that can help the Knicks escape their (mostly) losing ways.
Who's to say this version of Smith will actually help the Knicks?
We are. All of us.
A productive Smith does not reveal itself in vain. When he plays well, when he plays smart, efficient basketball, the Knicks tend to win.
Smith's success is normally associated with rim attacks, which is only half true. Shots at the rim are higher-percentage looks and result in more free throws, but over the last nine games a smaller fraction of his attempts have come in that area.
As the above shot chart shows us, just over 16 percent of his shot attempts have come near the rim in these last nine games. By comparison, over 20 percent of his field-goal attempts came within that same range beforehand. And while his free-throw attempts have almost doubled in the last nine games—2.9 up from 1.5—they haven't been a major factor in his success.
When Smith gets adequate lift under his legs, he's able to shoot over most defenders. And when his follow through is more fluid, he generates more rotation, allowing him to increase his accuracy.
That's what he's done lately: Make smarter decisions that coincide with sustaining a mechanically sound shooting form, the results of which speak for themselves.
For Smith, it's not so much where he shoots from, it's how he's shooting. Converting even 45 percent of his shots—a menial task for some—has a profound impact on the Knicks that can be traced back to last season.
When he connected on at least 45 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2012-13, the Knicks were 27-7, winning over 79 percent of their games. What's more, on the 34 occasions Smith knocked down 45 percent of his shots last season, he averaged 21.6 points, exceeding his already impressive season average by 3.5.
Similar occasions have proved few and far between this season, but when Smith has hit at least 45 percent of his shots, the Knicks are winning more. In the 11 games he's shot 45 percent or better, they're 6-5.
Winning nearly 55 percent of the time isn't anything to write home about. I barely want to waste time typing it. But when the Knicks have won only 40 percent of their games this season, 55 percent is a reason to throw parades.
Just like last year, Smith himself is also toppling his season average in these instances. He's pouring in 15.1 points per game when he puts in 45 percent or more of his shots, markedly above the 12.2 he's actually averaging.
This isn't complicated stuff. The better Smith shoots, the better these Knicks are.
Ready For A Turnaround?
"Sure thing" and "Smith" don't belong in the same sentence. Or same book.
Even last year, when Smith was at his best, he was still largely unpredictable. Stretches of efficiency and offensive tears were followed by prolonged bouts of poor shot selection and superfluous miscues.
But there's no doubt a correlation exists between his recent and thus far short-lived resurgence and the Knicks' success.
Is it a coincidence the Knicks' offensive rating stands at 109.5 with him on the floor these last nine games when he's shooting over 45 percent from the field, compared to 103.3 when he was under 35 percent previously? Is it mere happenstance they've won their last three games with Smith averaging 15.7 points on 48.6 percent shooting?
Will the Knicks salvage this season if J.R. Smith returns to 2012-13 form?
No, it's not. This is what the Knicks need; this is what their season needs—this version of Smith.
This exact version of Smith.
''You're going to have ups and downs throughout the season,'' Knicks center Tyson Chandler said following Tuesday's blowout win over the Boston Celtics, via CBS Sports. ''The thing is when you have those lulls you've got to be able to bounce back, and we've done that.''
The more permanent Smith's bounce back proves to be, the closer New York comes to salvaging what was, and in some ways could still be, a lost season.