Is JR Smith's NY Knicks Resurgence for Real or Just Another Trick?

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Is JR Smith's NY Knicks Resurgence for Real or Just Another Trick?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

No one in the entire world embodies the true essence of the New York Knicks better than J.R. Smith.

Much like the ‘Bockers, Smith is eccentric, frustrating and, at times, boneheaded. But every so often, he showcases talent on par with some of the NBA’s biggest stars.

Having played in New York for nearly three seasons, Smith has successfully personified what the Knicks never fail to do—aggravate you but make you think that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Then they shatter your heart into a million pieces.

With NYK in the hunt for the eighth and final spot in the playoff picture, Smith—after a horrendous start to the season—has raised his game back to the level that earned him the Sixth Man of the Year crown last year.

Has the real J.R. finally emerged, or is Smith merely setting fans up for more misery?

 

Tracking Smith’s turnaround

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
When Smith's scoring, he opens up the defense for his right-hand man, Melo.

After agreeing to a three-year deal worth nearly $18 million over the summer, Smith began the season in disappointing fashion.

Through the first 20 games of 2013-14, the nine-year veteran was averaging just 11 points a night on 33 percent shooting. Keep in mind that the former first-round pick (2004) gave the Knicks, a team that won 54 games a year ago, over 18 points while shooting about 42 percent from the field in 2012-13.

There were concerns over his health, being that he underwent serious knee surgery days before inking the deal with New York. But if he was so hurt that it hindered his production to such an extent, he shouldn't have been on the floor.

Taking health out of the equation, it appeared to be a simple case of a steep drop-off in production following a big contract. But J.R. Smith is anything but simple.

Since January 1, No. 8 has put up nearly 15 points, four rebounds and three assists a game while connecting on 44 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Prior to New Year’s, the Knicks were 9-21. Since then? 24-22.

J.R. has always been a freak athlete. Check out this clip of him flying out in transition.

In his last 10 games, with New York really picking up steam as it fights for that coveted eighth seed, Smith has averaged 16 points and five boards while shooting 47 percent from the field.

Despite his poor start to the season—and the nonsense that he’s pulled throughout the majority of it—there’s no denying that Smith has put together some huge months for New York.

Forget all about the shoelace incidents, the questionable Instagram posts and his bouts with head coach Mike Woodson. The Knicks’ record, as horrifying as it is, would be a lot worse without Smith.

 

Searching for an explanation

Sharon Ellman

Why has this version of J.R. emerged all of the sudden?

Some would point to the allure of postseason play, but that argument doesn’t account for how well he had been playing for the months leading up to New York’s sudden semblance of playoff relevance.

The fact is that Smith can’t be counted on. At his best, he’s unreal—one of the league’s premier athletes and offensive players. But he's unreliable; you never know what kind of J.R. you're going to get on a given night.

Throughout his nine-year career, Smith has never been completely awful, nor has he ever been entirely spectacular. He’s a pure wild card.

Back in early January, when all of those ridiculous trade rumors were swirling around Smith and the Knicks, I noted that it was just a matter of time before he got his act together.

There is also no reason to play him if he’s running the “J.R. offense” and playing "J.R. defense," which of course includes forcing up the most ridiculous, mind-boggling shots imaginable and playing disinterested defense.

And untying opponent’s shoes at the free-throw line.

He hasn't been the star he was last season, but based on his track record, Smith will turn this mess around and eventually help the Knicks.

Consistency isn’t a word that’s in Smith’s dictionary. There is no concrete reason for his resurgence, just as there is no explaining or justifying his performance when he struggles.

Luckily for the Knicks, though, he seems to have caught fire at just the right time.

 

The PJax Factor

Shortly after Phil Jackson was hired as president of the Knicks, ESPN New York's Ian Begley reported a select list of players that the Zen Master was impressed with:

Mark Lennihan
Jackson could send Smith elsewhere over the summer.

“A source with knowledge of Jackson's thinking said he was impressed with the play of Carmelo Anthony, Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Cole Aldrich, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Toure' Murry.”

Smith, noticeably absent from that group, now had an incentive.

Perhaps this was a chess move by Jackson, who is well aware of the fact that the best season of Smith’s career came during the final year of a contract.

When tidbits of information—like Jackson's list—emerge, there's usually a force driving it out into the public. Maybe PJax was trying to light a fire under Smith.

Regardless, after a 24-point performance against the Brooklyn Nets on April 3, Jackson seemed to change his tune.

Smith doesn’t want to leave—he loves New York. After being honored as the league’s best off-the-bench player last season, he told B/R's Jared Zwerling, then of ESPN New York, that he would “love to retire a Knick.”

Changes are coming over the summer, and it’s a definite possibility that Smith could be one of them. But if his game remains at such a high level, it is extremely difficult to picture the Knicks parting ways with him.

 

Can we trust J.R.?

Jordan Johnson/Getty Images
Can No. 8 and No. 7 take New York to the postseason?

At this point of the year, the Knicks have no choice but to close their eyes, throw their hands up and hope for the best when it comes to Smith.

There’s no reforming J.R. now—he is what he is. And lately, that’s been working for New York.

Do you trust J.R.?

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It’s not inconceivable to think that Carmelo Anthony and, to a lesser extent, Smith could carry the Knicks into the postseason behind a barrage of long jumpers and fadeaways.

While they would surely run into a brick wall in the Miami Heat, a playoff berth might make fans forget how ugly the majority of this season has been.

For now, the Knicks have no choice but to put their faith in J.R., which will likely go one of two ways.

Because throughout his career, and most specifically during his time in New York, Smith has taught us many, many things. But two stand out.

You can’t count on him, and you can't count him out, either.

So I'm sorry, Knicks fans, you've got no choice but to trust Smith. Just have some ice cream and tissues handy in case he breaks your heart.

Again.

 

All stats are accurate as of April 3 courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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