New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith is undoubtedly talented, but there's a real danger in relying on that to always win out over everything else. The Knicks can simply no longer afford to hope for the best, and they should cut ties with him this offseason if at all possible.
No one questions what Smith is capable of on the court. During his three seasons in New York, he's put up some brilliant scoring efforts that even the league's best defenses had no answer for. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award last year for a reason. He can play at a level few others can touch.
As we saw against the Miami Heat recently, he can also shoot the ball at a record-breaking volume that even the league's best shooters wouldn't dare to.
Missed this last night but JR shot 22 3's last night? That's downright amazing— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) April 7, 2014
Smith can be simply unstoppable, but that often comes with a price. Because Smith has that ability to get hot and carry a team with his scoring, his presence on the court becomes justifiable, even when he's clearly checked out on the defensive end. The diagnosis Smith provided to Ian Begley of ESPN New York of the Knicks' troubles this year is both accurate and a little tone-deaf given his play:
It's not a mental thing, it's a heart thing.
Guys get open shots, [they're] walking through the lane, running around, slapping high-fives, laughing, joking. When you're supposed to be a team trying to make the playoffs, you ain't gonna win. It ain't gonna happen like that. You gotta play with effort, play with heart.
Perhaps more than any other player on the Knicks, Smith can essentially do what he wants with no real consequences.
There are a few reasons for that, and the first revolves around money. Smith received a three-year deal worth nearly $18 million this past offseason, so he's no longer playing for financial security as he was last season. Having a big contract year and then loafing through the next season is not a phenomenon limited to Smith, of course, but it makes sense that his play would dip without so much clear incentive.
Perhaps even more importantly, Smith knows he wields some power within the organization. That's in large part due to his CAA ties, the agency that represents Carmelo Anthony, head coach Mike Woodson and multiple other members of the Knicks organization. Getting his brother Chris an undeserved roster spot for much of the season wouldn't have happened if that hadn't been the case.
Those ties have also given Smith impunity from his own coach in a lot of ways as well. Smith does some things on the court that would never fly under other coaches' watch, but Woodson turns a blind eye. When Smith gets suspended by the league or starts kicking up dust, the Knicks just have to grin and bear it.
That's obviously not an ideal situation, both for Smith and the Knicks. It's a shame to see such an immense talent not live up to his full potential, particularly when you see real glimpses of what he could be if he did.
After his career year last season, Smith has stopped going to the rim almost entirely (1.8 free-throw attempts per game this year compared to 3.8 in 2012-13), and he's hit the boards less. Part of that is due to his recovery from offseason knee surgery, but some of it boils down to a lack of desire, too.
Despite Smith's ability to create his own shot and really stroke it from behind the arc (39.1 percent this year), there comes a point when you have to wonder if he's worth the distractions and the constant undermining of authority, even if he's currently protected. Here's ESPNNewYork.com's Ian O'Connor with more:
Only nothing ever is on the basketball side of Madison Square Garden, which explains why J.R. Smith isn't the only one to blame for, you know, J.R. Smith. He is a symptom of a greater ill, the mere embodiment of the way the Knicks conduct business.
Start with Mike Woodson, who is playing the tough guy with Smith far too late in the game.
Appearing with Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco on ESPN New York 98.7 FM on Wednesday, Woodson did say that Smith has "got go grow up," that he needs to be "more of a pro in terms of his approach to the game," and that "when he's not doing what he's supposed to do, I've got to let him know about it."
Only in the same interview, Woodson also said he will never stop being one of Smith's "biggest supporters," and that he won't be "kicking J.R. to the curb. J.R. is a big part of what we've done here, and he will remain a big part."
Given how deep the dysfunction is within the Knicks, finding a way to get rid of Smith at any cost isn't guaranteed to fix all that much.
And while new team president Phil Jackson isn't a panacea, he's one of the few men with enough clout to really make more than just surface changes.
Phil, on the team's CAA ties: "Those won't hold weight with me."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 3, 2014
Asked Jackson specifically abt the CAA question. Said he had an agreement w Dolan that he'd be able to squash agency ties if necessary.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 3, 2014
In a lot of ways, Smith has served as a symbol of everything that's wrong with the Knicks: overreliant on offensive talent, misguided and too comfortable. How Jackson will come down on Smith will be interesting in its own right.
Does J.R. Smith have an overall positive or negative influence on the Knicks?
By finding a way to trade Smith this offseason, Jackson and company might be killing a few birds with just one stone. Moving Smith would give whoever ends up being the new head coach one less headache to deal with and would simultaneously weaken CAA's grip on the franchise. If done right, it could even create more cap space for the 2015 offseason, the target window for the Knicks to give Anthony another superstar to play with.
Moving Smith could provide the Knicks with some much-needed stability, both on and off the court. A team with an established core and strong veteran leadership might be able to better stomach Smith's antics and numerous suspensions, but that team probably isn't the Knicks going forward. Perhaps it would be different if Jackson were on the sidelines, but he's not.
It seems unlikely that the Knicks would have to waive Smith to get rid of him, as some team should be willing to take a chance on a talented 28-year-old who can hit threes at a high rate. While the Knicks can forget about receiving fair value for Smith given all his prior suspensions and character issues, it shouldn't be for pennies on the dollar, either. Squeezing a second-round pick out of a team or getting back an expiring deal shouldn't be out of the question.
Ultimately, Smith just represents far too much risk to the future culture of the Knicks. He's a double-edged sword that always seems to end up hurting those who think they will only get the good without the bad. The Knicks will have a chance to start relatively fresh soon, and if the opportunity to get rid of Smith presents itself this offseason, there shouldn't be much hesitation.