An explosive scorer with potentially problematic volatility, J.R. Smith has long been viewed as best-equipped for a reserve scoring role.
In 692 games over his 10-year career, he's made only 167 starts. Throw out the 56 he started during his rookie season for the then-New Orleans Hornets in 2004-05, and he's opened only 18 percent of his games since (111 of 616) with the starting lineup.
A prolific reserve scorer, he's long been waiting for a coach to see him in a different light. Apparently, he's hoping first-year head coach Derek Fisher will:
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported that Fisher, who has no coaching experience, landed in the Big Apple with a five-year, $25 million agreement:
Fisher has now inherited a roster that, despite the team's 37-45 record in 2013-14, is fairly heavy on talent. The challenge previous coach Mike Woodson struggled with was fitting all of the pieces together, with the mercurial Smith serving as one of the more combustible elements on the roster.
Despite snagging the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year award, Smith has never been too crazy about his role.
"It gets frustrating after a while," Smith said, angling for a starting gig in 2012, via Marc Berman of the New York Post. "People saying, 'He's a sixth man, sixth man, sixth man,' when you believe you're a starter."
He didn't make a single start in 2012-13, then tried to talk his way into the opening lineup again last October.
"I've always wanted to start. Everybody knows that," Smith said, via ESPN New York's Ian Begley. "I won the Sixth Man [Award] last year, so I felt as though there's nothing left to prove at the sixth-man spot."
Statistically, he took a step back in 2013-14 from his award-winning season. He saw dips in points (14.5, down from 18.1) and rebounds (4.0, down from 5.3), while his player efficiency rating slipped below the league average mark of 15.0 (14.0), via Basketball-Reference.com.
Smith did, however, finally get to run with the starters. He started 37 of his 74 games last season, including each of his last 22.
The experiment treated him and the Knicks well, too.
Smith was a better scorer (16.5, up from 12.5), three-point shooter (40.7, from 37.3) and rebounder (4.3, from 3.7) as a starter, via Basketball-Reference.com. Of those final 22 games that he started, the Knicks won 16 of them.
Clearly, Smith thinks he's ready for a role, but ultimately this will be Fisher's call to make.
If nothing else, this will be a lesson that Fisher's new job is a lot different than his old one, as NBC Sports' Dan Feldman noted:
Fisher’s top assignment is selling [Carmelo Anthony] on the Knicks’ future, but handling a locker room full of veterans—many of whom, including Smith, are highly paid—will be another challenge. Maybe Smith begrudgingly accepts a bench role, as he did for Woodson. Maybe Smith makes Fisher’s life a little more difficult than that. With Smith, it really could go either way.
At least Fisher has Phil Jackson, a master at managing egos, to help ease him through this transition. Fisher might have bigger personality tests before the summer is over, whether that's Carmelo Anthony looking for a reason to return or Iman Shumpert wanting a lift after spending so much of his tenure on the trade rumor mill.
No matter how Fisher decides to deal with Smith, he has to handle this with care. Too much freedom for Smith might not be a good thing, but Fisher also cannot afford to battle with one of his most talented players.
This is the first of many chess moves Fisher will have to make, all under the watchful eyes of the New York media. He might have cashed in with that reported salary, but clearly he'll have to earn every penny.