Why J.R. Smith Is in for Bounce-Back Season with New York Knicks

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Why J.R. Smith Is in for Bounce-Back Season with New York Knicks
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Whether you love him, hate him or watch his antics for pure amusement, you've encountered J.R. Smith over the course of your basketball fandom.

Well, coming off the best season of his life, the eccentric shooting guard's 2013-14 campaign was perhaps his most disappointing.

Smith not only saw his numbers take a significant dip from an award-winning 2012-13 run. He also got hit with a few fines that totaled $75,000, clashed with former head coach Mike Woodson and played on an embarrassment of a team known as the New York Knicks.

Next year will be different, though. The Knicks won't be raising any banners—don't be ridiculous, people—but Smith will be back to his three-point-swishing self.

The hot-and-cold No. 8 is poised for a revival under new coach Derek Fisher and president of basketball operations Phil Jackson.

In 2014-15, J.R. will be J.R. again.

 

New Coach, New Smith

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Change seems to be something that brings out the best in Smith.

During his experiences with the New Orleans Hornets, Denver Nuggets and New York, Smith has done well in his first exposure to a new environment.

Look at Smith’s numbers from the 2006-07, 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons—each of which involved a new coach in his ear. His average for those three years combined was 14.5 points, and he shot 43.3 percent from the field.

During his years with a familiar coach, however, Smith put up 12.8 points on 42.7 percent shooting.

Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty Images

While the gap in production isn’t enormous, it’s something. New voices, new systems and new forms of motivation seem to really resonate with Smith.

The nine-year veteran reached his peak under Woodson, who was given the boot less than a week after this past regular season ended.

In 2012-13, Smith was crowned as the league’s Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 5.3 boards a game on 42 percent shooting.

Woodson had been Smith’s biggest advocate all along and played an enormous role in turning him into the best bench player in the NBA that year.

Here’s what Woody said after J.R. received the award, per ESPN:

Couldn't have happened to a better guy. I'm so proud of him, in terms of buying in to what we wanted him to do earlier in the season. And it started this summer. I wasn't going to start him, coming into this year, and I knew that. And he bought in. He didn't like it, but he bought in. And it couldn't have happened to a better person, because he put in the time and he worked his butt off to get to this point, and he got rewarded for it. I'm happy for him.

Sounds like a proud father, doesn’t he? Well, things changed last year. Things changed real fast.

According to Ian Begley of ESPN New York, Woodson’s frustration with Smith after a string of bone-headed moves came to a boiling point and resulted in a benching on Jan. 14:

Sources say Smith expressed his frustration with Woodson during the game and the two had a brief, heated discussion over Smith's displeasure shortly after the game. Smith's tardiness Tuesday and frustration with playing just 45 seconds in overtime likely led to Woodson benching Smith on Tuesday against Charlotte.

Smith was fined $50,000 by the NBA for repeatedly trying to (hilariously) untie opponents’ shoelaces in January, and Woodson got fed up. He benched Smith twice in four games, the first of which was against the Miami Heat on national television.

But the shoelace incident was just the last straw.

"I think it is a privilege to wear a uniform in this league," Woodson told Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco on ESPN radio following the benching. "There's only 30 teams. There's [only] so many players on each team. I think every player has a responsibility and has to be held accountable for what they do on a ballclub."

On Jan. 4, Smith heaved up one of the most brainless three-pointers in recent memory when the Knicks had possession of the ball in a tie game with the shot clock turned off against the Houston Rockets. Needless to say, Houston won the game.

"Honestly, I thought we were down two,” Smith said after the blunder, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. “I shot the ball, I started hearing Tyson (Chandler) saying ‘no, no, no don’t take a shot.’ But by that time it was already released."

Oh, and don't forget about the crushing elbow that Smith delivered to the chin of Jason Terry in the first round of the 2012-13 playoffs. The Knicks had a commanding 3-0 series lead at the time of the resulting suspension, but that penalty gave the Boston Celtics life.

At his best, Smith is great, but his wavering basketball IQ often harms the team.

Coming off of the best season of his professional career, Smith put up 14.5 points, four rebounds and three assists a game last year. Those stats aren't terrible, but they're certainly bolstered by a strong finish. Midway through January, Smith was giving New York 11.4 points a game while shooting an abysmal 36.1 percent from the field.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Fisher isn’t going to put up with any of J.R.'s circus acts. Once an accomplished veteran with a championship pedigree, the 39-year-old rookie head coach is not one to fool around.

The world may laugh at Smith’s antics, but Fisher won’t.

And that’s why No. 8 is going to be focused next year. He needs to be 100 percent engaged from Day 1 if he’s to earn a spot in the starting lineup, which is something that he’s always coveted. Always.

Don’t be surprised if there are some bumps and bruises early on in the Smith-Fisher dynamic, but the veteran coach will ultimately bring out the 2012-13 version of Smith.

 

Chance to Start, the Emergence of Tim Hardaway Jr.

Surprisingly, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s breakout rookie campaign will actually benefit Smith next year.

Smith wants to be a starter in the same way that Drake wants to date Rihanna—really badly.

The main draw to keeping him out of the starting lineup was the fact that the Knicks weren’t equipped with a proven scorer off the bench. That should change, as Hardaway showed as a rookie the potential to become a terrific perimeter shooter and overall scorer.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

With the comfort of having Hardaway, and perhaps 2013-14 starter Iman Shumpert, coming off the bench, Fisher could be more inclined to give Smith his long-desired chance to start.

And a happy J.R. is an effective J.R.

As a starting 2-guard last year, Smith put up about 18 points a night on 45 percent shooting. And as B/R’s Zach Buckley pointed out, the Knicks were a better team with him in the starting five:

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.

Should Smith start next year? That’s up to Fisher. But the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and Smith has been squeaking about starting for quite some time now.

He proved himself to be worthy of such a position in a good-sized sample last year, and he will benefit from having Hardaway presumably back him up.

Smith, who logged nearly 33 minutes a game last season, gets starter’s playing time as it is. Making him a consistent member of the first unit will keep him happy—imagine a world without the J.R. sideshows!—and in turn, keep the Knicks happy.

Everybody wins.

 

What about Melo?

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Smith and Carmelo Anthony are great friends, having developed a tight bond after spending eight years together as teammates—five with the Nuggets and three with the Knicks.

But even Anthony, the godfather to one of Smith’s daughters, would get the cold shoulder if he opts out of his deal and joins the Miami Heat this summer.

However, the likelihood of Anthony teaming up with LeBron James in Miami is, according to Heat forward Chris Bosh, “very, very unlikely.”

The Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, though, are another story.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Anthony is “leaning toward” ditching the Knicks this summer:

New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is leaning toward leaving in pursuit of immediate championship contention, and awaits the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets to clear the necessary salary-cap space to sign him in free agency, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

As re-signing with the Knicks continues to fade as his priority, Chicago and Houston have emerged as the clear frontrunners to acquire Anthony, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Wojnarowski added that Anthony’s “heart is in New York, but he wants a chance to win now.”

What does all this have to do with Smith? Well, despite his penchant for following Anthony from team-to-team, J.R. is under contract with the ‘Bockers at least until next summer.

And with Smith's “older brother” potentially out of the picture, the Knicks will count on the veteran sharpshooter to take on an even bigger role next season.

Knicks fans, listen up: Earl “J.R.” Smith III could be your team’s leading scorer next year.

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Now, that thought might keep you up at night, it might make you cry the heaviest tears of your (fan) life and it might even make you giggle.

But it’s reality. At least until Jackson makes some serious roster renovations—and that could happen as late as next summer, being that the Knicks are in a financial straitjacket with scarce draft stock.

Without Anthony, Smith and Hardaway will be given the freedom to shoot whenever or wherever they so choose. And that’ll be great for their individual stat lines, but not so much for New York's win/loss totals.

Smith, who took a tick under 13 field goals a game last year, could easily launch anywhere from 15 to 20 shots per game. His scoring numbers will skyrocket, but the key for Smith to be effective is efficiency.

 

The Bottom Line

David Dow/Getty Images

Here’s what everything amounts to: J.R. Smith is going to be better next season.

A new coaching voice in Fisher will spark the veteran shooting guard, and a realistic chance to attain and maintain the starting role that he’s longed for since the dawn of time will keep him engaged throughout the year.

It’ll minimize the nonsense, too. Well, hopefully.

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If Melo leaves this summer, Smith will likely be given the green light to go into full-on gunner mode. But that’s pretty much what he does, anyway.

Fisher will still force him to hustle, defend, rebound and get his teammates involved like he did when he won Sixth Man of the Year.

The entire 2013-14 season was a letdown for the Knicks, and for Smith, it was no different.

But next year, expect a rejuvenated, re-energized and refocused player to don the No. 8 jersey for New York.

 

All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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