Apr 19 2013
Written by JS Gunther
Rejoice!! Not only are the Knicks headed to the playoffs but they wrapped up the Atlantic Division and the 2 seed in the East!! If you had told me in September that the season would play out this way, I would have assumed you were the devil and were interested in attaining my soul. Undoubtedly, the Knicks had a season to celebrate. And on top of that celebration, we also had the NBA’s scoring champion (congrats Melo!) and the potential (probable?) 6th Man of the Year.
Allow me to take a trip back to the previously alluded to past September before the 2012-13 NBA season started, back in the days when many believed the Lakers to be a potential 70 win team and the Andrew Bynum acquisition was a steal for the 76ers, Jonathan Abrams wrote a piece (link to JR Grantland article) about that potential 6th Man of the Year, one Earl Smith III, a.k.a. J.R. Smith, for Grantland. In this article, Abramsʼ general thesis questions J.R.ʼs erratic nature and whether or not it is a function of him being misguided or is it simply a case of J.R. being misunderstood by fans, coaches, teammates, and anyone else even remotely associated with the NBA. While Abrams did a phenomenal job, what he did not stress enough is what J.R. Smith truly has been over the course of his 9 seasons: frustrating. Frustrating to his teammates. Frustrating for his coaches (see Karl, George). But mostly, he has been frustrating to the fans of the teams that have employed him through the years. But that changed this season…potentially?
This season, and culminating in J.R.’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week award a few weeks back (while the Knicks wrapped up the 2-seed), the narrative has changed in regards to Smith. Writers that used to call JR a “punk” were now praising his maturity (Berman example praising him as an All-Star). NBA media pundits who previously regarded him as a tatted-up punchline were now in almost unanimous agreement that we were watching a changed man on the court. For much of November and December I certainly drank the Kool-Aid as well. But, as the season progressed, I started to question my initial analysis. Were we really witnessing the maturation of a supremely talented player finally “putting it all together”? Or, is it mostly smoke and mirrors and is J.R. still the same old J.R. tryin’ to get dat pipe (or more accurately, scouting for members of the opposite sex interested in dat pipe)? Or is the answer somewhere in between? Is there an optimal version of J.R. Smith that can harness his strengths and be not only a positive to the Knicks roster, but a driver for them succeeding in the playoffs? Will Taylor’s new writer STOP JUST ASKING QUESTIONS?
Well, yes to that last one. But clearly, many questions surround J.R. Smith, who for years has been one of the NBA’s biggest conundrums, a seemingly unsolvable riddle wrapped in a frustrating enigma that I am dead set on solving. Or, at a minimum, figuring out if J.R. himself and Mike Woodson have solved this perplexing riddle-enigma paradox already.
In all honesty, approximately 2 seasons into his Knicks career (a midseason pickup last year) I have watched 95% of J.R. Smith’s minutes and still have no idea what to make of him. Sometimes he looks like the a better, taller, two-way player version of Jason Terry, and yet other times he looks like (once again) a taller, step-back long 2 pointer happy version of Nate Robinson. But through the years whether it be with the Hornets, Nuggets, or Knicks all NBA junkies have never forgotten those flashes of brilliance from J.R. But flashes of brilliance aside, it all comes down to TRUST. Can Knicks fans truly trust J.R. to maintain his good stretches. Which got me, a nerdy movie buff, to thinking of a comparison. Is J.R. Smith the Knicks/NBA version of Anakin Skywalker? Apologies to those who are not Star Wars fans, or more specifically fans of the less beloved prequel trilogy, but check out the quote below from Episode III and tell me it doesn’t apply.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Anakin did not take to his new assignment with much enthusiasm.
Mace Windu: It’s very dangerous, putting them together. I don’t think the boy can handle it. I don’t trust him.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: With all due respect, Master, is he not the Chosen One? Is he not to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?
Mace Windu: So the prophecy say
The basic idea behind the comparison is that the Knicks RELY ON J.R. Smith, but he is known to be a tad “all over the place.” Case in point on our reliance: he plays over 33 minutes per game (in 8 games he played 40+) and he is the team’s 2nd leading scorer. We NEED him just like the Jedi needed Skywalker to restore balance to the Force. In the past, Smith’s coaches (i.e. George Karl) have not trusted him, mimicking Mace Windu’s feelings above. But, is Mike Woodson’s (perhaps our Obi-Wan Kenobi but goateed instead of bearded?) well documented positive relationship with J.R. enough to direct him towards the light side of the Force (the “good J.R.”) and not towards Anakin’s ultimate fate of becoming the evil Darth Vader (the “how do you shoot a stepback in this game?!” J.R.). Look, obviously Carmelo Anthony is the Knicks best player, that is a given. But for J.R. Smith to be the Knicks “Chosen One” in terms of him being the player that can put the team over the top, carry the scoring load CONSISTENTLY, especially when Melo is on the bench or (gulp!) in foul trouble, he needs to embody the qualities that embody “good J.R.” Can he handle it? Can we trust him? He’s clearly been an erratic player in his career, but there have been times this season where he has indeed been All-Star caliber. Lets try to figure out when, and more importantly why, he has been able to live up to his potential at times.
So clearly with an erratic man on our hands here, we need to break this down a bit. Let’s look at J.R.’s season based upon the arbitrary split of pre-March 1 and post-March 1, so we (hopefully) can pinpoint exactly if and when this so-called maturation process took place, and attempt to once and for all after a 9 year career try to discover which version of J.R. Smith is the optimal version. I’ll break these down first by raw numbers, then by percentages, and finally by some advanced metrics.
J.R. Smith from November 2012 through February 2013 (54 games):
- 33.2 MPG, 16.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.4 TOV
- .404 FG%, .353 3p%, .766 FT%, 22.7% shots w/in 8 ft., 41.9% shots 9-24 ft., 35.4% 3pA
- .500 TS%, .466 eFG%, 8.6 TRB%, 14.3 AST%, 8.2 TOV%, 24.5 USG%, 104 ORtg, 107 DRtg
J.R. Smith from March 2013 through April 2013 (26 games) :
- 34.0 MPG, 22.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 2.2 TOV
- .455 FG%, .359 3p%, .757 FT%, 33.7% of shots w/in 8 ft., 32.3% shots 9-24 ft., 33.9% 3pA
- .558TS%, .516 eFG%, 11.0 TRB%, 15.0 AST%, 9.8 TOV%, 30.9 USG%, 112 ORtg, 106 DRtg
Not surprisingly, the numbers look MUCH better after March 1st. This should not shock any fan of the Knicks that has watched the team in recent weeks, but looking at those pre-March 1 numbers begs the question as to why J.R. was getting so much positive press earlier in the season. Look, those who know me are aware that I was very vocal against Smith’s 6th Man of the Year and All-Star candidacies in February. Putting aside the increased PPG and game winners (there were 2 of them, which were awesome but two shots do not a story tell in the grand scheme of things), the stats told a different story. For the most part, J.R. Smith was still the same J.R. Smith. Take a look at his statistics from one of his Nuggets seasons (2007-08):
For the most part those numbers are better across the board than J.R.’s numbers from this season. In fact, J.R. was pretty damn good that season. Where he’s improved this season over his career; on his turnovers and rebounding, which I think does give credence to the “Woodson factor” in improving Smith. It is no secret that Mike Woodson has stressed protecting the ball and I am of the humble opinion that his “fatherly relationship” (or maybe its just the power goatee?) has brought out more hustle in J.R., and accordingly with rebounds being a “hustle stat”, an improvement in that aspect of his game. But, in terms of Smith’s scoring, most of his increase in PPG average was attributable to a substantial increase in minutes, as this season he has averaged 33.5 MPG, about 8 MPG above his career average. So for all the talk of J.R. being a better scorer, he was still a very inefficient one.
Earlier this season it was these abhorrent efficiency numbers that were still so concerning, and what not only made him a suspect All-Star candidate back in February, but also a key driver towards his undoing in terms of being a reliable player. It all comes back to that all important factor: trust. To me, it has not been the entire 2012-13 season where J.R. has been trustworthy as some would make you believe, but rather a very noticeable “switch” was flipped at some point in March.
If you take a look again at the post-March 1 numbers, you obviously see marked improvement in all of J.R. Smith’s scoring efficiency numbers. Additionally, you may notice that I put in the numbers regarding where he was taking his shots on the floor in each period. I think most fans have heard by now that J.R. is better when he “gets to the rim,” but that often leads to fans instantly equating that to “he shoots too many 3s!” Well, as you can see above, “good J.R.” post-March 1 took a very similar percentage of 3PA (33.9%) as the pre-March 1 “bad J.R.” Darth Vader counterpart (35.4%). He should shoot 3s. The Knicks like 3s. 3s ARE NOT BAD (unless you are Antoine Walker concerned about the lack of 4 pt opportunities). So if he has not been taking less 3s, what actually changed?! Well, Smith decreased his reliance on basketball’s least efficient shots – midrange and long 2-point attempts. Earlier in the season, J.R. was taking a midrange or long 2 41.9% of his shot attempts. The post-March J.R. decreased that number 32.3%, while upping his close range attempts from a paltry 22.9% to a respectable 33.7%. Oh and what did all that getting to the rim get him, well more trips to the charity stripe of course! Before March 1, Smith averaged 3.1 FTA per game, increasing to 5.5 FTA per game after March 1. Hey, no one is going to complain about more trips to the charity stripe (unless you are Dwight Howard, maybe).
The point I am trying to make is that this change in Smith’s shot selection was a major driver towards him being a much more effective and efficient player of late. He has reached numbers, in terms of efficiency that are actually more comparable to the likes of a Jason Terry or even Manu Ginobili, previous 6th man champions. What does this mean exactly? In basic terms it means that J.R. has, over the last 26 games or so, evolve from a bench “gunner” to a true bench scorer. He has been someone you can trust to, for the most part, make the right decision with the ball. Now, I know that 26 games does not a substantial sample size make. But, if you remember his efficient stats from the 2007-08 season from earlier, you can see a previous 74 game sample where Smith was able to sustain reliability. Well, if you take a look at his shot chart from that season, you’ll notice something. (Click to make the chart bigger).
Well surprise, surprise. Looks like in his most efficient season, J.R. Smith once again got to the rim more often than typically taking 32.8% of his shots there, again waaaayyy above the 22.7% he was posting earlier this season. This tells me that the efficient J.R. is sustainable since he has done this before over legitimate sample sizes, but the onus is Woody to (a) hopefully realize that J.R. needs to focus on open 3s and getting to the rim on offense and (b) demand that he play that way. Call me crazy, but I have faith that it could happen.
So, I guess you can put me into the group with an opinion that is somewhat contradictory; I think that J.R. Smith, due to being basically his ordinary inefficient self for 2/3 of the season, has not been the runaway winner of 6th Man of Year this season. However, I do believe he could be the 2nd best scorer and 3rd/4th best player on a championship caliber team (a la 2011 Jason Terry). Especially if he can keep playing with the efficiency he has shown of late (and in 2007-08), he can be the 2nd scorer the Knicks can rely upon. In general terms, J.R. has indeed improved this season, but when taking into account the entire season, he’s improved only marginally so in comparison to what you’ve seen and read in the media. At the same time, hat statement is not meant to discredit the flashes of brilliance that Smith has shown this season, sometimes for more
extended periods (i.e. in recent weeks especially) than he has shown during similar flashes in previous times throughout his career. I just hope I am correct in that, as someone emotionally tied to the success of the Knicks, this recent stretch is indicative of J.R. Smith truly realizing what he should be and we are not simply witnessing a peak in performance before an inevitable regression to the mean.
Simply stated, J.R. Smith has a plethora of talents. He also has some faults. Just like any other player, he needs to maximize his talent and minimize (or hide) his faults in order to best help his team. In the past, minimizing the “bad” has been J.R.’s biggest issue (too many midrange shots, taking contested shots, laziness/ gambling on defense), but if he can sustain his play from the last few weeks of season, he just may be exactly what the Knicks need to make a legitimate run in the playoffs. So, on the off chance that J.R. Smith reads this, I beg of him to not turn to the dark side in the playoffs. Stay on the light side. Keep taking the ball to the rim. Keep shooting the 3-ball (as long as its open), and keep up the good work and hustle on the boards and on D. Do this, and you can fulfill your (and the Knicks’) championship destiny. Or at least give LeBron and the Heat a series in the Eastern Conference Finals!
Follow JS Gunther on Twitter at @EmbraceAnalytix