Chris Smith Makes the Team: Business as Usual

Friday morning, the Knicks announced who would occupy the final three spots of their 2013 opening day roster. Unsurprisingly, guard Toure Murray and center Cole Aldrich made the team, and both deservingly so. While he can’t score a lick, Aldrich gives the Knicks a much needed third center who can give them ten decent minutes when needed. Though the team has a plethora of point guards, Murray was easily the best of these fringe roster players during the pre-season. The final roster spot however, is one that has generated a lot of controversy in Knicks-land.

Chris Smith is the brother of JR Smith. He also plays basketball, point guard to be specific, though he’s shown no signs to be good at it. Now, it’s not uncommon for siblings of NBA players to get summer league or pre-season tryouts. LeBron’s arranged for that before, Kobe has done it, and many others have as well. There’s nothing wrong with giving Smith a chance to prove himself in summer league and pre-season. But from what we’ve seen, Chris Smith isn’t an NBA player. In the pre-season, he played fewer minutes than anybody on the team. His 20 minutes played was four fewer than Chris Douglas-Roberts, who was cut and was never really a serious candidate to be a Knick. I think it’s fairly obvious that Coach Woodson knows that Smith isn’t an NBA player, so why is he on the team?

Well, for starters, Jeremy Tyler got injured. While I’m skeptical of what Tyler can actually contribute to the team this season, I think he clearly was a guy they wanted to keep. He’s raw offensively and doesn’t comprehend defense at all, but he’s athletic as hell and has good size for a big at 6’10 250 lbs.  I feel pretty comfortable in believing that Tyler would’ve had Chris Smith’s spot on the team if he was able to stay healthy. There’s a belief among those who cover the team that Smith will eventually be cut when Tyler is ready to play. I also subscribe to that belief, and from that standpoint the Knicks keeping Smith doesn’t seem as bad. But it is.

Kenyon Martin is already injured, and may not be ready to go by next Wednesday. Stoudemire is trying to work his way back, but nobody knows what he can give the team and when he’ll be able to give it to them. Even with Aldrich, the Knicks are short on big men. It hasn’t been announced whether Bargnani (welp) will start (double-welp) alongside Chandler, or if Woodson will put his thinking cap on and play Anthony at power-forward. If Bargnani does end up starting, and Woodson plans to play bigger lineups, we’ll likely see the Italian playing 25-30 minutes a night (triple-welp). If Martin and Stoudemire are unable to go, then Aldrich becomes your one big off the bench. He’s a guy you can get away with playing ten minutes a game if you have to, but you don’t want him to be playing significant minutes by design. Rather than Smith, who likely will never even be active, the Knicks should’ve kept Ike Diogu for the time being until Tyler is healthy – assuming the plan is to eventually bring back Tyler and cut Smith.

While Diogu is a fringe NBA player himself, the position he plays is a more valuable one to the Knicks. They’re insanely thin on the front line and need bodies. Diogu showed great effort in the pre-season. He’s not really good, but at least he tries hard and gets to commit six fouls like everybody else. I don’t think any of these 15th spot guys we’re talking about have much upside as rotation players, though I do think Smith was by far the least useful of the Knicks camp bodies. The most Lin-ish or Copeland-ish of these guys, in terms of potentially making contributions, is Murray. I don’t see Diogu or Smith or even Tyler having more than replacement level upside this season.

I think what ultimately happens is that Woodson starts Carmelo at the four. The Knicks are too thin to be starting two big men, in my opinion. They play the two point-guard lineup to start games and bring in Bargnani off the bench. Aldrich plays 8-12 minutes a game, assuming Martin and Stoudemire cannot go. And Martin being hurt really does hurt the team. They need him to be that defensive center who plays next to Stoudemire or Bargnani. Right now, that guy is probably Aldrich. And yeah, he’s big and strong, but he’s not half the defender that Chandler or Martin are.

Toure Murray intrigues me. He’s a hard nosed defensive guard and the fans love him. I caught glimpses of the summer league, and by glimpses I mean the one game that Iman Shumpert played, and he wasn’t overly impressive to me. He’s been more impressive in pre-season and he was definitely deserving of making the roster. The problem for him is that the Knicks are very good at the guard positions. Felton, Prigioni and Udrih are all significantly better options at point guard and Shumpert, JR Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr will all see rotation minutes at shooting guard. It’s hard to find consistent minutes for Murray. However, the Knicks have been no stranger to the injury bug over the last few seasons. At some point I think we do see Murray in action, but I don’t think it’ll be by design.

The Knicks have always done business in a shady, bizarre manner. They mirror the style of their owner, in that regard. This Smith situation feels shady to me. And let me preface all this by saying that I really do feel sorry for Chris Smith. Yes, he makes an NBA roster and the guaranteed money that comes along with it. But this cloud of controversy will be hanging over his head at what should be a joyous time for him and the Smith family. This feels so illegitimate, and I’m sure he feels the same way after playing just 20 minutes in the pre-season. Clearly there are other factors are work here, the most likely being some sort of back-room agreement between JR Smith’s agency team and the Knicks front office.

I’ve seen Knicks fans on twitter say “Well, they’re a package deal. It’s business.” No. It’s not business. Look at every other NBA roster. How many D-League level NBA players are on rosters solely based on the presence of a family member on said roster. I’ll save you the work; the answer is zero. This is not something that happens regularly, if ever. I certainly can’t remember another situation like this. Again, D-League, summer league, pre-season roster, yes this happens. But a regular season roster? No way. This isn’t business as usual, it’s Knicks business as usual.

And Knicks business as usual is almost always bad business. Where politics trumps logic. Where hard work loses out to sibling association. This is wrong. I feel bad for Chris Smith, but I feel worse for Ike Diogu, who should’ve made the team. Or the other camp tryouts who now realize they didn’t even really have a shot because JR’s brother was going to be gifted a spot. In the end, will this end up biting the Knicks? Maybe, maybe not. The lack of big man depth may hurt, but Smith himself won’t ever see game action and likely won’t be on the team come January 1st, but that isn’t the point. With the Knicks, results are never the point. And that’s the problem.