Every weekday throughout the season, ESPNNewYork.com will tackle a burning question about the Knicks in our "Opening Tip" segment.
Today's Burning Question: Do you think J.R. Smith is the favorite for the Sixth Man Award?
Career highs in points and rebounds per game (17.4 and 5.1). Four 30-point performances this season, even off the bench -- the most in the NBA -- with two of them coming on back-to-back nights this week.
New York Knicks
In addition, his 44-26 Knicks lead the Atlantic Division, they're on a six-game winning streak, are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference and are on pace to reach 50 wins for the first time since 1999-2000.
Those numbers represent the kind of influence J.R. Swish is having in his second season in New York, which automatically put him in the Sixth Man Award discussion.
The key question is: Is he the favorite?
The other likely candidates are Jamal Crawford (Clippers), Kevin Martin (Thunder), Jarrett Jack (Warriors), J.J. Redick (Bucks) and Jeff Green (Celtics), but each of those players haven't adjusted to -- and excelled in -- different roles as much as Smith. Earlier in the season, Smith was mostly a knock-down 3-point shooter, and then he transitioned to effectively facilitating more pick-and-rolls in December and January when Raymond Felton was sidelined with a fractured right pinky.
During one stretch, Smith's scoring out of pick-and-rolls was higher per play than All-Star Chris Paul's.
Most recently, Smith has been an attacker in transition and half-court sets to give the Knicks another free throw threat beyond Carmelo Anthony. And Smith is playing at his best right now.
In addition to Mike Woodson pushing the sixth man to expand his game lately to score more in the paint, it's also because Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire aren't there to provide inside buckets. With the team playing more perimeter-oriented basketball, Smith has been needed more than ever, and he's stepping up to the plate.
While the biggest thing going against Smith is his low field goal percentage (.411), he's hit two game-winning shots this season and has electrified home and away crowds with clutch playmaking. Even if his scoring comes back down to earth, if he's as consistently efficient as he's been recently, and the Knicks continue to win, he'll be the favorite for the Sixth Man Award.
Woodson believes Smith will be hoisting the trophy for the first time in Smith's nine-year career.
"I saw something a year ago that I truly believed could help our ballclub and help us in a way we could win at a high level," Woodson said Thursday on ESPN New York 98.7 FM. "I went straight at [Smith] and just told him what I felt. I told him that he could be the best sixth man coming off the bench."
Do you think Smith is the top candidate for the Sixth Man Award? Leave us your comments below.
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