- Ian Begley, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
WHAT IT MEANS: J.R. Smith is the third player in Knicks history to win the NBA's Sixth Man Award, joining John Starks (1996-97) and Anthony Mason (1994-95). Smith beat out Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, a former Knick, for the award.
Smith led all bench players in points per game with 18.1. Crawford was second with 16.5 points per game. Golden State's Jarrett Jack (12.9 ppg) was another leading candidate for the honor.
HOW'D HE GET IT? For most of the season, it seemed as though Smith would take second place to Crawford. Smith was having a typical Smith season -- stretches of brilliance mixed in with streaks of poor shooting.
He struggled for much of January, shooting 36 percent from the floor in that month, including just 25 percent from beyond the arc.
But Smith started taking the ball to the rim consistently in mid-March, and everything changed.
During the Knicks' 13-game winning streak late in the regular season, the New Jersey native was a model of consistency. He scored 23.2 points per game on 49 percent shooting; prior to the winning streak, Smith averaged 16.7 points per game on 40 percent shooting.
The cause of Smith's turnaround was simple, really. He took better shots.
Smith doubled the percentage of shots he took in the restricted area during the winning streak (15.6 percent before March 18; 33 percent in the 13 games after).
For the season, Smith averaged 5.3 rebounds per game and handed out 2.7 assists. He shot 42.2 percent from the floor and 35.6 percent from beyond the arc.
WHAT ABOUT NOW? The Knicks need Smith to continue to attack the rim in the postseason. Coach Mike Woodson, who deserves as much credit as anyone in the Knicks organization for Smith's success, is confident that he can do so.
"He's grown as a player," Woodson said on the eve of the playoffs. "He's been very coachable. Yeah, we've had our battles over the year, but again, I'm paid to coach, he's paid to play. He's benefited from everything we've asked him to do and he's had a lot to do with that because he's learned his craft well and he's pushed himself. He's highly motivated."
Added longtime teammate Carmelo Anthony: "He's just focused. I saw a different J.R. this year. Everybody saw a different J.R. this year. He's locked in, he's focused. And he wants to win. It's about that time."
Smith had 15 points on 7-for-19 shooting in the Knicks' Game 1 win over the Celtics.
WILL HE STAY IN NEW YORK? Smith signed a two-year contract worth $2.8 million in the offsesaon. The second year has a player option. So Smith can exercise that and become a free agent this summer.
The Knicks will have Smith's Early Bird Right, meaning they can exceed the salary cap to re-sign the shooting guard if he decides to decline the 2013-14 player option, as expected.
As my colleague Jared Zwerling reported earlier this year, because the Knicks have Smith's Early Bird Rights, they can pay him up to 175 percent of this season's salary, which is $2.8 million. That means the Knicks could offer him a contract for next season at about $5 million, and the agreement could be up to four years with standard raises.
However, another team with significant cap space can offer Smith a higher amount than $5.5 million, and the Knicks would be powerless to stop him from leaving.
Smith seems comfortable in New York. He's close to his family, which is important to him. And he has a great relationship with Woodson. But at 27, this is a prime opportunity for Smith to earn a significant contract.
You can follow Ian Begley on Twitter.
2hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann