Knicks expect 'focused' J.R.; do you?

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
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SmithAP Photo/David ZalubowskiJ.R. Smith can be fantastic -- and frustrating. Do you think he's worth the headache?
We’re not breaking any news when we tell you that, to many NBA observers, J.R. Smith is a talented but erratic scorer whose behavior can leave coaches, GMs and team presidents pulling their hair out.

Viewed in that context, Smith's 2013-14 season with the Knicks may have been his defining campaign.

It began with an offseason knee surgery that was timed, by Smith's own admission, to allow him to capitalize on his free agency.

It continued with a five-game suspension for a violation of the NBA's banned substance policy.

After a slow start on the court due in part to the knee surgery, Smith made headlines in November for appearing to threaten Brandon Jennings on Twitter after Jennings insulted Smith's younger brother, Chris Smith. He was fined $25,000 for the tweet. Then, in late December, Smith angered the Knicks by publicly questioning the team's decision to cut his brother.

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As if that wasn't enough, Smith was fined $50,000 by the NBA for attempting to untie his opponents' shoelaces in early January.

At the time of the fine, Smith was shooting just 34.8 percent from the field and scoring 11.3 points per game -- nearly seven points fewer than the previous season.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what looked to be a disastrous year for the 2012-13 Sixth Man Award winner.

Smith's surgically-repaired knee started to feel normal again, and his shots started falling. In the final 43 games of the season (after Smith's second shoelace-related benching) he averaged 16.7 points per game on 45 percent shooting and knocked down 42 percent of his 3-point attempts; in the 31 games prior, Smith hit just 34 percent of his 3s.

Need more evidence to support his second-half revival?

Smith’s effective field goal percentage jumped nearly 11 percent over his final 43 games. (Effective field goal percentage is a shooting metric that adjusts for the value of 3-point shots.)

Smith was even more valuable later in the season for the Knicks. After being inserted into the starting lineup for the final 22 games, Smith averaged 18.1 points per game as the Knicks finished the season 16-6.

To Knicks general manager Steve Mills, Smith’s success in the second half of the season can be attributed to more than just an improved jump shot.

"I think we saw in the last month and a half of the season that J.R. was much more locked in as a player," Mills said earlier this month on the MSG Network. "I think when you walked in the locker room you could see ... that he was focused in a way that he wasn't at the beginning of the season."

The big question now for the Knicks and president Phil Jackson is this: Which Smith will show up for the 2014-15 season?

Will it be the player who caused headaches with his shot selection and impulse control in the first half of the season? Or the otherworldly scorer who gave opponents fits in the second half of the year? Or (the most likely option) a combination of both?


Says Mills, "We have all the confidence in the world that [Smith] will come back and be focused and locked in the way he was at the tail end of the season."

Smith’s success this season will depend, in part, on how well he can fit into the triangle offense. Smith has been accused of over dribbling in the past, which is a no-no in the triangle. But as long as he can curtail that, there's reason to believe Smith can thrive as a jump shooter in the triangle.

The 28-year-old hit 45 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts last season, including 46.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, per SportVU. That 3-point percentage was the sixth highest among players who attempted at least 1.5 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game, according to the stats site.

That kind of efficiency would fit well in the triangle offense which, when run properly, produces ample open jump shots.

But will Smith get the opportunity to show what he can do in the triangle? The New Jersey product referred to last season as the "worst" of his career in an interview on ESPN's "First Take." He also said he wouldn't have been surprised if he was traded last season.

According to a league source, the Knicks have had discussions recently about making a move at shooting guard by trading Iman Shumpert or Smith to clear up the logjam at the position.

Smith, though, is set to make $5.9 million this season and has a $6.4 million player option for 2015-16. Those financial commitments to Smith, in addition to a resume filled with inconsistent play, would appear to diminish the shooting guard's value on the open market.

So if he ends up in a Knicks uniform on opening night, the team can only hope to have the version of Smith that suited up in the second half of last season: focused, productive and professional.

"I believe that Derek [Fisher] will be able to communicate with him and get him focused on what he can do to make our team better," Mills said of Smith.

The GM added that he thinks Smith can "buy into the philosophy that we have and make himself a better player."

Question: Do you agree with Mills? Can Smith help the Knicks win this season? Or should they look to trade him?

You can follow Ian Begley on Twitter.

Ian Begley

ESPN New York Writer

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Carmelo Anthony
PTS AST STL MIN
24.0 3.2 0.9 36.7
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsA. Stoude... 7.4
AssistsJ. Calderon 4.2
StealsP. Prigioni 1.3
BlocksS. Dalembert 1.2