- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The New York Knicks have a simple solution to their J.R. Smith problem, and it goes like this: Make him a nonperson. Make him the third-string shooting guard behind Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. for the rest of the season, and liberate him from the bench in the final minutes of blowouts so he can fire away at will with the scrubs.
In other words, force J.R. Smith to occupy the roster spot that was once wasted on his brother Chris, and then cut him in the summer through the stretch provision in the labor agreement that would allow the Knicks to soften their salary-cap hit by spreading the two-year, $12 million balance on his deal over five seasons.
The Knicks could actually develop two promising draft picks (When's the last time they did that?), and extricate themselves from a player who has humiliated them with one insubordinate act after another, and who has failed them in two consecutive postseasons (through lousy play against Miami in 2012, and through an elbow to Jason Terry's head against Boston and more lousy play against Indiana in 2013). Why allow Smith yet another chance to sabotage them when Shumpert and Hardaway are younger, hungrier, and more professional alternatives?
Only nothing ever is on the basketball side of Madison Square Garden, which explains why J.R. Smith isn't the only one to blame for, you know, J.R. Smith. He is a symptom of a greater ill, the mere embodiment of the way the Knicks conduct business.
Start with Mike Woodson, who is playing the tough guy with Smith far too late in the game. Woodson earned the full-time job with the Knicks only after dumping his agents, the Glass family, at the urging of the Garden, which wanted no part of negotiating with the same agents who scored $28 million for Woodson's mentor, Larry Brown, off his one-and-done 23-59 season. The moment Woodson agreed to hire the Garden's rep of choice, Creative Artists Agency, was the moment he first showed weakness to the players and the public.
And if that means tempering his natural personality to adhere to the Garden's draconian media policies, and letting Knicks officials tell him what to say or not say about player discipline, so be it. Woodson has at times refused to comment on Smith altogether, and at times refused to specify why he benched his sixth man for the Miami game, and then for the Charlotte game after playing him against Philadelphia and Phoenix. Appearing with Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco on ESPN New York 98.7 FM on Wednesday, Woodson did say that Smith has "got go grow up," that he needs to be "more of a pro in terms of his approach to the game," and that "when he's not doing what he's supposed to do, I've got to let him know about it."
Only in the same interview, Woodson also said he will never stop being one of Smith's "biggest supporters," and that he won't be "kicking J.R. to the curb. J.R. is a big part of what we've done here, and he will remain a big part."
Remain a big part? Why? Is it because Smith is represented by CAA, which counts Woodson, Carmelo Anthony, the Garden, Andrea Bargnani, and Knicks executives Allan Houston and Mark Warkentien among their clients, and general manager Steve Mills among their dear friends?
It sure can't be because Smith is shooting 36 percent from the floor, a career low.
"Nobody's bigger than the team," Woodson said.
Except the coach has placed Smith above the team at almost every turn. After J.R.'s elbow nearly cost the Knicks the Boston series, and surely cost them the rest they desperately needed before the Indiana series, Woodson "punished" him by trumpeting his potential promotion into the starting lineup at Shumpert's expense, this while Smith was waiting to serve his five-game drug suspension (as if that alone wasn't reason enough to keep him with the second string).
On Twitter, Smith has told Knicks fans he doesn't care what they think, and that he might leave for another team. He's threatened an opposing player, tweeted an inappropriate picture of a girlfriend, and suggested the Knicks betrayed him by cutting his brother Chris, in whom the team invested a guaranteed $2.1 million (luxury taxes included) as a favor to -- you guessed it -- J.R. Smith.
Off Twitter, Smith has engaged in heated exchanges with his coach, partied too hard in the playoffs (according to Rihanna, of all partiers), untied opponents' sneakers, staged an in-game boycott by refusing to shoot, and followed a second benching by showing up late to a team meeting. Smith is said to still be furious about the dispatching of Chris and his D-League skill set, which has to make Woodson feel pretty silly for saying in the preseason he might keep Chris on the roster because he had "a great deal of respect for that family."
And yet Woodson still says his team needs Smith, and will nurture him forevermore. On the day J.R. became eligible to be traded, it would be logical to think the Knicks were just trying to persuade someone, anyone, to take this radioactive reserve off their hands.
But the Knicks have a logic all their own, and they likely believe Smith is still a cause worth saving. The entire episode speaks to a lack of leadership that doesn't end with Woodson, who wouldn't even publicly rebuke Amar'e Stoudemire after he rammed his hand through a glass fire extinguisher case during the Miami playoff series.
Mills and the Knicks' owner, Jim Dolan, had to sign off on initially keeping Chris Smith, neglecting the fact that every roster spot is precious in a league with an ever-growing injury list. "And it's not just about the possibility of another Jeremy Lin being at the end of your bench," said a league source with ties to the Knicks. "Those players help set a tone in practice. You can't just give one of those spots away as a favor."
You can't just enable a disruptive force in the locker room, either. Back in a time when the Knicks considered anything short of a trip to the conference finals as an epic fail, Dave Checketts, Garden president, stormed into the locker room and blasted Charlie Ward and Allan Houston for embarrassing the franchise with anti-Semitic remarks attributed to them in a magazine piece.
Has Mills, or Dolan, or Houston for that matter ever gotten in Smith's face to loudly remind him of his obligations to the team and the brand? Or has it been soft love all the way?
In his first go-around as a high-ranking Garden executive, Mills failed to manage the deteriorating workplace dynamic between two people he hired, Isiah Thomas and Anucha Browne Sanders, who would successfully sue her employers for sexual harassment. If Mills has imposed his front-office will on Smith in recent weeks, wow, he's done a hell of a job disguising it.
Carmelo Anthony could flex his considerable in-house muscles here, too, and the league source said Smith's pattern of behavior "says as much about Anthony's lack of leadership as anything else. A coach needs cooperation from his team when something gets in the way of winning, as this clearly has."
If Melo has been too supportive of Smith in his public comments, he's only following his organization's lead. The Knicks gave a three-year contract to a guy who needs to be kept on one-year deals, and now, as they say in the business, they can't stop him, they can only hope to contain him.
The Knicks are trying to play the victim here, but they're the ones who created the J.R. Smith they now confront. In the end, they have a better chance of beating Miami or Indiana in seven than they do of ever getting this run-amok player back in line.