One of the more intriguing story lines for the New York Knicks this offseason outside of the Jeremy Lin front revolves around the looming decision for sixth man J.R. Smith.
Smith was a mid-season addition by the Knicks when he escaped his stay playing in the Chinese Basketball League. He holds a player option for the 2012-13 season worth just over $2 million and, while he has hinted towards testing the free agent market via Twitter, nobody knows for certain what his decision will inevitably be.
When he did arrive to New York, Smith played almost exclusively off the bench (in his 35 games with the Knicks, only once did he appear in the starting line-up). However, Smith played roughly 27 minutes a night and was often on the court during crunch time situations with Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire.
On the season, he averaged 12.5 points (4th on the team), 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 steals. However, his 40.7% from the field was his lowest shooting percentage since the 2005-06 season he spent in New Orleans, and his 34.7% from beyond the arc was the second-worst of his career.
Though the decision is out of the hands of the front office, one question is worth asking: are the Knicks better off without J.R. Smith next season?
When looking at the free agent market, are there better options than Smith that will cost the same or less? With the team looking to maximize production out of their dollars, this is an important question to ask.
With his performance down the stretch for the Los Angeles Clippers, it appears Nick Young is going to take up the majority of some team’s Mid-Level Exception, putting him probably out of the Knicks price range for the position their looking to fill. Neither DeShawn Stevenson or Delonte West would fill the scoring need off the bench the Knicks would be seeking, and, at this point in their careers, are more along the lines of a veteran role player/defensive stopper as opposed to sixth man.
The likely options within the Knicks price range fall along the lines of Randy Foye and Marco Belinelli. The most expensive I can see the Knicks going on the free agent market would be for a player like Leandro Barbosa, who has the ability to start for the Knicks and push Landry Fields into a sixth man role. If you wanted to get creative, Philadelphia restricted free agent Jodie Meeks could be an option, though anything inexpensive would likely be matched by the 76ers. And there’s the question of how much you believe in the strong play from New Jersey swing-man Gerald Green at the end of last season.
Of the players listed, I would probably rank Smith ahead of them all with the exception of Barbosa. But, again, in my opinion, I don’t see a scenario in which Barbosa takes less than the full Mid-Level Exception, which is something J.R. Smith is scheduled to do next season.
I also believe some team is going to be more willing to take a chance and overspend on both Gerald Green or Randy Foye, who both could start for second division teams and be seen as a slight improvement. The market is going to price them out of the Knicks comfort range.
I am, however, intrigued by the possibilities of Marco Belinelli. Last season, the 26-year old Italian averaged 11.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He has experience both starting and playing off the bench, and can play the point in a pinch. Maybe more importantly, he made $3.37 million, a step above what Smith made ($2.23 million). The positives to Belinelli over J.R. Smith is he doesn’t command the attention offensively that Smith seemingly craves, all while having the ability to score at will and net 20+ points on any given night. He was a %37.7 shooter from 3, and 41.7% from the field, similar averages to Smith.
Should Smith decide against picking up his player option, Belinelli should be considered as a free agent option, even if he requires a bit of a raise in the process.
The second and third options needed to be considered if the Knicks are to move on without J.R. Smith revolve around who is currently on the roster and who the Knicks could possibly draft. Both of these scenarios we’ve covered extensively so far. As much as we all love Steve Novak, he isn’t a true sixth man, and his defensive liabilities can hurt the Knicks in crunch time situations (even if he’s 3-point shooting is beyond lethal). Iman Shumpert will miss the majority of next season, if not all of it, so he isn’t really an option. I covered Kim English and his draft potential last week, and while he has the potential to grow into a prototypical sixth man, he won’t be at that point in time for the Knicks next season.
So, are the Knicks better off without J.R. Smith? They could be, with the potential of someone fitting the Knicks’ style of play being available on the free agent market. Smith is a player who commands the ball on offense, even in games in which he may not have his shooting touch. Preferably, the Knicks need a scorer off the bench, but someone with the wherewithal to defer when needed.
Is that player Marco Belinelli? Or can J.R. Smith refine his game? These are important question the Knicks front office need to investigate in order to put a better product on the court.
Is J.R. Smith a better pure scorer than Belinelli? Yes.
But, is that what the New York Knicks need with the line-up they currently have? Not necessarily.