The New York Knicks’ signed J.R. Smith to a three-year, $18 million contract this offseason and then promptly announced he’d be having major knee surgery. Such are the Jekyll-and-Hyde ways of Earl Joseph Smith III. It’s never easy. He’s that guy who reverses into the parking spot between the soccer mom’s van and the oversized SUV, when there’s a perfectly fine pull-through spot across the way. And he does it blindfolded. One-handed. And elbows the guy watching him when he’s done (too soon?)
That’s J.R. in a nutshell. And while the 2012-2013 season wasn’t short of the “what the hell are you doing?” moments J.R. unfailingly provides, along the way he posted career highs in points, rebounds and assists.
The biggest difference in J.R.’s game last season was shot selection — more than 28 percent of his shots came at the rim or within nine feet of the hoop. Between 2007 and 2012 such shots only accounted for 15 percent of J.R.’s chucking. Shots closer to the hoop tend to have a higher likelihood of going in, and the added benefit of more foul calls, as evidenced by J.R.’s career high four free throw attempts per game. Along the way another interesting thing happened — J.R. increased his efficiency all while playing more minutes than he ever had, nearly 34 per game.
J.R.’s usage rate last season was an absurd 26.46, meaning he attempted a field goal, was fouled or turned the ball over on approximately 26 percent of offensive possessions when he was on the floor. By comparison, LeBron James usage rate was 30.12. Conventional wisdom suggests that players get less efficient as their usage rates and minutes increase (it’s one of my biggest problems with “Per 36” stats), but J.R.’s case was precisely the opposite, illustrating the impact of his improved shot selection.
As bipolar as Smith’s game is, so too are his projections for next year. The knee surgeries he underwent — patella tendon surgery and arthroscopic surgery to repair a meniscus tear — are not insignificant procedures. The Knicks’ three to four month timetable suggests he’ll miss at least some of training camp, and perhaps the start of the regular season.
So, what can we expect for 2013-2014? If fully healthy, the evidence suggests that Smith’s 2012-2013 success can be replicated. His performance wasn’t a statistical anomaly, but rather a conscious decision (likely influenced by coaching) to improve shot selection. Although this can be repeated, with new weapon Andrea Bargnani in town and a healthy Iman Shumpert/Amar’e Stoudemire, a true sign of progress for the organization will be if J.R. doesn’t have to.