When Mike Woodson said that J.R. Smith is in contention to start this season, he may have meant nothing by it; “Yes, everyone is in contention to start — even J.R.” To say outright that Smith doesn’t have a chance to start probably would’ve sparked media fireworks, anyway. Woodson toyed with the idea of starting Smith at times last year, but ultimately left him in his sixth-man position for the entirety of the season. Smith, of course, thrived in the role, posting the most productive season of his career and earning the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
There doesn’t seem to be much reason for Woodson to suddenly change things up, but it’s been oft-discussed by Knicks fans and analysts alike: does Smith deserve to start?
Considering his offseason, it’s hard to praise J.R. He waited until July to get knee surgery he needed after the season ended. Of course, it’s his prerogative to wait to secure a contract with a team before undergoing surgery — it is his career, after all — but the timing has put him out of training camp and likely the first few games of the season. Of course, he’s going to miss at least the first five games because he failed a drug test during the summer. It was revealed that players only receive a suspension after they’ve violated the NBA’s drug policy twice.
Furthermore, the end of Smith’s season was less-than-admirable. After taking himself out of a game in the first round matchup with the Boston Celtics by throwing an unnecessary elbow to Jason Terry, he was cursed by the “basketball gods.” That is, he managed 14 points per game on just 33% FG and 27% 3FG shooting, effectively bricking the Knicks into elimination.
Being named a starter is more like a title, especially in Smith’s case as he practically played starter’s minutes last season, averaging 33 minutes per game. However, advanced analytics use the Per-36 stat to measure a player’s production if he plays 36 minutes a game, the average minutes for a prominent starter. So let’s have a look at how Smith fared when he played 36 minutes or more in 2012-13.
He played 36 minutes or more in 28 games and averaged: 20.5 points on 41.6% FG, 36.3% 3FG, and 5.6 rebounds. As imagined, since he played such high minutes anyway, these numbers aren’t much different than his total season averages.
There is a case to be made for Smith to start, especially if the Knicks bring Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire off the bench. The two big men could fill Smith’s role as bench scorers, while the starting lineup would benefit from a secondary scorer and floor-spacer next to Carmelo Anthony in Smith.
However, there’s more to it. Rewarding Smith after his disappointing last few months doesn’t seem right. Furthermore, it might upset the chemistry of the team. With so many unknowns in the starting lineup right now (outside of Anthony, Raymond Felton, and Tyson Chandler), starting Smith could have ramifications in terms of moving Iman Shumpert (last year’s starting two-guard) to the bench, or playing he and Smith at the two and three, while Anthony moves to the four. Starting Smith also almost definitely takes away the option of starting two point guards, unless Woodson chooses to play Smith at the three and start two PGs in the back-court.
It’s a complicated situation. Smith is clearly a delicate player that needs hands-on attention from coaches. Moving him to the starting lineup, with only a small uptick in production, and furthermore ignoring his lousy playoffs and offseason — it just doesn’t seem right.,
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