Sunday afternoon’s game against the San Antonio will feature the return of J.R. Smith. Smith has missed five games due to a suspension for violating the NBA’s drug policy, but furthermore, the New York Knicks have seen him in but one appearance this season as he rehabbed from a knee surgery through most of training camp and preseason. Frankly, Smith’s return couldn’t be coming at a better time.
Short-handed, missing their defensive anchor in Tyson Chandler, the Knicks need to last a month or so until he returns to the court. In the meantime, the Knicks won’t figure to be a great defensive team, so their hope is to simply outgun opponents — pick up the pace, shoot lots of three-pointers, outscore the other team. Smith’s biggest contribution, of course, comes on that end of the floor.
Through five games in the 2013-14 season, the Knicks have fared OK defensively, but their offense hasn’t put together many consistent quarters. The Knicks were an overall better team with Smith on the floor. Surprisingly, the team’s offensive rating was one point worse with Smith on the floor, but their defense was several points better, giving Smith a positive net rating. The differences in FG% when Smith was on the court or the bench were slight, but he did help the team shoot more free throws last year, an area the Knicks are struggling in this season.
Smith comes with plenty of headaches on offense, but on his good nights, there’s no denying that he’s a force for the Knicks. When he returns Sunday, the Knicks will openly welcome a guy who can create his own shot and isn’t afraid to let the ball fly from beyond the arc. Smith only shot 35% from deep last season, but he’s still a good enough threat from beyond the arc that defenses will react to him. If the Knicks can keep up the swift perimeter passing they showed Friday night in Charlotte, then Smith will either receive open looks from three-point range or will help open up looks for others. The Knicks have only shot 33% from three-point range on 24 attempts per game this season; Smith’s return will hopefully boost both of those numbers.
When it comes to shot creation, Smith was at his best last season diving and twirling to the rim where his athleticism makes him a very good finisher. On those plays, either created efficient shots for him, or he created looks for others by sucking the defense into the paint. The Knicks could certainly use some of that when he returns to the lineup.
But how will it affect the overall rotation? Most likely, it means Tim Hardaway Jr. will stay seated on the bench. Hardaway Jr. has had his moments, but he’s only shooting 34% from the field and 20% from deep on the year, struggling to fill Smith’s role as a scorer off the bench. In percentages and minutes alone, the Knicks will receive a boost by Smith’s return by simply filling in for Hardaway’s mostly empty minutes.
In addition, it will probably take minutes from Anthony — a welcome sign. ‘Melo’s been hovering around 40 minutes per game this season, far too many to start. We know Mike Woodson trusts Smith to carry the offense for stretches, so he will feel safer giving Anthony an extended breather while Smith handles the scoring role.
The Knicks, perhaps now more than ever, need to see “Good J.R.” take the floor. They’re already playing catch-up with a 2-3 record, and with Chandler down, they need a superb offense to carry them until the team gets to full health. Based on last year’s results, when Smith plays at his best, the Knicks are a better team. Let’s get that man on the floor.
Follow Scott Davis on Twitter.