In all my years of watching the New York Knicks, never have I been more confused than I am at this moment, trying to come up with some explanation as to why J.R. Smith was benched in last night’s loss to the Charlotte Bobcats.
I don’t have all of the details and I won’t attempt to act as though I do, but what I watched on Tuesday–when head coach Mike Woodson did not play Smith for a single second of action–seemed incredibly unfair to one J.R. Smith.
And to be completely honest, I have been one of Smith’s bigger critics during his tenure in New York. I even called for the team not to re-sign him after last season, when I felt that his antics–including his elbow of Jason Terry in Game 4 of the Boston series–were so disruptive to the team that they overrode his talent. Still, despite the issues that I have taken and will continue to take with JR, I can be objective enough to realize when something is unjust and nonsensical, and that’s what I got from Tuesday’s benching.
When Smith was benched in last week’s win over the Miami Heat, I was all for it. After he ignored the league’s warnings and even Woodson’s warnings about untying opponents’ shoelaces, he deserved it. But after it was over, I believed he had learned his lesson. The entire country was able to witness the benching on a nationally-televised stage, and Smith seemed truly embarrassed. I thought that, maybe–just maybe–it would finally send a message to JR that he absolutely needed to clean up his act.
Since Smith joined the Knicks nearly two years ago, he has committed foolish mistake after foolish mistake, and not once was he held accountable before last Thursday. Woodson had several opportunities to bench JR or to at least discipline him in some capacity, but his minutes were never reduced. Instead, Woodson continually stuck by JR, even when he struggled to produce on the court from just a pure basketball standpoint.
If Smith wasn’t going to be punished for his actions, then what would make him decide to behave? Nothing. He knew that he could get away with anything and everything, because he had Woodson in his corner.
So, when–at last–Woodson benched JR on Thursday night, I applauded the coach. It was the only way to get through to Smith. And, to his credit, JR was humbled, or so he seemed to be. Over the next two games, I was impressed by his maturity on the court, and–not coincidentally–he played pretty well, providing a real spark off of New York’s bench. In the back-to-back wins over the Sixers and Suns, Smith made 10 of 19 shots from the field, averaged 12 points and four assists, and committed only one turnover.
And then, on Tuesday night against the Bobcats, and seemingly out of nowhere, Smith sat on the bench for the entirety of the game. Obviously, it would have been much harder to criticize Woodson had the Knicks won, but that’s where part of the problem lies: the Knicks lost on Tuesday, and they surely could have used JR.
Coming off of a thrilling overtime win against the Suns on Monday night, the Knicks were clearly fatigued and overmatched by a well-rested Bobcats team. New York was in the game throughout, but after falling behind in the second quarter, the team was never able to get over the hump.
In the second half, the Knicks were in desperate need of someone to make a couple of quick baskets and give them some energy. Who’s to say that JR couldn’t have done that? Who’s to say that, had he played and played well, the Knicks wouldn’t have actually won?
I first assumed that JR must have done something from the time between the conclusion of the game Monday night until tipoff on Tuesday–something that would lead to his benching. But, after the game, the players–from Carmelo Anthony to Tyson Chandler to Smith himself–were clueless about the situation. And, worst of all, Woodson refused to give an honest answer, saying only that he “just didn’t play him”. Right, you just didn’t play one of your more talented players in a game–on the second night of a back-to-back, not to mention–that your team could have used an extra boost off of the bench.
Now, is it possible that Woodson instructed the team to keep quiet about whatever is going on with Smith? Sure, it’s possible, but I’m not buying that storyline. I have a hard time believing that–after being ridiculed so much over the past few days–JR would act up and do something stupid this soon after the shoelace incident.
Again, all of my views and beliefs about this are coming from a distance, but I think Woodson is making a huge mistake. I understand him being fed up with Smith and wanting to play guys that have better attitudes, but JR has done nothing since the first benching to warrant another one.
And the main reason this latest benching could turn out to be such a blunder isn’t because the Knicks desperately need Smith in order to be successful (though they could have used him on Tuesday), it’s because of the timing.
Before last night’s loss, the team had won five of six, including four in a row, and I was under the impression that–after a 9-21 start to the season–these guys were finally turning the corner. It wasn’t just that the Knicks were winning games, it’s how they were winning them. They were having fun, they were sharing the ball, and the team chemistry was at an all-time high.
I’m not saying that it will happen, but what Woodson did last night in benching JR has the potential to completely and utterly disrupt that very chemistry. This is an NBA team, not an NFL team, and what I mean by that is that there are only 15 men in that locker room, not 53. These guys are incredibly close to one another, and if they believe that one of their brothers–especially a key player like JR–is being mistreated by the head coach, it can cause tension and it can even lead to the team as a whole turning against the coach
Right now, New York is 15-23 and a half-game out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. This team has fought incredibly hard just to get back into the playoff picture at all, and it simply cannot afford another long stretch of losing. If the Knicks have anything close to another 9-21 record over a 30-game span, they will not make the playoffs. It’s Woodson’s responsibility more than it is anyone else’s to ensure that another excessive losing streak like that doesn’t occur. It’s his job to keep his players happy and motivated to play competitive, team basketball. So, please, coach, just swallow your pride and give JR his minutes. It’s for the betterment of the team.