The Knicks are doing the unthinkable - relying heavily on J.R. Smith (and winning!). Here's why they have succeeded so far.
I came upon an interesting statistic last week as I was doing research for my Middle Kingdom Previews article (Joe's Editor Note to Joe: way to plug your own articles, Joe!). At the time, the Knicks had played 13 games, compiling a record of 9-4. Check out a certain Knick's Game Scores for those first 13 games:
Now, you may be able to guess, given this article's title and banner photo, that the certain Knick in question is none other than J.R. Smith. J.R. ended up with a low Game Score in the Heat game because of a bad 3-11 shooting performance, but he did manage six assists and some feisty defense in that game, so I don't think it's a stretch to say that his four worst performances to start the season all came in Knicks' losses. Even after a pair of crap-tacular performances in wins over the Bucks and Suns, J.R. has by far the widest win-loss splits on the team in terms of shooting:
Ray Felton - another key player with a few crappy performances to his credit - has played four games with a Game Score below 8.0, but the Knicks have managed to win three of them - the lone exception being the Brooklyn game. J.R. has played five games with a Game Score below 8.0, and the Knicks are 2-3.
The Statty McNerdlingers of the world will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, but numbers like these help to demonstrate J.R.'s importance to the Knicks' success so far this season. Carmelo Anthony has been playing at an MVP level night-in and night-out, but J.R. has been the Knicks' tipping point: when Good J.R. has come to play, this team has been virtually unbeatable.
Now, this is the part of the article where I'm obligated by the International Brotherhood of Sportswriters to rehash the J.R. Story - but that shit's boring, so let's fast-forward through it, shall we?
...tremendous physical talent...run-in with the law...immature...fought with George Karl...tattoos!!!...will he ever pull it together?...this .gif:
Oh, how I wish that we could all agree from now on to post that .gif every time one of us is tempted to bring up the J.R. Story. Sometimes a .gif is worth a thousand sportswriter cliches.
Yes, J.R. is an all-star talent and no, he's not playing at an all-star level. He probably never will. And that fact is, for the moment, totally irrelevant. What is relevant is that J.R. Smith has played the second most minutes of any Knick this season (tied with Felton) and the Knicks are 12-4.
Mike Woodson has been charged with getting the most out of the player whose battles with former coach George Karl have become the stuff of legend. I'm sure many of you have read this brilliant pre-season J.R. profile, but I'd like to highlight this Karl quote:
"After particularly poor play from Smith in Game 4 of a playoff series against the Spurs in 2007, Karl memorably hissed, 'I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me.'"
J.R. Smith was 21 years old at the time, playing in his first playoff series. Way to coach a kid up, George. Woodson has taken the opposite approach; he has given J.R. more rope than he ever had with the Nuggets. The Player Occasionally Known as Earl is averaging 33.3 MPG so far, nearly six minutes more than he had at any point in his NBA career. Woodson has managed to stay patient with him even during the worst of of the Bad J.R. stretches, when most of us are screaming "take him out, Woody!" at the TV. The last game against the Suns was a perfect example: Woodson's stuck with J.R. for the final 18 minutes of the game, despite his abysmal 1-for-11 shooting performance. The coach was hamstrung a bit by the Kidd injury, and I'm sure he wanted to rest Ronnie Brewer, but not every coach would have showed so much patience during such a clear-cut case of "Bad. J.R." I'd like to believe that Woodson is playing the long game here: building the confidence of a player who has struggled with authority his whole career.
Has Woodon's patience paid off? Earl being Earl, he has forced the team to take the good with the bad. The bad, so far, has been his shot selection. When he's shooting, he's relying too much on contested jumpers from inside the arc. Noticed I said "when he's shooting", because Earl has improved his game in a way that is both crucial to the team and shocking to J.R. haters everywhere: he's shooting less...considerably less. J.R. Smith, long since dismissed by NBA pundits as an irredeemable chucker, is posting career lows in both usage rate and field goal attempts per 36 minutes. Are you sitting down? Good, cuz I'm about to blow your mind: Earl Smith III is currently 4th on the team in field goal attempts per 36 minutes (5th, if you include Chris Copeland!). What's more, J.R. is a mind-blowing 9th on the team in 3-point attempts per 36 minutes. Considering he's shooting over 45% from behind the arc, you could make a strong case that Earl should be getting more of the Knicks' three-point attempts. That's right, a Knicks' fan just said J.R. Smith should shoot more--checks calendar-- and we still have three weeks until the Mayan Apocalypse!
Aside from his (not) shooting, Earl's game has matured in other ways. His turnover rate is at a career low, as are his fouls per 36 minutes. He currently leads all Knicks in the Defensive Win Shares metric. As a fan, you may have noticed that your own rate of impulsively screaming "What the hell are you doing, J.R.?" per game has (somewhat) decreased.
There has been no radical change in J.R.'s game, but it does seem to me that he and the Knicks' staff have been tinkering with the Earl Formula. If J.R. can sprinkle just a pinch of smart shot selection into the mix, the Knicks' league-leading offense will become even more difficult to defend.
We're nearly a quarter of the way into the season, and the question remains: can one of the NBA's most schizophrenic players continue to control his game and keep the Knicks among the league's elite? Given the age and injury concerns of the Knicks roster - not to mention the uncertainty surrounding Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert - the Knicks' season may ride on the answer.