After winning the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013 and signing a three-year contract to remain with the New York Knicks, it looked like J.R. Smith was going to be a key part of a playoff team in the 2013-2014 season. Well, things did not go as planned as the Knicks, along with Smith, struggled for most of the season and failed to make the playoffs.
After posting career-highs of 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds to go along with 3.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game as the NBA‘s top man off the bench in 2012-2013, Smith’s numbers decreased in all of those categories except assists this past season (14.5/4.0/3.0/.9 respectively). His season got off to rough start as he was suspended for the first five games of the season for a third failed drug test, and it just seemed like he never was too into the game. He was fined for untying opposing players’ shoes on two occasions and really struggled shooting on the season, shooting just 41.5 percent from the field.
These antics, along with his inconsistent play and the Knicks inability to win, left many fans frustrated with the man who had brought them plenty of excitement the season before. With him being on contract and not a lot of people wanting to pay a guy who acts unpredictably, his trade value also diminished, which will most likely keep him with the Knicks for the extent of that contract. While many Knicks fans are thinking this is a bad thing, I actually think J.R. Smith will play better next season.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is health. After he signed his new deal before this past season, Smith underwent knee surgery. While the chronic knee issues he was diagnosed with were a potential problem, Smith played 80 games the season before and missed just three games other than the five he was suspended for at the beginning of the year. If he can consistently get on the court and impact the game on both sides of the ball like he did in 2013, then the Knicks and their fans would be happy.
While comparing the two seasons, his shooting percentage was only down seven percent (41.5 percent from 42.2). On top of that, he shot 39.4 percent from three this past season, four percent higher than his award-winning year and the third highest total of his career. He also played better as a starter this season, averaging more points, assists, rebounds and steals per outing while being a starter as compared to coming off the bench. His 16.5 points per game and 40.7 shooting percentage from three as a starter compared to 12.5 points and 37.3 percent from beyond the arc off the bench triggered a significant difference in his play between the two roles.
Phil Jackson taking the reigns of the Knicks as team president in late March didn’t hurt either. Something about the Zenmaster having his eyes on the court brought out a spark in Smith. In seven April games, he averaged 23.4 points per game, shot 49.6 percent from the field and 46.3 percent from three. On top of that, he stepped up his defense, nabbing 1.4 steals per game. He scored almost eight more points per game in that month than his second best month of the season (March) and had three of his four thirty-point games on the season during his last month. That is what I call impressing your boss, and during one of his final media talks of the regular season, Jackson even complimented Smith’s play.
Overall, with Smith entering what could be some of the best years of his career at 28 years old, I think he has a chance to play very well next season. He has his bad moments, so he will obviously have to limit those, but when he is on every NBA fan knows he can be hard to stop. Having a guy like Derek Fisher at the helm couldn’t hurt Smith either. I think Fisher’s experiences and ability to be a role model, along with the already-strong effect Phil Jackson had on his play, J.R. Smith could have another strong year in a New York Knick uniform.