10:16 am Feb. 17, 2012
At first glance, it seems like a crazy idea: The New York Knicks, winners of seven straight since the advent of Jeremy Lin, are close to a deal with swingman J.R. Smith. The 6'6” guard/forward would quickly demand significant playing time and a significant share of the ball, potentially disturbing the makeup of a group that has been unbeatable over the past two weeks.
So why on earth would they do this?
The answer is that these Knicks have weaknesses that will eventually be exploited, particularly with a schedule that turns far more challenging in the near future. Smith would address lots of those weaknesses.
A first-round pick by the New Orleans Hornets in 2004, Smith has been a productive N.B.A. player throughout his career, first in New Orleans, then with the Denver Nuggets. He shoots the three extremely well, averaging better than 37 percent in his career, and 39 percent or better in four of the past five years.
He also excels at getting to the basket as well, with his athleticism producing a fair share of layups and dunks. He rebounds well at his position, pulling down four per game last year. He is an effective defender, and, like the current Knick guards, has a knack for forcing turnovers.
Smith would have been snapped up long ago had it not been for the quirk-filled N.B.A. offseason. With the lockout looming, a number of N.B.A. players elected to sign contracts overseas. Some, like Deron Willams in Turkey, had out clauses for when the N.B.A. resolved its bargaining differences.
But the players who signed in China—Smith, former Knick Wilson Chandler and former Net Kenyon Martin among them—had no such clause, and needed to play out their Chinese season first. Only once Smith's team was eliminated from the playoffs last week did he become available to sign, and he drew interest from numerous clubs.
It is easy to understand why Smith wants to join the Knicks, and just as easy to see why the Knicks want his particular skill set. The team, for all its February success, is shooting just 27.5 percent from three-point range in February—and that's including Steve Novak's 46.5 percent. With the regression of Landry Fields from the perimeter this year, New York lacks a player who can score from deep and contribute in other ways, too. (It is no accident that when Novak is in the game, the opposition finds a way to get the ball to whoever he's defending.)
That wouldn't be the case with Smith on the floor. Adding a sharpshooter to stretch the defense will give Jeremy Lin and Amar'e Stoudemire extra court space to run the pick and roll.
Stationing Smith at shooting guard might also keep defenses from focusing too much on Carmelo Anthony, who is a dangerous scorer even when unaccompanied. It would virtually guarantee single coverage on Anthony at all times.
Smith's propensity to steal the ball, and his combination of size and quickness, mean that New York will no longer struggle to match up against the league's more athletic shooting guards, as they sometimes did with the slower Fields. And Smith's polish, and consistency with his shooting, means the Knicks wouldn't have to rely on Iman Shumpert's still-emerging offensive game if they want defensive strength at the position late in ballgames.
The Knicks could also elect to keep the starting five as-is, and use Smith as the offensive focal point of the second unit. In that position, Smith would give the Knicks an effective penetrator when Lin is on the bench—something they are lacking, as anyone who watched the last fifteen minutes of Wednesday night's game could tell you. And with still-injured guard Baron Davis looking like he'll return soon, the Knicks would be stacked with back-court options.
The Knicks will have to cut someone to make room on the roster for Smith, but it won't necessarily hurt. Mike Bibby is an obvious option: He has provided little of value to the Knicks, shooting just 26 percent from three-point range and displaying an appalling lack of defensive prowess. Bill Walker hasn't shot well enough to make up for his frequent mental mistakes. And Renaldo Balkman, though a talented defender, has been made redundant by Jared Jeffries, and will only be more marginal when Josh Harrellson returns.
Smith's presence would be felt immediately. And the potential upside is significant enough, apparently, for the Knicks to mess with perfection.