By Kenneth Teape
In what many expect to be a big award winning season for the Knicks, the first award came rolling in today in the form of Sixth Man of the Year for J.R. Smith. Smith is the third Knick in franchise to win the award, joining John Starks (1996-1997) and Anthony Mason (1994-1995). Smith beat out another former Knick, Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who finished second.
Smith led all bench players in scoring this season with 18.1 points per game, with Crawford next at 16.5 points and Golden State point guard Jarrett Jack third with 12.9.
For much of the season it looked like Smith would be the runner-up to Crawford, having a Smith like season people have become accustomed to seeing as he showed flashes of brilliance and the potential people see in him but going back to his old ways and playing poorly for stretches as well. January was the epitome of this, as he struggled shooting the ball throughout the month, going 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from the three-point line.
But midway through March, coincidentally when the Knicks started to get hammered by injuries, something clicked for Smith and he changed his game around. He began settling for jumpers less, instead, attacking the basket and getting into the lane; causing problems for opposing defenses and making a living at the free throw line.
Smith was a model of consistency during the Knicks 13-game winning streak, putting up multiple 30 point and 50 percent shooting games. He averaged 23.9 points per game during the winning streak on 49 percent shooting, much higher than his per game stats of 16.7 and 40 percent prior to the streak. There was one simple catalyst in Smith’s production rising and it was that he was taking better shots and playing smarter basketball.
Smith’s percentage of shots taken at the rim in the restricted area doubled during his outstanding stretch compared to the rest of his season, taking 15.6 percent of his shots in that area prior to March 18th and 33 percent in the 13 games after.
Smith was not just a scoring machine for the Knicks, but also grabbed a career high 5.3 rebounds per game in addition to a near career high 2.7 assists per game. He finished the season shooting 42.2 percent from the field and a respectable 35.6 percent from beyond the arc.
A big reason for Smith’s performance increasing so much to the level it has this season is because of his maturity, a thing that can be credited to the work of Head Coach Mike Woodson.
“He’s grown as a player,” Woodson said on the eve of the playoffs. “He’s been very coachable. Yeah, we’ve had our battles over the year, but again, I’m paid to coach, he’s paid to play. He’s benefited from everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s had a lot to do with that because he’s learned his craft well and he’s pushed himself. He’s highly motivated.”
Carmelo Anthony, who played with Smith in Denver for 4 ½ seasons before being reunited together in New York last season, also commented on the growth that he has seen from Smith. “He’s just focused. I saw a different J.R. this year. Everybody saw a different J.R. this year. He’s locked in, he’s focused and he wants to win. It’s about that time.”
The Knicks are hoping that Smith can continue playing as he did to end the season as Anthony cannot be the only source of scoring for the Knicks with no one sure when Amar’e Stoudemire is going to return.
The biggest challenge for the Knicks with Smith will come this summer, when he has a chance to become an unrestricted free agent. This past offseason Smith signed a two-year contract worth $2.8 million dollars with a player option for the second year, which he is bound to decline. The Knicks do hold Smith’s Early Bird Rights’ meaning they can go over the salary cap to keep him and pay him 175 percent of his current $2.8 million dollar salary, meaning the Knicks can give him $5.5 million next season.
However, another team can offer Smith a lot more than that and it will most likely come down to what he feels most comfortable doing. He seems to enjoy being in New York, as he is close to his family and has played the best basketball of his career here, but the pasture might be greener on another team; as not only more money for the 27-year old just hitting his prime, but a starting spot as well. Smith expressed he would like to star before the season, can also be made possible by another team as it seems that Woodson is content to use Smith off the bench for as long as he is the head coach.
It will be an interesting offseason for the Knicks and Smith and hopefully general manager Glen Grunwald can get creative to keep Smith as he did last season to keep Steve Novak and bring in players like Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd this season.
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