Should the Knicks Bench J.R. Smith?

Photo by Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t heard, J.R. Smith was benched by head coach Mike Woodson for the New York Knicks’ win over the Miami Heat last night.

Until very recently, Woodson had publicly maintained that Smith was a very important part of the team and that the Knicks needed him to be a big part of the offensive game plan. Then, Smith was seen untying Shawn Marion’s shoelace during a free throw in New York’s win over the Dallas Mavericks last week. Before the next game, Woodson publicly scolded Smith, calling the shoelace move “unacceptable” and maintaining that Smith could not do things like that on the court. Smith was also warned by the league office not to pull the shoelace stunt again.

Smith promptly proceeded to attempt (or jokingly attempt, depending on your perspective) to untie Greg Monroe’s shoe in New York’s win over the Detroit Pistons the very next game, subsequently being fined $50,000 by the league office. Woodson then refused to answer questions about Smith before the game against the Heat, and did not play him a single minute during the contest. Given the facts of the situation, it seems exceedingly likely that Smith was benched due to Lace Gate.

Long before and independent of the shoelace controversy, though, Smith was off to a horrific start to the 2013-14 season. After sitting out the first five games of the year while serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Smith proceeded to shoot 34.8 percent from the field, 33.9 percent from three and 62.8 percent from the free throw line, checking in with an average of 11.3 points across 32.3 minutes a night in 29 games.

The field goal and free throw percentages are each career-low numbers. The three point percentage would be the second worst of his career, trailing only his rookie year in New Orleans. The 11.3 points per game is his lowest mark since his second year in the league, and represents a steep drop-off from the 18.1 he averaged during his Sixth Man of the Year campaign a year ago. In fact, Smith has been so bad that he’s on pace to become just the 21st player in NBA history to average at least 30 minutes and 10 shots per game while shooting worse than 35.0 percent from field, as well as only the first player since 1958 to do so. All of this ugliness has resulted in career-worst marks in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, and Wins Produced Per 48 Minutes (three popular all-encompassing stats).

With Smith, though, it’s not just about his overall shooting performance. Much is Smith’s value as a player is said to be tied up in “shot creation,” an amorphous concept that generally means a player has the ability and willingness to take bad shots to bail out a busted possession. In order to measure how many shots Smith has created and how he’s performed on those shots, we dug into the video archives at mySynergySports. Counting shots taken out of isolation, via post-ups, and as a pick-and-roll ball-handler as those “created” by Smith, we’re able to arrive at the following numbers.

 
Isolation
 
P&R BH
 
Post-up
 
TOTAL
 
FGA/GMFG%FGA/GMFG%FGA/GMFG%FGA/GMFG%
2009-103.134.9%2.438.2%0.342.3%5.836.7%
2010-112.737.3%1.444.8%0.120.0%4.239.3%
2011-124.336.5%1.132.6%0.233.3%5.535.6%
2012-134.741.4%2.939.6%0.435.9%8.040.5%
2013-142.329.2%2.231.1%0.125.0%4.630.0%

As you can see, Smith is creating fewer shots per game than every season in Synergy’s database except for the 2010-11 campaign, when he averaged just 24.9 minutes a night in his last season under George Karl in Denver. On a per-36 minutes basis, Smith actually created about 0.9 more shots during that season than he has thus far this year. Smith is also connecting on his created shots at a significantly lower rate than at any time in the last five years.

The usual saving grace of a player that has the ability create shots but isn’t making them is the ancillary ability to generate free throws, but Smith is doing that at a career-worst rate (1.7 free throw attempts per-36 minutes and 0.124 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt) so far this year as well, and he’s connecting from the stripe at the lowest clip of his career when he does manage to get there. With Smith is not making shots, not creating shots, not making the shots he does create, not generating free throws, and not making the free throws he does manage to generate, it’s hard to say he has any offensive value at all at this point.

That lack of value is reflected in Smith’s on-court/off-court splits, courtesy of NBA.com. Despite his sub-par shooting percentages, the Knicks’ offense was 2.4 points per 100 possessions better with Smith on the court than off it during the lockout shortened 2011-12 season.

In his career-best campaign last year, the Knicks were actually 0.9 points per 100 possessions worse offensively with Smith on the floor, but still scored at a top-five rate with him on the floor. They were just an outrageously good offensive team that managed to perform even better when he was out. This season, the Knicks’ offense is 1.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Smith on the court than when he’s out of the game. It’s the continuation of a downward trend that has only worsened of late. In the new year, New York’s offense has been a staggering 20.2 points per 100 possessions better with Smith on the bench.

And this is all just the offensive side of the floor, where Smith’s ostensible value lies. He’s long been a shaky and disinterested defender, and that has held true this season as well. New York’s defense is 4.1 points better per 100 possessions with Smith off the floor. Since the clock struck 2014, it’s been 5.3 points better without J.R. New York’s opponents take significantly more three pointers and free throws with Smith on the court; they score more points off turnovers and on second chance opportunities, and they don’t turn the ball over quite as often. It’s fairly obvious that he makes an already bad defensive team even worse just by entering the game.

It is, of course, unlikely that Smith will continue to shoot this poorly all year. He’s never done so before. But it’s also unlikely Smith’s defense will ever progress to the point of being an asset rather than a liability. Couple that with his off-court issues and propensity for low-IQ plays, and at at this point, with the Knicks nine games under .500 and needing an offensive boost to counter-act their poor defense, there are just better options for Woodson, like rookies Tim Hardaway Jr. and Toure’ Murry, or re-distributing some of Smith’s minutes to the scorching hot Iman Shumpert.

This is not to say that Smith shouldn’t play at all. But 32.3 minutes per game for a player as destructive on both ends of the court as Smith has been this year is nearly criminal. That number needs to be slashed, and slashed hard, right now.

For more discussion about Smith and his playing time, see the 9:00 mark of the video below.

 
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