While it was easy to point the blame at Carmelo Anthony or coach Mike Woodson for the Knicks losing in the playoffs last year to the Indiana Pacers, in reality there were a handful of reasons why the team didn’t advance to the Conference Finals. Turnovers late in games, defensive shortcomings, getting cold from long-range at the worst possible moments, and deficiencies on the glass all contributed to their demise, not to mention the bevy of injuries that some of their key contributors were trying to play through (Carmelo had a bum shoulder, Tyson Chandler wasn’t the same after a late season illness sapped his strength, and Amar’e was well, Amar’e).
But perhaps the primary reason they fell short was that they didn’t have a reliable secondary scoring option to complement the play of Carmelo. During the regular season this role was handled by J.R. Smith, who came off the bench to average 18.1 points per game in route to being awarded the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. He was having the best season of his career, and with free agency looming in the offseason it looked he was going to be in for a monster payday.
Based on how they were constructed, if the Knicks were going to go on an extended playoff run they needed J.R. to put up numbers in the postseason that were similar to his regular season production. They were relying heavily on this level of output, and without it New York didn’t have enough firepower to get the job done against a team the caliber of the Pacers.
It’s hard to get inside the mind of a professional athlete, but J.R. turned into a completely different player following his elbow to the chin of the Celtic’s Jason Terry during Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. Following his annihilation of “JET”, Smith fell into a slump that lasted the remainder of the playoffs, finishing with an average of 14.3 PPG while shooting a dreadful 33% from the field and 27% from beyond the arc. His rapid decline probably worked out to the Knicks’ benefit following the season, as J.R. was available for a price that made him much easier for the team to re-sign.
While that’s all well in good, what Knicks fans really want to know after watching last spring’s horrific display is whether or not the team is going to have to rely on J.R. to be its second best player again. It’s certainly a distinct possibility, especially given the injury history of Amar’e and all of the question marks surrounding Andrea Bargnani. Iman Shumpert has a ton of potential, and I would love to see him take the next step and become the dynamic offensive player he occasionally shows flashes of. He continues to make strides, but at the moment his primary skills are still on the defensive end of the court.
I don’t deny that J.R. would be an ideal third or fourth option for the Bockers, but when looking around the league at other squad’s second options leads me to believe that Carmelo might once again be at a disadvantage come playoff time. The Knicks need their temperamental swingman to play at a high level in order for them to reach their goals this season, and whether or not J.R. is up to the task will be one of the more intriguing storylines to follow in the weeks and months ahead.