Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Coaching and Market Size in the Career of J.R. Smith

J.R. Smith — ejected against Indiana — could fit with the Pacers. (

Eight years is long enough to establish your worth as a commodity in the basketball community. J.R. Smith's path through three NBA franchises in that amount of time has been riddled with ridiculous feats of athleticism, hugely entertaining dunks, and enough headaches for coaches and fans to know exactly what they are getting when associating with the New York Knicks shooting guard.

Smith is hardheaded and insistent on being a go-to scoring option, but thus far has not bought into playing systematic basketball or committed defense. Last week, Jonathan Abrams explored Smith's enigmatic on-court presence in this piece at Grantland. The piece chronicles Smith's upbringing and seeming inability to mature or advance his game. It is worth reading, for sure. The coaching particulars brought up are important. Two of the three professional head coaches who have worked with Smith — Byron Scott in New Orleans and George Karl in Denver — are known taskmasters. Smith's current coach, Mike Woodson, is defensive-minded and inherited a team with two All-Star talents in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
None of these men are ideal candidates for a coach-player pairing with the 27-year-old, and Smith has never had a starring role during his NBA career for reasons including paying rookie dues as a teenager and, later, Chris Paul's arrival with the Hornets in 2005-06. Paul immediately became a centerpiece for the Hornets and Smith was traded to the Bulls in the offseason, then flipped again to the Nuggets where Anthony was already entrenched as the headliner.

But what if Smith's case is one filled with bad breaks? Would he flourish on a team that asked him to do nothing but shoot? A Smith-centric game may have worked in Mike D'Antoni's game plans, but his ousting in New York came five months before Smith signed with the Knicks after a lockout-forced stint in China, albeit the plans would have only been made around Smith with a purging of Madison Square Garden's star forwards.

But in an alternate reality, it is possible Smith would have been a lead act given free rein in a seven-seconds-or-less offense that relied on an offensive barrage to overcome defensive inefficiencies like those that are an all too real part of Smith's game. To point: he may be the only player ever to receive useful D advice from Carmelo Anthony.

Smith fits the run-and-gun style to a tee and loves to throw three-pointers at a moment's notice, as evidenced by his top-10 statuses in 3-point attempts and makes in both 2008-09 and 2009-10. His father, as quoted in the Abrams article, taught defense as an afterthought and sought to breed an offensive prowess that unarguably exists.

The characteristics are ingrained, learned. Coaching matters, but so does the surrounding cast. Aside from the Anthony-Stoudemire duo and Chris Paul, Smith's rookie season is the closest example of being on a team with an undefined go-to guy in his entire career. He started 56 games and played in 76 that season, but dealt with the growing pains of being a teenager in a man's game as the Hornets crawled to an 18-64 record.

Big markets attract big names and aptly sized personalities, so Smith's signing and recent re-signing with the Knicks is no surprise, and his friendship with Anthony no doubt influenced the initial decision. Returning to alternate scenarios, though, Smith would be a star in a small-market.

Smith drives against the Pacers. (Michael Conroy/AP)
When teams were courting him in February, Smith took to Twitter and listed a bevy of big-market teams that he was considering, but the guard also included the Indiana Pacers — a defensively tough team full of capable players with no discernible take-charge leader on the offensive end. The Pacers captured the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff seeding, but Smith would have added another dimension to the team. His presence demands attention behind the arc and his ability to create shots for himself would open opportunities for teammates.

His ascension to what many, including Smith himself, would consider a lead guard position wouldn't change the fact that the guard title is prefaced by the word "shooting," not "point." Smith's career average of assisting other players' field goals is 14.3 percent, with 17.3 percent in the 2008-09 season being the highest mark by a wide margin.

That season was a perfect storm for Smith. The Nuggets traded Allen Iverson to Detroit in the early runnings, getting back a willing facilitator in Chauncey Billups. Anthony missed 16 games because of a suspension, a sore elbow and a broken bone in his hand suffered against the Pacers on Jan. 5. This injury necessitated an uptick in offensive production from the Nuggets' supporting cast and Smith was happy to oblige, notching career highs in points (1,233), assists (227), assist percentage and minutes played. Smith also started 18 games — more than in any season since his last time in a Hornets jersey in 2005-06.

The sample size is small, but Smith willingly stepped up when called upon. The baggage that came along with additional playing time came in the form of career highs in two other categories: turnovers (150) and personal fouls (190).

Assuming Smith could overtake rookie guard-forward tweener Paul George and his rookie backup Lance Stephenson — both of which likely could have happened — he would have been a starter on a playoff-bound team, especially if head coach Frank Vogel thought inserting a newly signed free agent into the line-up would not be a detriment to continuity and chemistry.

If starter's minutes begot the same kind of performance that Smith supplied the Nuggets in 2008-09, an extension would have been on the table in no time. Whether or not Smith would have meandered to a major media market is anyone's guess, but resigning with the Pacers would have made him the most ballyhooed guard on a team with All-Stars in the front court. All-Stars who are quiet either by nature or virtue of playing in the Midwest. Given Smith's personality and the confidence it takes to make the direct leap from high school to professional sports, a starting spot on a playoff team would seem hard to turn down for a seat on any team's bench.

Last season's Pacers, maybe, are the ideal scenario for Smith on a small market team. If he would fit as well in Charlotte, Salt Lake City, etc., could be a different story. Eight years in, and it is still easy to believe that he would relish the limelight of being the focal point of an NBA team. And knowing that, just maybe, would allow Smith to find more pleasure riding bikes in the shadows of smaller buildings than he has under the lights of Times Square.

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