Why J.R. Smith Is Poised to Thrive for Small-Ball NY Knicks

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 02:  J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks drives the ball against Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden on November 2, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Amar'e Stoudemire is expected to miss up to eight weeks of action for the New York Knicks, but J.R. Smith isn't complaining.

Without Stoudemire—as well as Marcus Camby—the Knicks have been forced play extensive small-ball.

Though such a tactic can be of great use—see the Miami Heat—it also leaves a team defensively vulnerable. Rebounds are tougher to come by, and points are often piled up against you courtesy of a slew of defensive mismatches.

But that hasn't been the case for New York, who is currently allowing just 84 points per game—best in the NBA for now.

This is great news for the Knicks, not just because they opened up the season with two straight victories, but because Smith is thriving—and will continue to thrive—within their current offensive scheme.

Embracing small-ball means that there are four shooters on the floor at any given moment. Down both Camby and Stoudemire, the Knicks have at times even found themselves with five, but for the most part, four has been the number.

And a magic number at that.

New York is currently averaging 102 points as a collective unit, and Smith himself is posting 15.5 points and a 18.71 PER.

More importantly, though, Smith's points are coming on a passable 42.3 percent shooting and an astounding 66.7 percent three-point conversion rate.

It's not as if those percentages are coming from a shooter who jacks up the ball sparingly, either. Smith is putting up 13 shots per contest, putting him on pace to average the second-most attempts of his career.

Not bad for a player whose season seemed threatened by an Achilles injury merely weeks ago, is it?

No, not at all.

Amidst this borderline whimsical reality, though, we are left to ponder what is undeniably a troubling question: Can Smith keep this up?

To put it simply, yes, he can.

But I don't blame you for not believing me. After all, Smith has barely shot 40 percent from the field for his career, and he's knocked down over 40 percent of his three-point attempts over an entire season just once.

Yet there is a solution, and a proven one at that.

Which brings us to last season.

You remember last season. The one where Stoudemire was absent down the stretch and small-ball was revitalized within Madison Square Garden. The one where Smith came up with some big shots under such circumstances.

Yeah, that season.

Smith had an effective field-goal percentage of 43.1 inside New York's small-ball lineups. And in the five he was most efficient in, he posted a 57.9 conversion rate. 

When you consider that effective field-goal percentages take three-pointers into account, such notions are absolutely magnificent. They're also proof that Smith thrives offensively in small-ball lineups.

We've always known that he could shoot and score the basketball. As head coach Mike Woodson said (via msg.com) after New York's victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, he wants Smith to "shoot the ball."

The problem, though, has been getting him to shoot the ball efficiently. He has shot the ball over 45 percent from the field just once in eight seasons. 

Once Smith is placed within the scheme of a small-ball lineup, however, this problem is non-existent. He not only shoots the ball efficiently, but he becomes more inclined to pass—four assists per contest thus far—and even picks up his efforts on the glass as well.

What we're seeing with Smith now, what we will continue to see from him moving forward is the best of both worlds. Playing small-ball has rendered him more than a streaky shooter, it's transformed him into a legitimately well-balanced offensive threat.

That's what an increased level of freedom does to him—ironically enough, it grounds him. He's at his best when he is free to push the ball in transition or attack the rim; he's at home in an offense where there aren't two big men clogging open lanes.

So yeah, Smith's performance thus far is anything but a fluke.

Which means all that's left for him, Woodson and company to do is decide what becomes of this offense when Stoudemire returns to the floor.

But let's not mince words about that here. Rather, let's just sit back, relax and watch as Smith continues his star-struck ways.

Because his production, this suddenly efficient display offense isn't going anywhere anytime soon.